Cambridge in 1945 was a discordant combination of ingrained tradition and political ferment; academic conservatism and bold experimentation. Gustav Metzger arrived at the School of Art that year, marking the beginning of a long and fond association with the city and its university. Having fled Nazi Germany in 1939, he encountered a world of scientific revolution – what CP Snow called ‘perhaps the most brilliant period in Cambridge intellectual history’ (at least in terms of the sciences) – and of stark ideological contrasts that are hard to recollect amid the cosy liberalism of the present. It was little more than a decade, after all, since Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby et al had been students.
In this fluid climate, Metzger developed the cross-disciplinary techniques that came to define his output, and it was in Cambridge that he expounded his theories of auto-destructive and auto-creative art in performance-style lectures – one of them attended by a reverential William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin – in the 1960s. These innovations are succinctly and evocatively surveyed in ‘Lift Off!’ at Kettle’s Yard. Installations dating from the 1950s to the ’70s appear together with the manifestos that Metzger authored in those years affirming art’s role and relevance (and by implication, the redundancy of its old raisons d’être). ‘Random activity, and tangential problems of quality, are now critical and productive problems in art’, is one prescient aphorism.
Metzger’s anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian ethos emerges throughout the exhibition, undogmatic yet ever-present beneath his art’s often-whimsical veneer. In the mid-1960s he collaborated with Cambridge scientist Arnold Feinstein to devise different processes for manipulating liquid crystals. Liquid Crystal Environment (1965; remade 2005), involves five projections across two walls of a blackened room in which we witness the psychedelic effects of inserting heat-sensitive crystals into glass slides and rotating them in projectors – the creative act transposed from the controlling hand of the artist to the arbitrary effects of scientific experiment. The crystals’ gravitations and morphing colours appear as piebald abstractions, petri-dish samples given the scale of stained-glass windows. It is sumptuously ‘retinal’ art, virtually palpable in its glowing engulfment of viewer’s bodies and its intimation of corporeal stuff, cellular structures or organic deposits.
A similar emphasis on our physical presence is experienced in the face of Drop on Hotplate (1968; remade 2014), which originated in a Swansea laboratory. A droplet of water flows through a tube to evaporate on a stove, the heat detectable from a metre or so away. The rate of flow precisely matches the rate of evaporation to form a permanent fizzing orb. The hair’s breadth here between water and vapour suggests a playing out of Marcel Duchamp’s dictum of inframince or ‘a difference that you cannot perceive, but can only imagine’. The ungraspable and ever-vaporising water represents auto-creation and auto-destruction in the same moment, evincing the dual capacity of a machine to engender and to annihilate.
Metzger’s works can seem, on the surface, escapist studies in chance, ephemerality, kinesis or (most nebulously) beauty – the antithesis of hard political statement. But, as he muses in a video interview with the exhibition’s curator Elizabeth Fisher: ‘The artist acts in a political framework whether he knows it or not. The quantity of experience the artist has to pack into a work is so vast now, it is not possible to compress it all into the space of an object.’ And the ineffable ‘quantity’ of his own life hangs around his work. His parents perished under the Nazis; his wartime experience was what first led him towards a ‘formulation of what destruction is and what it might be in relation to art.’
At the beginning of the exhibition is a framed note in spidery writing on a torn-off scrap of squared paper. It begins: ‘When I was young I wanted an art that would lift off, that would levitate, gyrate, bring together different - perhaps contradictory aspects of my being.’ The contradictions that pervade Metzger’s art hark back to that open-ended vision. It is hard not to interpret his work as an elegy for its own exuberant spirit of enquiry and the radical political outlook from which it springs. There is an air of nostalgia about the giant magic lantern of Liquid Crystal Environment, detectable in the very whir of the projectors and echoed in the heady optimism of the exhibition’s title. But if his art’s visionary gleam sees dated, that may simply be an indictment of the polite conformity – creative and discursive as much political – of the present. His radical synthesis of scientific rigour and pure sensation, of conceptual nicety and an unchecked embrace of beauty, are the peculiar product of his transient and felicitous post-war moment.