John Latham (artist)

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John Latham
Born John Aubrey Clarendon Latham
(1921-02-23)23 February 1921
Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Maramba, Zambia)
Died 1 January 2006(2006-01-01) (aged 84)
London, England
Nationality British
Education Chelsea College of Art and Design
Known for Painting, Sculpture
Movement Conceptual art

John Aubrey Clarendon Latham, (23 February 1921 – 1 January 2006) was a Zambia-born, British conceptual artist who lived for many years in England. He married fellow artist and collaborator Barbara Steveni in Westminster, London in early 1950.

Life and work[edit]


In 1954, Latham, already interested in collaboration between art and science, was invited by two of his friends, Anita Kohsen and Clive Gregory, to create a mural for their Halloween party. Kohsen, an animal behaviourologist, and Gregory, an astronomer, were looking for ways to integrate biological and psychological sciences with physical science. Central to this work was their theory that the most basic component of reality is not the particle, as in classical physics, but the least-event. Using a can of black spray paint, Latham produced a single burst of dots on a white surface. Latham realised that this could be used as a visual description of how a least-event (the spray burst) produced action (the dots) in a pre-existing, a-temporal omnipresent (the white wall). Latham later declared this idea as I054 (idiom 54). While Latham himself often cited the work of these two scientists and their 'Institute for the Study of Mental Images' as providing the scientific basis for much of his theories, Gregory's ideas were perhaps more concerned with a rationalisation of his own spirituality than with rigorous scientific thinking (Gregory, R. L. 1996).

Whatever the scientific credentials, the effect on Latham's work was profound and the spray can (or 'atomising paint instrument' as he sometimes called it) immediately became his primary medium, as can be seen in 'Man Caught Up with a Yellow Object' (1954) in the Tate Gallery collection. By the 1960s Latham had, in addition to spray paint, begun tearing, sawing and burning books to create collage material for his work, as in his 1960 piece Film Star.


Film Star, 1960, Tate Modern

Through the 1960s, he developed his ideas into a complex cosmology that he termed 'Event Structure,' linking it to philosophy, literature and contemporary art practice. He stated that art's trajectory reached its least event in 1951, when Robert Rauschenberg displayed an unmarked canvas as an artwork. In his writings he asserted that language, being object based, could not adequately describe an event based reality. As the artist Richard Hamilton put it, 'Civilised man has been using a medium (language)... which denies concepts of dimensionality and event many twentieth-century thinkers regard as fundamental to a farther understanding of the universe' (Hamilton, R. 1987). This creates a dichotomy between people, their decisions and the actions that result from them. Without resolving this issue, there can be no progress past a certain point in human development.

The ideas of event-based art were hugely influential in the emerging fields of performance art and happenings. In 1966, Latham took part in the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, along with Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono and Gustav Metzger. He constructed three large "skoob towers" (towering piles of books), dubbed "the laws of England", on the pavement outside the British Museum, and then set fire to the structure. He had not, however, obtained permission from the authorities to perform this work, so both the fire department and the police intervened.

Also in 1966, Latham borrowed a copy of Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture — a work that held something of a cult status at that time — from the library of Saint Martin's School of Art, where Latham was employed as a part-time lecturer. At a party Latham invited students to chew pages from the book, and then distilled the resulting pulp into a clear liquid. This process took several months, and Latham began to receive letters from the library demanding its return. Latham presented a vial of the fermented book-pulp to the library, but this was rejected and his teaching contract was not renewed. The vial and correspondence became an artwork of its own, displayed in a leather case; the piece is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Perhaps the culmination of Latham's fusion of art, science and sociology was the concept of Flat Time. In its most basic form, it is represented by a canvas attached at the top to a cylinder which rolls up and unrolls on an electric motor. The back of the canvas faces outwards so that the image is only visible along the cylinder at the point where it unrolls. This represents the present moment in passing time which can only be made sense of when related to what has already gone, the past, represented by the image on the back of the canvas. The ideas contained within the time-base roller, as it is known, are far more complicated. While the vertical represents passing, clock time, scale along the cylinder is the 'time-base'. This is a concept, developed by Latham, asserting that the period of an event is fundamental to its properties and to how it relates to other events. The cylinder is scaled A-Z with A denoting the shortest possible event, M the period of human activity cycles (roughly 30 years), U the period of the universe and Z a notional period in which other universe could occur. The square of this canvas, time-base against clock time, is the area where all events can be mapped out, as Latham himself puts it, 'This omnipresent component the painting surface becomes a score which unfolds while being there all the time, via the time base.' If all events, however large or small, can be represented on the same scale, then psychology and sociology must take an equal foot physics in our understanding of the universe.

Latham tried to apply these ideas not just to his own art practice but to wider society through the Artist Placement Group (APG) which he set up with Steveni along with David Hall, Barry Flanagan, Anna Ridley, and Jeffrey Shaw among others in 1966. APG was a milestone in Conceptual Art in Britain, reinventing the means of making and disseminating art aiming to integrate a more holistic, intuitive style of thinking into business and government and can be seen as the precursor to the current artist residence system.


In 2005, Tate Britain put on an exhibition of Latham's work, but cancelled his next piece 'God is Great #2', believing the current political climate (just after the 7th of July bombings) could incite violence against the work or gallery. The piece consists of three sacred religious texts (the Qur'an, Bible and Talmud) embedded in a sheet of glass. From 1983 Latham lived and worked at his house, Flat Time House[1] in Peckham and died at Kings College Hospital, Camberwell,on the first of January 2006.[2]

Flat Time Ho opened to the public for a year-long programme of exhibitions and events in October 2008. The programme focuses on important moments and themes within Latham's practice, including his involvement with underground culture in 1960s London, his interest in ecological issues and solutions and a re-evaluation of his work in film and video. Works by Latham's contemporaries and collaborators will also be exhibited, as well as pieces by a younger generation of artists influenced by his practice.

2010 saw the publication of John Latham: Canvas Events by Ridinghouse, which introduced never before exhibited series of works - called Canvas Events – features spray painted and twisted canvas on wooden stretchers. The works challenge the conventional relationship between canvas and stretcher, turning the traditional site of the painting into a sculptural field. Reproductions of the 1994 Canvas Events are accompanied by a conversation between Latham, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Barbara Steveni, in which they discuss the artist’s work over time.[3]

Book controversy[edit]

In 2007, art historian John A. Walker published an unflattering account of his experience interacting with John Latham on entitled "Perils of publishing" concerning the book John Latham: The incidental person—his art and ideas (1995).[4][5] In the article, Walker says, "[The book] was about to be published by Middlesex University Press (MUP), [when] the press received an alarming letter from Latham’s solicitor. He demanded that the book be withdrawn and threatened legal action if it was not." Walker says that he received long letters by Latham on a daily basis demanding changes to the text. In 2009, Walker publicly released the legal letters surrounding the dispute, stating, "I am not a paid advocate or PR person for John Latham… I have told him that if the book is still not what he wants—he should disown it. This would make a good publicity point!"

See also[edit]

  • Allan, Kenneth R. "Business Interests, 1969-72: N.E. Thing Co. Ltd., Les Levine, Bernar Venet, and John Latham" in Parachute 106 (April–June, 2002): 106-122.
  • Latham, J. (1984) Report of a Surveyor. London; Stuttgart: Edition Hansjörg Mayer.


  1. ^
  2. ^ McNay, Michael (07/01/2006). "Obituary: John Latham". Guardian. Retrieved 2011-06-28.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ "Canvas Events". Ridinghouse. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  4. ^ Walker, John A. (2007). "Perils of publishing". Retrieved 1 April 2010
  5. ^ Walker, John A. (1995). John Latham: The incidental person--his art and ideas. Middlesex University Press.


  • Hamilton, R. (1986) John Latham. In: Lisson Gallery (1987) John Latham: Early Works. London: Lisson Gallery.

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