John Latham (artist) bigraphy, stories - Design

John Latham (artist) : biography

23 February 1921 - 1 January 2006

John Aubrey Clarendon Latham, (23 February 1921 – 1 January 2006, born in Zambia) was a 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


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.


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.

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