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.
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.
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.
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.