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John Latham

(1921—2006) artist


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British artist and theorist, born in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Maramba, Zambia). After serving in the Royal Navy in the Second World War, he studied at Chelsea School of Art, 1946–50. Latham was best known for work in which he used books as raw material. In 1958 he began making ‘skoob’ (‘books’ spelt backwards) reliefs, and in the 1960s he was involved in Happenings that he called Skoob Tower Ceremonies, in which sculptures made of piles of books were ritually burned—‘to put the proposition into mind that perhaps the cultural base has been burned out’. His most famous gesture came in 1966, when—as a part-time lecturer at St Martin's School of Art—he borrowed a copy of Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture from the library and with the sculptor Barry Flanagan, alongside invited guests, chewed up pages and immersed them in acid to produce a ‘culture’. Some months later he was requested to return the book by the librarian. He was told it was urgently needed by a student. Shortly after attempting to return the remnants, his contract was terminated. The work created by the chewed pages—entitled Art and Culture—was bought by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970.

In 1966 Latham took part in the Destruction in Art Symposium alongside Metzger at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Out of this he founded the Artist Placement Group (later called O + I) with his wife, Barbara Steveni. The intention was to make links between artists and industry. An exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1971 publicized his ideas more widely. Although the Arts Council withdrew funding in 1972 on the grounds that the APG was more concerned with social engineering than with art, the organization continued to make links with business and government organizations. Latham's ultimate concern was not just to find work for artists but to use their input to achieve social change according to a complex theory of the ‘event structure’. His ideas were widely mocked within the art world during the 1970s, partly because, in a climate strongly affected by Marxism, the whole idea of collaboration with business seemed hopelessly conformist. His conception of ‘time-based events’ was greeted by one correspondent to Art Monthly with the riposte that all events have to be time-based because ‘they get awfully short otherwise’. However, shorn of a philosophy which perhaps only Latham and a few associates entirely understood, the basic practical notion has survived in a changed social and political climate.

From A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.


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