John Latham (1921–2006)

Speak (1962) Soundtrack: Pink Flyod

Conceptual artist John Latham (1921–2006) was a 20th-century firebrand, who, through performances, assemblages, films and extensive writings, fuelled controversy and continues to inspire. Preoccupied with time, he was visionary in mapping systems of knowledge, scientific or religious. He developed his own philosophy of time, known as ‘Event Structure’, which proposes that the most basic component of reality is not the particle, as purported by physics, but the ‘least event’, or shortest departure from a state of nothing. His unprecedented use of spray paint in 1954 followed through on the theory, as he explained at the time: “Use of a paint-spraying device enables a unit Least Mark, (quantum of a mark) to serve as a representational accretive historical process. This has opened up several new approaches to form.” Latham famously incorporated books – the keepers of all knowledge – into what he called ‘skoob’ works (‘books’ spelt backwards). The seminal skoob happened in 1966, while he was teaching at St Martins School of Art. Latham invited his students to join him in a ritualistic ceremony: the chewing and spitting out of Clement Greenberg’s art history tome Art and Culture. He then decanted the vestiges into a phial, which he duly returned to the St Martins library. Latham demonstrated that destruction was an equal and opposite process to creation – and for this his place in the history of Conceptual art is sealed.

John Latham was born in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Maramba, Zambia) in 1921. In 1946 he enrolled at Regent Street Polytechnic and then studied painting at Chelsea College of Art and Design (1947–51). Solo exhibitions include P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2006), Tate Britain, London (2005), Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany (1991), Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (1984) and Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany (1975). His work was shown in many group exhibitions including documenta 6, Kassel, Germany (1977) and the 51st Venice Biennale (2005).