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 John Latham  (1921 - 2006)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: abstract painting, installations, conceptual-performance art

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Spending most of his career in England, John Latham, who was born in Northern Rhodesia in the region now called Zambia, became an avant-garde painter and conceptual artists whose works included performances and installations and in many instances were highly controversial.  Central to Latham's paintings were spray guns, glass and books, which symbolized human knowledge passed through generations, and which he frequently attached to his paintings---called 'book reliefs'.  In the 1950s, he began using a spray gun, the first artist in England to use that method.  For him, spray painting the books was symbolic of people's ability to destroy their culture.   In the 1960s, Latham did some performances of book destruction that included book burnings and the chewing up of books such as Clement Greenburg's Art and Culture.  It was a volume from the library of St. Martin's School where Latham was then teaching, and the 'performance' led to his firing.

Just before he died on New Year's Day of 2007, his work was being exhibited at the Tate Britain museum, but organizers refused to allow his 1991 sculpture God is Great in the exhibit because the work consisted of three books, the Bible, Koran and Talmud, inserted through holes into cut into a sheet of glass.  Reasoning behind the decision was that the exhibition had opened in September 2005, just two months after the July 2005 attacks on the 'tube' by suicide bombers.  Latham asserted that his message in his work, which had been a 2005 Venice Biennale entry, was that these religions were united in fighting against violence, but authorities decided the piece would only stir more controversy and possibly insight more violence because of possible negative inferences about religious fundamentalism.

Latham has exhibited in New York City including in 2006 at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in conjunction with the University of Southampton in England.  Thirty six works dating from 1961 were selected, and were an overview of his career touching on his life that included English boarding schools, World War II service in the Navy, art school in London and association with Clive Gregory, and astronomer and Anita Hohsen, a psychologist, with whom he explored issues of "mending social ills through the union of mind and matter, psyche and cosmos."  Gregory, Hohsen and Latham created the Institute for the Study of Mental Images, whose basic tenets that time, rather than space, structures the universe, were published in a 1959 book, The O-Structure: Introduction to Psychophysical Cosmology.

Latham was married to Barbara Steveni, and the couple founded the Artist Placement Group, which reached out to stimulate interaction between businesses, industry representatives and artists in rural regions.

Source:
Cathy Lebowitz, "Noits and Skoobs", Art in America, June 2007

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