The Art of Destruction: Metzger, Matta-Clark and Bonvicini

In February 2001, the artist Michael Landy gathered together all his belongings, catalogued them and destroyed them. All 7,227 of his possessions - from stamps to a Saab 900 - were reduced to their basic materials and methodically shredded. He called this work ‘Break Down’. ‘Break Down’ came into being through a colossal act of destruction.

Since the 1960s artists have cut, crushed, erased, exploded, burned, shot and even chewed up their material in order to explore the limits of art. There is the famous story about the American artist Robert Rauschenberg erasing a drawing by Willem de Koonig and calling it ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’, thereby turning an act of destruction into a new act of creation.

However, there are other artists who have taken the notion of destruction even further. One of these is Gustav Metzger who in the early 1960s came up with the concept of ‘Auto-Destructive Art’. In 1960, he penned the ‘Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art’, which reads like a kind of prose-poem:

Man in Regent Street is auto-destructive.

Rockets, nuclear weapons, are auto-destructive.

Auto-destructive art.

The drop drop dropping of HH bombs.

Not interested in ruins, (the picturesque).

Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected.

Auto-destructive art demonstrates man's power to accelerate disintegrative processes of nature and to order them.

Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture - polishing to destruction point.

Gordon Matta-Clark’s ‘Conical Intersect’ (1975), David Zwirner, New York

Auto-destructive art is the transformation of technology into public art. The immense productive capacity, the chaos of capitalism and of Soviet communism, the co-existence of surplus and starvation; the increasing stock-piling of nuclear weapons - more than enough to destroy technological societies; the disintegrative effect of machinery and of life in vast built-up areas on the person...

Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction within a period of time not to exceed twenty years. Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist's control is slight.

Materials and techniques used in creating auto-destructive art include: Acid, Adhesives, Ballistics, Canvas, Clay, Combustion, Compression, Concrete, Corrosion, Cybernetics, Drop, Elasticity, Electricity, Electrolysis, Feed-Back, Glass, Heat, Human Energy, Ice, Jet, Light, Load, Mass-production, Metal, Motion Picture, Natural Forces, Nuclear Energy, Paint, Paper, Photography, Plaster, Plastics, Pressure, Radiation, Sand, Solar Energy, Sound, Steam, Stress, Terra-cotta, Vibration, Water, Welding, Wire, Wood.

Gustav Metzger’s ‘Auto-Destructive Art’, Keystone/Hulton Archive via Getty Image

The first public demonstration of ‘Auto-Destructive Art’ took place in June 1960 at the Temple Gallery in London. Metzger placed a sheet of canvas on a stand. He then applied acid to it in sweeping brushstrokes. The nylon disintegrated 15 seconds after coming into contact with the acid, so that it appeared to be destroying itself. In this performance, the artist had ‘tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process’. The performance was like a dark and perverse version of Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’. All that remained at the end were several ragged strands of canvas.

Describing his performance, the artist said: ‘I was very aggressive putting the acid onto that nylon ... it was partly me attacking the system of capitalism, but inevitably also the systems of war, the warmongers, and destroying them in a sense symbolically.’ Metzger’s parents were Polish-German Jews, who were murdered in the Nazi death camps. His self-destructive art became a metaphor for twentieth-century society’s self-destructiveness.