PRINT April 2006


John Latham

THE PASSING OF John Latham, one of Britain’s senior artists (and also one of the most radical), marks the end of an era. A central figure in British art since the ’50s, Latham died on January 1, at eighty-four. He wielded a subtle but profound influence on a younger generation of artists and curators, including Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, myself, and many others, through his rebellious approach to authority, and his far-reaching ideas regarding the role of art and the artist.

Latham’s career began in the drab environment of Britain in the aftermath of World War II, against a backdrop of cold-war anxiety. Like that of his American counterpart Robert Rauschenberg, to whom he is often compared, Latham’s early work had an existential quality. His unprimed canvases and spray-gun or action-based mark-making raised fundamental questions about the end of painting and the dissolution of the body. Figures emerging out of voidlike surfaces evoked the ethereal body prints of Yves Klein, dispersing the image into a dematerialized state that questioned the very basis of representation.

From the late ’50s onward these elusive figures were replaced by books, which became Latham’s primary material. Books were either affixed to or extending out of canvases or arranged in freestanding sculptures, and their pages, which were painted or burned, resembled the ruptured skin of the body turned inside out. If the body is the site of language, Latham’s constructions implied a collapse of the social body.

In the early ’60s, Latham was part of a burgeoning London art scene that included Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Yoko Ono, and Gustav Metzger. He began receiving critical attention internationally, showing with Kasmin Gallery in London, and making actions involving sculpture, poetry, and film in the basement of Better Books on Charing Cross Road. His interest in temporality led to an increasing use of destruction as an artistic tool and a definition of his paintings as “time-based,” operating within an “event framework.” He participated in the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966 (with Wolf Vostell, Al Hanson, Günter Brus, Jasia Reichardt, Ono, and Pete Townshend of the Who, among others), making what he described as a series of “Skoob towers.” These objects, towers of books to which he set fire, existed as what Latham termed “sculpture in reverse” (“skoob” is “books” spelled backward). That is, they exist only at the point of their destruction. Asked about the nihilism of these book-burning events, Latham replied, “Perhaps the cultural base had been burnt out.”

The violence Latham inflicted on books was given its most notorious expression in an action titled Still and Chew/Art and Culture in 1966–67. Latham, then a part-time tutor at St. Martin’s School of Art, borrowed a copy of Clement Greenberg’s then-recent Art and Culture from the college library. Greenberg’s modernist theories of art conflicted with Latham’s belief that time had replaced space as the primary issue in painting. With the help of sculptor Barry Flanagan, then a St. Martin’s student, Latham organized an event at his home during which guests chewed a third of the book’s pages and spat them into a small glass flask, where they were submerged in sulphuric acid until the solution turned to sugar. Yeast was introduced and the mixture left to ferment until, nine months later, the college library sent Latham an “urgent” overdue notice. Latham placed the liquid in a glass vial, labeled it “the essence of Greenberg,” and returned it to the library. His dismissal swiftly followed. He reassembled the elements of the action in a suitcase resembling a Duchampian Boîte-en-valise. The piece, retitled Art and Culture, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

From 1959 to 1970 Latham also made several “Skoob films,” in which he attempted to shift the moving image from a spatial composition within the frame to temporal traces of movement that echoed the twenty-four-frames-per-second mechanics of film. Stop-motion shots of books opening and closing, their pages painted in different colors, demonstrated a static state transformed by movement, echoing Latham’s belief that all objects were “time-based.” Speak, 1962, a protopsychedelic film of animated colored disks was projected during one of Pink Floyd’s early concerts at the Talbot Road Tabernacle and at the UFO Club on Tottenham Court Road in London. During these years Latham also produced a large body of paintings that dealt with temporality through the trace of spray-gun marks across the surface of the canvas. In some cases these works were attached to rollers hung from the wall, which exposed various parts of the canvas at different times. These led to a series of “One Second Drawings,” 1970–77, each “performed” by an independent operator who sprayed the surface of small, white- painted boards with black paint. It was the specifics of this action, or “least event”—Latham’s term for a moment of being, the shortest departure from a state of nothingness—rather than the physical result that gave each drawing its meaning.

In 1966 Latham, his partner Barbara Steveni, and a group of artists, including Stuart Brisley and David Hall, formed the Artists Placement Group (APG, later known as “Organization and Imagination,” or O + I), which was driven by a desire to integrate artists into the social structure, working alongside politicians, scientists, engineers, and city planners. The artist, in this role, was to be known as an “incidental person,” whose independent creative vision would cut through internal politics, hierarchy, and commercial interests. APG’s placements managed to reach as far as the Scottish Office in Edinburgh and the British civil service department in London. It was a utopian project whose ambition remains unmatched to this day.

Throughout the ’70s, Latham’s time-based method of to artmaking developed as a conceptual strategy whose use of language first preceded, then paralleled, that of his American counterparts. Latham’s approach was rooted in the British literary tradition, as well as in the literary cut-up experiments of Alexander Trocchi, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, all of whom moved in the same circles as Latham in London in the early ’60s. The prescience of his linguistic strategies has often been overlooked by scholars of Conceptual art, despite the fact that language, as a conduit of knowledge, formed the core of Latham’s work. In 1967, he set out his challenge to the dominance of space over time in artmaking in EVEN TSTRUCTURE, a collage of texts on board that underlined his rejection of the object as a finite entity.

Latham’s theories of time are complex, and incorporate elements of philosophy, science, literature, and spirituality. From the early 1970s until his death, he made diagrams elaborating his “Time Base” theory—an all-embracing structure involving cybernetics, linguistics, biology, ecology, ethics, morality, consciousness, and the breaking of the dualistic division between the scientific and the cosmological. This way of thinking bound Latham more to Joseph Beuys, whom he knew well, than to his more pragmatic American counterparts, and it may be one reason for his greater visibility in Europe.

In 1991 I brought Latham’s retrospective, organized by the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, to the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (now called Modern Art Oxford) where I was working as Head of Exhibitions. It was the beginning of a long friendship, and a personal watershed in my own curatorial learning. During the show, I introduced Latham to the quantum philosopher Michael Lockwood. Their resulting philosophical discussion exemplified the bridges Latham was trying to build between the disciplines. For the exhibition, Latham made a new sculpture, God Is Great, 1991, in which a copy of the Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud were suspended together in a large pane of glass, symbolizing consciousness. These three ancient spiritual linchpins of “truth,” both penetrating the mind and being ruptured by it, anticipated the current tensions between the West and the Middle East. Four months before the artist’s death a second version of the piece was removed from Tate Britain’s recent display of Latham’s work, out of concern for potential offense to the Muslim community. The museum’s decision provoked strong objections from the artist and the general public, who felt that the decision had worrying implications. Even toward the end of his life, Latham continued to be as provocative and thought provoking in his work as he had been at the beginning of his career.

In a recent letter, Latham urged me not to lose sight of the importance of understanding the world through temporal rather than object-based structures—his belief in his own theory of EVEN TSTRUCTURE remained undiminished forty years after its invention. Latham’s perception of the object as merely a representation of the transition from one state of being to another is epitomized in his comment to Nicholas Logsdail, his longtime dealer and supporter, who asked him about death a short time ago: “It’s just another least event.”

Chrissie Iles is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.