London-based artist Gustav Metzger (b. 1926) does not own a telephone. Or a computer. He refuses gallery representation, though he has exhibited in museums around the world -- from the Lunds Konsthall to the Tate -- and he will not sell his work.
The environmentalist founder of an initiative called Reduce Art Flights, he considers transatlantic shipping of art materials wasteful, and applies the same standard to his own traveling, which he does as little as possible. Hence, his exhibition of “Historic Photographs” at the New Museum -- jocularly described by curator Massimiliano Gioni as “locally brewed” -- was constructed in New York, without him, and installed according to instructions that he sent, in all probability, via the International Postal Service.
Metzger, now 85, fled Poland with his brother in the midst of World War II, and, after training as a painter in London, he quickly abandoned traditional forms of artistic expression to pioneer radical ones. In 1959, he published his Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto, which called for artists to use industrial materials with limited life spans, thereby parodying what he perceived as a universal obsession with destruction and “re-enacting the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected.”
“Historic Photographs” is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the U.S., and it constitutes the most complete presentation to date of a series of sculptural installations that he began in 1990.
Using piles of bricks, swaths of fabric, busted cars and other sculptural elements to conceal or obscure large-scale photographs of recognizable, and often tragic, historical events -- the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, environmental degradation -- Metzger requires viewers to engage, physically, with the show’s difficult material. In order to see the images he has culled from the vast catacomb of global history, we must step behind curtains, squeeze between hanging plastic negatives and even crawl beneath a blanket, spread open on the gallery floor.
Frequently, the viewing logistics of each work mirror -- literally and figuratively -- what the work depicts. In Historic Photographs: Jerusalem, Jerusalem (1998/2011), two mural-sized black-and-white photographs, each printed on a sheet of transparent plastic, have been hung from either edge of a long, gently curving board suspended overhead, leaving a narrow tunnel between them. The two scenes represent atrocities that Jerusalem’s warring populations have visited upon one another: the 1948 Jewish Agency bombing, in which a carbon bomb supposedly planted by Palestinians killed 12 Jewish civilians; and the 1967 destruction of Jerusalem’s Moroccan ghetto by the Israeli government.
The complexity of that city’s history -- and of the Middle East in general -- is made palpable in the tight space between those shadowy prints. Forced up close to the images, the viewer can barely discern their subjects, while from a distance, the pictures are transparent, their specific narratives bleeding and blurring together. Inside, the experience is oppressive: physical constriction and overwhelming stimulation; viewed from the outside, as visual emblems of two sharply conflicting histories overlap, the work becomes a disorienting conflation of tragedy in which victim and perpetrator are indistinguishable -- one and the same.
The orchestration of Historic Photographs: To Crawl Into - Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 (1996/2011) offers an even more direct reflection of its content. The gallery floor is carpeted with a photograph representing a group of Viennese Jews who were forced to scrub the pavement, but the image is covered by a large blanket. Viewers are encouraged to get down on hands and knees -- like the people pictured -- and to crawl beneath it.
In certain works, Metzger perversely renders the photograph inaccessible -- or shrouded so severely that its content cannot be visually determined. Historic Photographs: Trang Bang, Children Fleeing South Vietnam, April 1972 (1998/2011) features a photograph installed on the wall that is illuminated every minute or so by a light, set on a timer. But the picture is obscured by a bamboo screen, and even when the light goes on, nothing more than a faint indication of shape behind it is visible.
Other installations take this method further: Historic Photographs: Hitler-Youth, Eigenschweisst (“welded”) (1998/2011) presents two large (48 x 70 in.) sheets of steel that have been welded together like an envelope, and lean as one unit against the wall. We can’t be sure that anything is between them, but the impulse is to imagine a photograph in there. Despite the absence of visual testimony, the work’s descriptive title evokes a chilling scene -- Hitler mesmerizing his young followers, who stand like robots, hands raised in salute -- that is seared into our collective memory.
Historic Photographs: No. 1: Hitler addressing the Reichstag after the Fall of France, July, 1940 (1995/2011), printed on a sheet of Formica shielded by a steel plate, with one inch between them, operates similarly. As we futilely strain to glimpse the image inside, the power of what we can’t really see is made more visceral by the brute physical object that conceals it.
According to Gioni, Metzger treats images with unbearable heft -- emotional, intellectual, personal -- in this way, prohibiting denial of the historic realities they depict even while precluding visual access to them, and forcing viewers to confront histories they might not ordinarily conceive as their own.
“Historic Photographs” begs the question, whose history? -- and asserts, with quiet urgency: ours.
Gustav Metzger, “Historic Photographs,” May 19-July 3, 2011, at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y., 10002