THE PASSING OF John Latham, one of Britain's senior artists (and also one of the most radical), marks the end of an era. A central figure in British art since the '50s, Latham died on January 1, at eighty-four. He wielded a subtle but profound influence on a younger generation of artists and curators, including Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, myself, and many others, through his rebellious approach to authority, and his far-reaching ideas regarding the role of art and the artist.
Latham's career began in the drab environment of Britain in the aftermath of World War II, against a backdrop of cold-war anxiety. Like that of his American counterpart Robert Rauschenberg, to whom he is often compared, Latham's early work had an existential quality. His unprimed canvases and spray-gun or action-based mark-making raised fundamental questions about the end of painting and the dissolution of the body. Figures emerging out of voidlike surfaces evoked the ethereal body prints of Yves Klein, dispersing the image into a dematerialized state that questioned the very basis of representation.
From the late '50s onward these elusive figures were replaced by books, which became Latham's primary material. Books were either affixed to or extending out of canvases or arranged in freestanding sculptures, and their pages, which were painted or burned, resembled the ruptured skin of the body turned inside out. If the body is the site of language, Latham's constructions implied a collapse of the social body.
In the early '60s, Latham was part of a burgeoning London art scene that included Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Yoko Ono, and Gustav Metzger. He began receiving critical attention internationally, showing with Kasmin Gallery in London, and making actions involving sculpture, poetry, and film in the basement of Better Books on Charing Cross Road. His interest in temporality led to an increasing use of destruction as an artistic tool and a definition of his paintings as "time-based," operating within an "event framework." He participated in the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966 (with Wolf Vostell, Al Hanson, Gunter Brus, Jasia Reichardt, Ono, and Pete Townshend of the Who, among others), making what he described as a series of "Skoob towers." These objects, towers of books to which he set fire, existed as what Latham termed "sculpture in reverse" ("skoob" is "books" spelled backward). That is, they exist only at the point of their destruction. Asked about the nihilism of these book-burning events, Latham replied, "Perhaps the cultural base had been burnt out."
The violence Latham inflicted on books was given its most notorious expression in an action titled Still and Chew/Art and Culture in 1966-67. Latham, then a part-time tutor at St. Martin's School of Art, borrowed a copy of Clement Greenberg's then-recent Art and Culture from the college library. Greenberg's modernist theories of art conflicted with Latham's belief that time had replaced space as the primary issue in painting. With the help of sculptor Barry Flanagan, then a St. Martin's student, Latham organized an event at his home during which guests chewed a third of the book's pages and spat them into a small glass flask, where they were submerged in sulphuric acid until the solution turned to sugar. Yeast was introduced and the mixture left to ferment until, nine months later, the college library sent Latham an "urgent" overdue notice. Latham placed the liquid in a glass vial, labeled it "the essence of Greenberg," and returned it to the library. His dismissal swiftly followed. He reassembled the elements of the action in a suitcase resembling a Duchampian Boite-en-valise. The piece, retitled Art and Culture, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
From 1959 to 1970 Latham also made several "Skoob films," in which he attempted to shift the moving image from a spatial composition within the frame to temporal traces of movement that echoed the twenty-four-frames-per-second mechanics of film. …