Specialist Pick | Alasdair Nichol | John Latham
Learn more about one of Chairman Alasdair Nichol's favorite picks from our May 14 online auction of Modern & Contemporary Art
When I first encountered John Latham’s work in 1987 at an exhibition entitled "British Art in the 20th Century" at the Royal Academy, London, I thoroughly detested it. This is why it came as somewhat of a surprise to me to discover that one of my favorite lots in Freeman’s May 14 online auction of Modern & Contemporary Art is Lot 44: Skoob Assemblage by that very same artist, John Latham.
So why the change of heart? Hard to say, but I do know that his work stuck with me after seeing it at the aforementioned exhibition, and despite my initial dislike, I couldn’t shake it off, rather like an irritating piece of gum on a shoe.
This has happened to me before with the work of other artists—Howard Hodgkin, for example. On seeing his work in an excellent exhibition of Narrative Paintings curated by Timothy Hyman in 1980, I rashly dismissed it as pure decoration. It was only after seeing a solo show of his work at the Hayward Gallery in 1996—which spanned two decades of his painting and gave it real context (this time courtesy of curator David Sylvester)—that I ‘got it.’ I experienced a Damascene conversion and have been an avid admirer ever since.
The one hundred and eighty degree turn that I experienced with Latham took rather longer.
When I first saw his work in the RA, I dismissed it in favor of that by the School of London painters such as Bacon, Freud, and Auerbach; earlier artists, such as Burra and Nevinson; and even non-painters such as the Boyle Family and Gilbert & George. Coming across Latham, a conceptual artist who often used books—torn, burnt and sometimes, literally chewed—as his medium, proved a jarring experience for my younger self. However, something lingered and gnawed, and I thought about his work often over the years trying to work out why it had made such an adverse impression.
When a New York ‘picker’ called me one evening to tell me that he had acquired a John Latham from a local estate, I was intrigued.
‘Is it made of books?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
A couple of days later, Skoob Assemblage (skoob, FYI, is books in reverse) was sitting on my living room floor, its torn painted books, grunge and loose wires arousing considerable interest in our inquisitive dog. It was like having an old friend round—one with whom you had had a bitter argument years earlier but whose point of view now seemed entirely reasonable.
As I further researched the artist, I found him to be a fascinating character. Having commanded a motor torpedo boat in the war, he then attended art school in London. An early proponent of ‘Destruction Art’ along with Gustav Metzger, he was known for burning piles of books - ‘Skoob Tower Ceremonies’ - with all the controversial connotations that one can imagine. He instructed his students to chew up and spit out Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture, which led to his expulsion from his teaching post at St Martins on the grounds that a book that he had withdrawn from the library was not returned in the same condition. The masticated book sculpture was subsequently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970.
An influential and iconoclastic figure, Latham set up the Artist Placement Group in 1966 with the aim of placing artists within the commercial and industrial community as well as within government organizations. A radical and visionary concept at the time, it is now a widely accepted practice that has broken down barriers and proved beneficial to both the artistic and business communities.
I find Latham's anti-authoritarian ‘punk’ attitude all too refreshing, particularly in the current political climate and in an oftentimes conservative art world that seems far removed from that of the 60s and 70s where pushing the envelope was the norm. I have written elsewhere how we in the auction business are fortunate to live with works of art, albeit for short spans of time, which is why Skoob Assemblage currently hangs in pride of place by my desk.
I got there in the end.
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