He is the best post-war British artist you've never heard ofby John McTernan / August 3, 2016 / Leave a comment
John Latham is probably the most important post-war British artist you have never heard of. His admirers range from Nick Serota, Director of the Tate art museums and galleries, who was pouring tea at Latham’s wake, to Damien Hirst, who admiringly said “He [Latham] proves it is possible to be an enfant terrible for ever.” Latham’s former house, turned into a gallery after his death, closed its doors over the weekend.
Why was Latham so obscure? Partly, it was the longevity of his career—which lasted from his first joint exhibition in 1948, held with fellow student John Berger in a former butcher’s shop when they were at Chelsea College of Art and Design, to the 2005 Venice Biennale three man show “God is Great” with Anish Kapoor and Douglas Gordon. Partly it was the restlessness of his imagination. When you spoke to John he always wanted to talk about the new work, the old stuff—however interesting—was in the past. Not for him the telling of war stories about the sixties, instead his philosophy could well be described by Wittgenstein’s cry: “Back to the rough ground!”
Mainly, though, John Latham was “thrawn”—that great Scots word for someone who is stubborn, obstinate, intractable. His uncompromising artistic vision was matched by an equally uncompromising approach to authority. I first met John when I was a Southwark councilor: he had a planning dispute relating to his house/studio on Bellenden Road in my ward. Steering John through this process was the beginning of a long and rewarding friendship.
But this was not his first confrontation with authority. Lecturing at St Martin’s School of Art, he was a vigorous opponent of Clement Greenberg’s critical writings. Borrowing a volume of Greenberg from the library he tore pages out of it and encouraged members of his class to chew them up and then spit them into a jar. Latham then attempted to “distil” the wisdom from the pages. He received a library fine—which he refused to pay. And then he got the sack. The book, the correspondence, the “digested wisdom” are all part of a work titledArt and Culture which is on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
His longest running and most bitter dispute was with the Arts Council. In the mid-sixties, together with his partner—in life and art—Barbara Steveni,…