New York

John Latham

If you live in the United States, John Latham may be the most important artist whose work you’ve never seen. In the ’50s, he became the first Brit to put spray paint to canvas, an innovative response to American action painting and European Pop. He was prominent in the influential Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966. And it was Latham who, that same year, borrowed Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture from the library at St. Martin’s School of Art and served it to a few delighted students for dinner. Returning the masticated pulp to the library got him fi red, but later earned him a place in MoMA’s collection and the reverence of young artists. As this posthumous overview of Latham’s work suggests, however, these moments are mere anecdotal blips in a lifetime spent trying to express a “unified theory of existence” through art.

Latham was eccentric, to say the least, a fact that even the reductive effect of a retrospective cannot mask. The spray-paint works, “book reliefs,” installations, and films here share affinities with artists from Robert Rauschenberg to William Kentridge, Robert Ryman to Joseph Beuys, cobbled together into utter singularity. Latham was a lifelong virtuoso of the hardcover, bending and singeing books, sawing them in half, impaling them on glass panes, and gluing them to canvas. His late work—notably God Is Great, 2005, with its copies of the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran half-buried in broken glass—synthesizes the minimal gestures of his youth and the poetic violence of his middle period.

A common thread throughout Latham’s oeuvre is a notion of the artwork as “event-based,” its meaning determined as much by its viewing as by its making. Latham’s formative influences included Francis Bacon, assemblage, literary modernism, and Fluxus, but all of his work reflects his theories of “flat time” and “event structure.” For Latham, the universe can be represented on two physical dimensions plus a third, that of time, as illustrated by the show’s centerpiece, a mechanized contraption from 1972 titled Time-Base Roller. A panel accompanying the long, canvas-wrapped cylinder outlines the theory in incomprehensible terms, but Roller does elegantly suggest a grand idea: As the canvases slowly unfurl at the press of a button, words written vertically on them are gradually revealed until they are entirely exposed—but facing the wall. The point is that reality cannot be known in its totality: The universe is intuited from encounters with fragments.

Nearby, an unassuming early collage on canvas, even tstructu re, 1966–67, also resorts to words to establish the terms of an artwork’s meaning. Lengths of string linking MAKE EVENT and SPECTATOR EVENT via three possible “conditions” (for instance, the attention level of the “spectator”) represent the connections among artist, artwork, and viewer. But the theory of the event structure transcends such rarefied circumstances as an encounter with art. Latham posited intuition as the sense capable of apprehending reality, and cofounded the Artists Placement Group, a charitable trust that aimed to “bridge the gap between artists and people at work” by introducing artists—“intuitive thinkers”—into government and industry.

One might say that Latham developed an impossibly dense scientific theory with which to justify intuition, but the fact that his theory is laid out in words reveals an arresting quirk of his work: It is not itself accessible by intuitive means. The intuitive viewer is led only to wish that there were less background information to the work and a little more “universal language of art.” Indeed, what Latham has succeeded in establishing is the validity of an intuitive understanding of artwork that does not rely on information offered alongside it: that is, other artists’ work. So while a generation of young British artists is grateful for Latham’s indifference to market forces and to the single-mindedness of his vision, his scientific validation of their own practice may be his most valuable bequest.

Nell McClister