John Latham

John Latham is a true maverick and, in institutional terms at least, one of Britain’s most undervalued artists—principally because he has been a constant thorn in the flesh of whichever establishment body he has been associated with, whether through his happenings and events, or through his work with the Artist Placement Group, which he helped found in 1965. This exhibition of his early works, done between 1954 and 1969, featured a selection of his figure paintings, book reliefs, and roller paintings.

One of the more notorious instances of his disruptive behavior occurred in 1966 when, while teaching at St. Martin’s School of Art, Latham borrowed a copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture from the college library. He invited critics and friends to a party where they were asked to tear pages from the book, chew them, and deposit the remains in a large flask. The mush was fermented by introducing an “alien culture” of yeast, and the distillate was offered back to the library when it requested the return of its overdue book. Latham was fired, but he transformed the instrument of the provocation into a display work, Art and Culture, 1966–69. It was shown in several exhibitions, including the 1970 “Information” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which bought the work for its collection. Understood as a coherent exercise in conceptualist irony, this story exudes a certain charm, but for Latham its importance lies in a different direction. Classical Modernist theory proceeds as an analysis of a sequence of objects, recognizing value as it accrues or is made manifest in those objects. This is seen by Latham as the imposition of a spurious continuity upon fragmentary phenomena, and he has opposed it since the mid ’50s by an insistent interpretation, not only of his work, but also of the entire cultural and physical context within which it exists, in the inclusive terms of its status as an event.

For Latham it is language that lies at the root of divisive, object-based interpretation. In his book reliefs, he subverts the commonsense view of the literary as that which constitutes and is constituted by individual experiences, ordered in calendar time by the turning of pages. Charred books, relics of a burnt-out tradition, sit on the canvas embedded in plaster, their pages often painted and held open with bits of wire. Although titles sometimes relate to the particular books a relief contains, as in Shelf with Joseph Conrad, 1960, and Picture of a Country Life, 1964, Latham is not interested in any kind of reference to the content of those volumes. In that respect, his works share a concern for the literal with the combines of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, yet they are also highly mutable objects. Shelf with Joseph Conrad has an adjustable throttle attached; Philosophy and the Practice of, 1960, has among its tubing, a gas tap; while others, such as Painting Is an Open Book, 1961, can be hung either way up. They are eloquent expressions of Latham’s philosophy of an “event-structured” universe.

In Time Base Roller, 1969 (one of a series), the canvas suspended from the roller represents the plane of the space-time continuum, an atemporal, omnipresent state. The strip of the reverse side that is visible along the length of the roller as it comes over the top is present, waking time. The historical span of this show thus ended with a work that embodied Latham’s view of the world as "an insistently recurrent event”—a notion that was corroborated in the early ’80s by the theories of Stephen Hawking, the English physicist whose work in multidimensional space-time pictures the universe as just such a phenomenon.

Michael Archer