You’ve Lost That Conceptual Feeling



Book burning Latham style…

John Latham at the Serpentine Gallery/’Speak’ at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (Tania Bruguera, Douglas Gordon, Laure Prouvost and Cally Spooner)

2 Mar 2017 to 21 May 2017

John Latham is an artist whose repuation rests on nothing. Or very little. This show – a survey of his most exhibitable works – puts the late artist at the centre of the minimalist conceptual movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement embraced counter cultural vaules, is uncomfortable with the production of objects, mistrusts the art market and  attempts to achieve transfiguration through ideas. Latham conceived the concept of the Noit – the ‘No It’ – as a motif, or indeed a motive, for his work. He was very thin.

I decided to go for a little trip to the Serpentine today – didn’t know what was on, but it’s one of the few galleries to open on a Bank Holiday Monday. While parking my bike I heard someone walking round the outside who had not been in say to their companion, actually say out loud: “…conceptual rubbish, Emperor’s New Clothes…”. I cannot think of any other single phrase that irritates me as much. If I hear it I know that person is not only unwilling to approach new ideas but is unable to think up an original way in which to flaunt that ignorance.

So I was feeling quite favourably towards John Latham as I walked in. He is an artist that will test your patience though.  When I go to a gallery I like to think, but not necessarily just ‘What the hell is that?’

In truth I have not always been a fan and I’m probably still not. Mostly because I know he burned a lot of books, and I find that troubling. Joesph Beuys was a fan though, and I am a huge admirer of Beuys. But then again Joseph Beuys was bonkers. I strongly suspect Latham was bonkers too. In this revealing interview he seems oblivious to the obvious impressions the book burning would make and focuses instead on secondary formal considerations: how the book stuck out of the canvas, how the open pages at once denied the time based notions of reading but exposed the ‘strata’ of the book. I don’t know if they were good books or not, but book burning still has its authoritarian censorship stigma. Latham was making these works when Pol Pot was rounding up anyone who wore glasses in Cambodia, so he cannot have been unaware.  This peversely oblique attitude to how his work might be received is one of Latham’s many opaque attributes. Burning a stack of Encyclopedia Brittanica in London in 1966 surely had obvious symbolism and it disingenuous to ignore it. The burnt book works remain Latham’s most iconic output.

Some of these works are genuinely powerful and arresting such as his reworking of El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz, (1958). This painting is surely as good as anything Rauschenberg was doing at the time.

Somewhere in the second part of last century the mirror of art splintered into the bewildering array of fragments that we see today. Not just different styles but different modes of activity altogether. Matisse and Mondrian for example had very different ideas and approaches but they expressed them through the same medium – paint on canvas. If you remove that commonality and allow art to be made of anything – or nothing – artists have less and less in common with one another. Some people are making objects, striving to make them original and new. Others are making more of a cultural commentary of that historical moment.


The Cosmos as envisioned by Latham

Latham stands at the root of this bifurcation or at least of one splinter. He is a maker of objects, aesthetic ones too – but they are tangential to his practice. Really they are nothing more (or less) than a snapshot of his lively but rambling mind; so the show is pleasantly full and varied. Given that we are living in the post-conceptual age, this show with videos, floor based objects and things hanging on the wall looks familiar and almost traditional. Moreover you can feel these works were the product of a lively (if somewhat deranged) mind. There is a lot of cosmic subtext to the works and a time-based element. There is the inevitable film that I did not have time for, but seemed to evoke Norman McLaren – it seemed quite playful and sensual, lots of abstract form and colour. Not what I expected from the Godfather of Minimalism at all.


Stars and stripes featuring ironically on a Latham roller blind painting.

The paintings on roller blinds seemed conceived in a spirit of fun also – time based mutational paintings which sardonincally reference the giant unstretched canvasses of colour field painting then in vogue. Ah…so he was mates with Barry Flanagan. Now it makes a bit more sense! There are a number of ‘One Second Drawings’ leaning on a characteristically grubby white shelf. Black dots on a white ground – they do have a sort of negative cosmic intensity to them, a snapshot of an artistic black hole you are looking at for a lot longer than it took him to make. God filling the void, first mark best mark. Pollock redux. It is all of those things and none of them: either you buy the link or you don’t. At the other end of the scale there is monumental land art – The Five Sisters – which although simply shaped and iconic is anything but minimal in scale. All these seem a pointed and sarcastic responses to the land grab of the artistic high ground by abstract expressionism and its children – by American art in other words. Along with his (in)famous ‘Still and Chew’ (1966-7) where he invited his students to chew and regurgitate Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art and Culture’, it makes his cultural position very clear in place and time. It is a rejection of received wisdom and authority in the first instance and then a further rejection of the Transatlantic respawning of it – a rejection of the whole process of authoritarian paternalistic culture’s self-regeneration. The ghost of Dada permeates this as many other things – not least his American contemporary Robert Rauschenberg – and the description of Dada as ‘a little yes and a big no’ also fits Latham pretty well.


‘One Second Drawings’ leaning on a characteristically grubby white shelf.

Latham’s talk of ‘skoobs’ – backwards ideas of books – and ‘noits’ sound like words from the Bizarro universe. They suggest that he was great at unravelling ideas but not so great at stringing them together again in a comprehensible way. He comes over as a sort of English Duchamp – but without a manifesto,  an English eccentric rather than a French Revolutionary or an English Beuys – a sardonic dreamer rather than a charismatic radical. The white wood mounts for some of these works are showing their age and quite a lot of scuffs and fingermarks from handling that speak of a history. They are a bit projecty and charming – they are objects, objects from which the ideas have blown away and what remains is just the husk of the work. Charming, yes, but it can’t lead me anywhere. This feeling is confirmed when I wander up to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery for ‘Speak’: a disparate and unengaging tribute show featuring contemporary artists’ response to Latham’s iconic minimalism. But sadly anything times zero will always be zero.


Conceptual door outside Serpentine gallery…leading nowhere.


From Darkness, Light.

Rembrandt – The Late Works at the National Gallery


Hampstead Rembrandt

Hampstead Rembrandt


I usually avoid these blockbuster shows but occasionally it seems that the judgement of the majority, or of the mainstream, is correct. I worry that these shows will give me to much to digest or show me things that were never meant to be seen together at once. Not fond of the crush either. All of those things were true about this show.  Nonetheless it was a worthwhile pilgrimage.

The show was a generous mix of paintings, drawings and prints. I struggled with the many stages of the various prints which felt laboured and penitent almost, almost like multiple layer comps in Photoshop but taking exponentially longer to do. A lot of them seem to get darker and darker as they go on. The end results are dramatic, and excellent in their way, but static in comparison to the drawings because they have been fixed firmly into position by multiple iterations. Whereas the drawings are free – nothing is fixed until it is all over, and even then…There is a spontaneity about Rembrandt’s drawings that captivates. As strong as Michaelangelo, and as fluid as any Chinese brushwork – his drawing  is unsurpassed. For example this ink study of a woman – the cover of my old Thames & Hudson book of Rembrandt drawings – probably took him under five minutes. Such infinite precision, in a few movements of the brush, is a window to a moment.

Rembrandt - young woman sleeping

Rembrandt – young woman sleeping

The distant past is a dark place. Often it is hard to remember that people then lived as people now, with rich distinct lives with individual dreams, loves and disappointments. Occasionally the work of an artist can be like a beacon of light in that darkness – can briefly show us what life was then, and is now.

The show starts with a room full of late self portraits: some of the very greatest of all paintings. These pictures seem completely modern, yet they were painted thirty years before the birth of J. S. Bach and only forty years after the death of Shakespeare. It is not simply a question of ‘realism’ in the treatment of light and form, it is the abandonment of pretence –  to look into the eyes of one of Rembrandt’s late self portraits is to look into his life. Like looking into the face of a friend – feeling empathy, a connection, but never entirely knowing what they are thinking and feeling. That distance made real is an implicit acknowledgement that the other is human as we are, they think and feel as we do and they are not mere shells of appearance. That is rare to find in art.


Washington Rembrandt

Washington Rembrandt

They are so powerful, so present in fact that they mask the shambling dead wood of the crowd. When you are connected to their gaze you are alone in the room with Rembrandt. How does he make them so great? In this show there are some old friends from the National Gallery’s own collection and the great self portrait from Kenwood House (at the top) and some new ones – this one from Washington in particular held me.

I have thought about the source of their power for years and still it is not entirely clear – they seem to have simplicity and complexity in equal measure. The composition is deceptively simple – but completely correct. Everything is in balance. The fluid or indistinct treatment of certain areas allows the eye to rest on the face and apprehend its expression. In his focus Rembrandt anticipates photography – still two hundred years away.  Intuitively Rembrandt focuses his energy and our eyes on the bits of the face we most want to see  – not the background, not the hat, but the actual face through the mask of time, of his clothes of his age. He allows light into his pictures only to illuminate what he chooses. The light that comes out of the pictures carries an echo of his soul that remains with the viewer.