John Latham

Whitechapel Gallery/Karsten Schubert/Lisson Gallery

John Latham, who died in 2006 at the age of eighty-four, remains best known for encouraging students at Saint Martins School of Art to chew up pages from the library’s copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture and returning the book as fermented spittle. The action (organized with Barry Flanagan) cost Latham his part-time job and established his provocative and, some might say, profoundly unscholarly reputation. Several exhibitions in London this past summer showed that it is the right moment to reassess Latham’s work and influence, not only beyond the Greenberg-chewing story but also, crucially, beyond the critical framework established by the artist. Latham’s famously cranky theorizing and eccentric scientific aspirations were fascinating but incomprehensible, and were delivered without the irony that might have elevated them into the realm of poetic interpretation. Where books are mangled, so, it might be said, are words and ideas.

The greatest discovery in this reassessment is that of Latham as pioneer avant-garde filmmaker. A DVD set of all his films is being released this month; over the summer, along with other screenings and a condensed survey of his work, the Whitechapel Gallery showed his rarely seen “Target” series, commissioned for Channel 4 Television in 1984: abstract compositions of flashing target forms combined with urban imagery reminiscent of the experimental films of Len Lye. Alongside were exhibited monochrome spray-painted works, a table of books bisected with glass (Table of Law, 1988), and pieces from the “Planets (Clusters)” series, hanging spheres made of plaster, books, and other items—as well as a selection from the John Latham Archive (kept at Flat Time House, the artist’s former residence in South London, where two studies for the multipanel work The Story of Rio, 1983, were recently on view). One of these archival documents relates to his first exhibition, in 1949 at the Kingly Gallery, London, with John Berger, and others refer to the Artist Placement Group, which Latham established with his wife, Barbara Steveni, to place artists in business and government. Most intriguing is Latham’s 1988 letter to Margaret Thatcher stating that a “very basic discovery” he had made regarding the connection of art and science required approval at the highest level of the British government. There is no evidence that he was joking.

At Karsten Schubert a very different Latham appeared, a more elegant, classical figure. The show included the “Canvas Events” series from 1994, understated assemblages of spray-painted canvas twisted on wooden stretchers, in a delicate combination of physical and pictorial tension. Alongside was Latham’s monumental early book-collage work Great Noit, 1962, two canvases decked with symmetrical agglomerations of books, wire, machine fragments, and springs caked in plaster and painted to resemble lead. The heavy, postapocalyptic feel of this piece is reminiscent of the works of Wolf Vostell (and one also cannot help thinking of Anselm Kiefer) and suggests associations not only with the Nouveaux Réalistes but also with Robert Rauschenberg. Great Noit is a seminal work and captures a pictorial ambition that is not always so evident in Latham’s later career.

The Lisson Gallery presented the most comprehensive of the exhibitions, and also the most historic, in part by revisiting Latham’s first show at the gallery, in 1970. The stated attempt at a “physical embodiment of Latham’s concept of the Time-Base spectrum within the landscape of the gallery,” however, made for a more obscure display. A video of a panel discussion that took place after the 1978 performance of Latham’s Government of the First and Thirteenth Chair, and the inscrutable assemblage even tstructu re, 1966–67, were indecipherable for the uninitiated; yet this was amply compensated for by the extraordinary film Erth, 1971. The rear-projected film shows a flashing image of Earth, gradually zooming in to show details of human life and the human body. A laconic female voice counts down in German from “eintausend Millionen Jahre” to a single second, at which point the film abruptly ends. Here more than anywhere else one gets a coherent feeling of Latham’s anxious, apocalyptic worldview and, above all, of the presence of an eschatological current, the doomsday scenario of technology erasing nature: compelling reasons for the continued relevance of Latham’s work today.

John-Paul Stonard