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London artist Gustav Metzger has died aged 90

By Matt Breen

Yesterday London lost one of its greatest artists – Gustav Metzger has passed away at the age of 90.

Metzger's name will always be synonymous with the Auto-Destructive art movement. Born into a Jewish family in Germany, he came to Britain as a Kindertransport refugee in 1939. He was 12 at the time, and the rise of Nazism left an indelible mark on him; he didn't just fear fascism but also machines, industry, capitalism and the atom bomb. Basically, every last nasty thing the modern world had to offer.

And in a world full of violence, he wanted to match it with his own artistic brand of violence. The first piece done under the Auto-Destructive banner was a 1961 public performance on the South Bank, where he flung acid at sheets of nylon, which steadily disintegrated over 20 minutes. This would be a pretty arresting sight these days. Think how shocking it would have been to passers-by 56 years ago.

He was bold, radical and inspired many – and not just visual artists. Pete Townsend of The Who knew Metzger, and it was his performances that inspired the musician to start smashing his guitars to pieces on stage as an act of creativity. But for all the destruction, Metzger also pushed the materials he used in unprecedented directions. If you want to see some of his work in the flesh, head to Tate Modern, where his 1965 piece 'Liquid Crystal Environment' is on display. It's a beguiling, almost psychedelic installation that features heat-sensitive liquid crystals in glass slides, projected on to screens. (It was over at Tate Britain in 2004 that a cleaner accidentally threw away part of an artwork, mistaking it for rubbish. The art clichés really do happen from time to time.)

Brazenly political and endlessly confrontational, Metzger was never exactly a cheerful guy. In a recent interview he said: 'The world is a horrendous, horrific place.' It's hard to argue with that. But Metzger did his bit to make it a better place – and it's all the less without him.

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