Gustav Metzger

Painting on Cardboard


Not on display

Gustav Metzger 1926–2017
Oil paint and alkyd paint on found box, cardboard and wood
Object: 832 × 592 × 39 mm
Purchased 2015


Painting on Cardboard c.1961−2 is one of a small group of paintings made on plywood boxes that had once held large sheets of Kodak photographic paper. All of the boxes have inspection markings with dates that place their manufacture to between 1959 and 1961, suggesting a likely date for the group of paintings as c.1961–2. This particular painting has a landscape format and is painted with oil and emulsion paint that has been predominantly applied with a palette knife. A field of white has been roughly applied to the surface, leaving areas of the support showing through. Over this, short strokes of black and grey paint have been added. Larger areas of black paint occupy the bottom half of the composition, setting up a pictorial dynamic with the ground. The painting has then been attacked with the palette knife, cutting into the board and even stripping back its upper surface in some areas. The cuts and scratches made by the knife defy any compositional logic that may have been proposed through the application of paint. Where the painted areas suggest a dynamic between figure and ground, these marks appear to have been made without any deliberation, describing instead the material effect of an unfettered speed of attack. These paintings on plywood bridge the machine art of Metzger’s experiments in the late 1950s with his paintings on non-traditional art materials, such as reinforced plastic and mild steel (see Untitled Painting (Abstract) c.1958–9, private collection). They also anticipate the ‘auto-destructive art’ of his later acid-on-nylon paintings.

Metzger described how one day in 1946, while he was with his former tutor David Bomberg in the Tate Gallery in London, Bomberg asked ‘if I was dissatisfied with painting and asked what sort of painting I was after. I was unable to give a coherent answer. All I knew was that it had to be extremely fast and intense.’ (Gustav Metzger, Auto-Destructive Art: Metzger at AA, London 1965, p.7.) Within six months of his first manifesto of auto-destructive art of late 1959, Metzger had found a way – by painting with acid on nylon – of realising his vision of a painting, one in which intensities of feeling and movement, violence and vulnerability embodied his ideological stance against the capitalist system, the nuclear threat and damage to natural ecosystems.

Works such as Painting on Cardboard illustrate how, even while developing a theory of art that leaves no material behind (the acid literally eats the nylon away), Metzger was still painting with traditional materials. Moreover, the cuts of the palette knife might reflect a tension within the acid-on-nylon technique itself. On the one hand, the technique evokes Bomberg’s emphasis on the spiritual and social force of the structure of painting. On the other hand, the technique also reveals an entropic lack of composition that takes over once the acid, according to its own material properties, eats into both the nylon and the initial marks made by Metzger.

Whatever the relationship of Painting on Cardboard and the related group of works on plywood might be to the acid-on-nylon works, they illuminate the ways in which the practice of auto-destructive art was founded on an understanding of painting that owed much to the socially engaged principles that Bomberg had outlined and which had been the single most formative influence on Metzger’s earlier work.

Further reading
Gustav Metzger, Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art, London 1996.
Sabine Breitwieser (ed.), Gustav Metzger: History History, exhibition catalogue, Generali Foundation, Vienna 2005.

Andrew Wilson
December 2014

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