John Latham is well-known for the conceptual work, Still and Chew, 1966-7, (coll. MoMA, New York), in which he invited his students at Saint Martin’s to chew up the college’s copy of Clement Greenberg's Art & Culture, the pulpy remains of which were distilled into a vial of brown liquid and later returned to the library. However even before this, the material and symbolic potential of books had been a dominant theme in Latham’s eclectic practice.
Latham made his first assemblages using books in the late 1950s – see Belief System, 1959 (coll. Tate Gallery) – and these had evolved from his earlier spray-gun paintings. For the anarchic and intellectually curious Latham, the incorporation of books within the canvas was a subversive gesture, but also reflected his desire to include the disciplines of literature, science and philosophy within the sphere of fine art. As with Greenberg’s art criticism, books were often aligned with authority, and therefore suspect, but equally, they were the material embodiment of the world of ideas, the physical manifestation of other ways of thinking.
In Latham’s assemblages, books are dangled, burnt, skewered with wires and embedded in plaster and paint. In 1963, Lawrence Alloway described how Latham… ‘transforms books as objects, by unexpected spatial displays and unpredicted relationships, into a new non-verbal order’. The enmeshing of two books, as we see in Untitled, 1962, is a common motif. The books merge, exchanging their contents and forming a new impenetrable unit. Here, the presentation of just one pair of books foregrounds the sexual connotations of the form, which protrude rudely from the surface. Despite their conceptual basis, Latham’s assemblages have a distinct aesthetic sensibility and they sit quite comfortably within the language of painting, the abject cousins of Abstract Expressionism and Pop.
Untitled, 1962 was made during the three months Latham spent at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, a hip hangout that offered a temporary home to many of the leading artists, writers and auteurs of the day. During his stay, Latham met Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol and Clement Greenberg, who would later become the uncredited star of Still and Chew. Untitled, 1962 is a rare example from this period - Latham was productive during his stay, even organising an informal exhibition, but much of this work is now lost.
1 Latham’s Noit, exh. cat., Kasmin Gallery, London, 1963, intro