Bafflingly brilliant: A Lesson in Sculpture with John Latham at the Henry Moore Institute

By Richard Moss | 31 March 2016

Sculptor, visionary and a father of conceptual art, John Latham gets his day with an exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds

a photo of the words The Mysterious Being Known As God is an atemporal score with a probable time base in the region of 10 16 seconds
John Latham - the baffling genius of post war sculpture© Photo Richard Moss
A pioneer of conceptual art, a polymath, a collagist of burnt and dismembered books and the man who gave birth to the boom in science art; John Latham’s claim to a place in the canon of post war 20th century art is persuasive. Yet his ideas and art remain elusive.

Today John Latham (1921-2006) is best known for his use of books as a component part of his sculptures, and there are plenty of book sculptures on show at the Henry Moore Institute, whose A Lesson In Sculpture with John Latham charts the influence of this irascible provocateur and thinker by paring some of his best works with some of the artworks he influenced.

There are juxtapositions and conversations through 16 artists including Cornelia Parker, Marcel Broodthaers, Liliane Lijn and Marcel Duchamp. And, of course, there are the books – floating in mid-air, encased in lava flows of foam and wire or made into minimal intersecting sculptures.

“To Latham books are these repeatable objects,” says Curator Lisa Le Feuvre, Head of Sculpture Studies at the institute. “He just saw them as these multiple objects – he always said he had no interest in the titles whatsoever, his only interest was in their form.

“He chose books that were discarded or no longer relevant, so it could be old editions of Punch or the Economist.”

a photo of a sculpture made from two books
John Latham, Study for a Bing Monument (c.1976)© Photo Richard Moss
Latham’s most notorious intervention with a book lost him his teaching post at St Martin’s School of Art in 1967 for “distilling the essence” of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture.

Having taken the book of Marxist art theory essays out of the St Martin’s library, he invited a group of students round to his flat to literally chew its pages, which he then fermented. When eventually he received a letter asking for the book’s return he sent back the liquid spittle – and was summarily dismissed.

But it wasn’t all about random books and chewing the cud. Latham’s encounter with the astronomer Clive Gregory and animal ethnologist Anita Kohsen in the early 1950s triggered a deep engagement with physics, psychology and psychic research and led to a series of sculptures embodying these concepts.

Looking at pieces like the glass blown globes of Least Event as Habit (1970), the fused and burnt book pile that is Little Red Mountain (1960-62) or indeed the wall based artwork of words “THE MYSTERIOUS BEING KNOWN AS GOD is an atemporal score, with a probable time-base in the region of 1019 seconds,” it’s difficult to ascertain the extent to which Latham was a man who understood science or who was merely plundering it for his artwork.

“I think it was both,” says Le Feuvre. “He was obsessed by science, he would talk to scientists and there is a logic to it. It’s not grabbing information and having no knowledge of it at all. He spent a lot of time absorbing complex knowledge.

“He really wanted to make sure that art was seen in the same register as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He was a polymath and was vociferous in his reading. Whether it was Finnegan’s Wake or scientific books, he would read and read and talk and talk and talk.

“All of this research developed this incredible body of work. Karl Popper always used the phrase: 'we always have to push beyond the limits of our horizons'. That’s what Latham was doing.”

a photo of a sculpture made from books, cable and expanding foam
John Latham, Firenze (1967)© Photo Richard Moss
The labelling is sparse. The Henry Moore never over-interprets the work on show, but the presence of artists who have some relation with Latham’s work adds some welcome visual counterpoints.

Katie Paterson has picked up on his fascination with time via Timepieces (Solar System) (2014), a series of clocks; one of them telling the time on earth while the others tell the time on the planets in the solar system.     

Mary Kelly’s An Earthwork Performed (1970), in which a film projection of coal being shovelled forms part of a durational artwork comprising film, video and a real pile of coal, also references Latham’s interest in industry and the way his practice opened up dialogues with performance, installation and land art.  

Nearby sits his photographic/psychogeographic investigation into a Scottish slag heap, Niddrie Woman Site (1976), which consists of photographs, bits of wood and an old Nescafé jar filled with shale.

The piece came about as a result of his involvement in the Artist Placement Group, which he founded with his wife Barbara Steveni in 1966 and which placed artists within organisations like the Coal Board, British Steel and the Scottish Office as impartial observers – or “incidental persons” as Latham put it.

During Latham’s own time at The Scottish Office he proposed to redesignate the heaps of waste coal and shale (known as bings) as public sculptures or monuments to labour, to “honour a century of anonymous work.” 

“For Latham, art needed to be something that was absolutely part of society and not something that was really safe and in some pocket where if you do something radical people go: 'ahh it’s only art', adds Le Feuvre. 

“That’s why we have set up this exhibition in this way – in the company of others – because that’s the way he worked. He was one of those artists who was always talking, always sharing ideas and it makes sense to put him in the company of others.”

A photo of books embedded in glass together with a suspended globe
Books, spheres and cable. John Latham at the Henry Moore Institute © Photo Richard Moss
Upstairs, in the Henry Moore Research Centre, you can also chart how, despite his absence from most histories of post war art history, in his irascible later years the broadsheets lapped up the furore around his work God is Great, featuring a Bible, Talamud and Koran embedded in a sheet of plate glass, which was hastily withdrawn for staff safety reasons from a Tate Britain show in 2006.

But as with all things John Latham, despite seemingly political artworks like these he remained outwardly apolitical and never indicated any belief in religion.

“He was also suspicious of academia,” says Le Feuvre. “He thought all forms of education were about teaching platitudes and assumptions and recycling things that were often wrong.”

Perhaps there’s a clue in there as to why he’s never really been situated in art history?

“It’s also partly because his work is so difficult to display, to transport and to care for,” adds Le Fevre. “But his time is to come - and it feels like it’s now.”

A Lesson in Sculpture With John Latham is at The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until June 19 2016. Admission is free.

a photo of a jar of Nescafe filled with stones
A Nescafe jar full of shale - part of John Latahm's research into the Niddrie Woman Site© Photo Richard Moss
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