John Latham (artist)


John Latham (artist) : biography

23 February 1921 – 1 January 2006

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 Ho, in Peckham, London and died at Kings College Hospital, Camberwell,on the first of January 2006.

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.

Book controversy

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).Walker, John A. (2007). . Retrieved 1 April 2010Walker, John A. (1995). John Latham: The incidental person–his art and ideas. Middlesex University Press. 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!"


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