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john latham: Books for burning

john latham: Books for burning

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Published by JOHN A WALKER
a 1987 interview with British artist John Latham conducted by John A. Walker
a 1987 interview with British artist John Latham conducted by John A. Walker

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Categories:Types, Brochures
Published by: JOHN A WALKER on Oct 18, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Photos of works of art by John Latham are copyright the John Latham Estate and
the Lisson Gallery, London.
John Latham, Great Uncle Estate, (1960).
JW: You began to use books to construct reliefs in 1958. What prompted this unusual
choice of material?
JL: I'd discovered a principle of structure in the atomised mark in 1954. By 1958 I
had the feeling that the black on white spray paintings had reached a point of
exhaustion. I wanted something to project from the surface, to serve as a visual
enricher. There were books lying around the studio including one with the titleThe
Philosophy of the Good Life. It was entirely fortuitous. I didn't know what I was
looking for until I saw it. However, the book proved to be the precise solution to
many problems.

JW: What practical problems did you encounter in attaching the books to the surface? JL: I used canvas to key to board surfaces with household materials like Polyfilla. I anchored books with. screws and wire.

JW: And when wires loop from one concentration of books to another I presume they
become part of the work?
JL: Yes, they acquire an iconographic value.
JW: Where did the books come from?

JL: Mostly from Peter Eaton's, a second-hand bookseller in Holland Park Avenue. He had bins of very cheap books outside his shop. I just delved, picking out titles or compact shapes that interested me.

JW: One cannot read the books in your reliefs in the normal fashion but, even so,
titles and fragments of text remain legible. Were the contents or titles relevant to the

JL: Sometimes. If the title wasn't relevant I might obliterate it or remove the spine. You see, I detected a consistency between the black on white of the printed pages and the 'geometry' - the spatial relations of points - in my spray paintings, though, of course, in the case of books, the former angular geometry becomes linear and time-determined. On the outside a book is part of the world of appearances, but

inside it is governed by a code. So, in a way, a book is like the human organism with its genetic code. And aren't such organisms anchored in a whole event - Nature? That's what the questioning and examination of the form was about. I was finding out more by this approach than by reading.

JW: Could you say something about the relationship between the books and the
grounds from which they projected. Was a symbolism intended?

JL: The ground, if it is white, stands for 'no action' - the zero state of action. Art's blank canvas as a work was equivalent to Einstein's conclusion that gravitational collapse of the universe would proceed to nothing.

JW: But you also used colour didn't you?

JL: In the beginning I wanted to concentrate on the white to the black because
that's the sculptural element - a dynamic, autogenerative relation. Only later, in
1959, did the coloured pages come into it. This was a response to a film made in my
studio by Pathe News. My idea was to have an unmoving object - the book relief -
animated by changes of pages and colour. That is, a universe which provides a
stable framework but within which there are changes of state. Pathe News proved
uncooperative so I made the film myself. It's called Unclassified Material. You can
run the film in reverse and it still works.

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