Contemporary Art

John Latham — The Language of Time

By Sotheby's

J ohn Latham's artistic oeuvre can be described as experimental, controversial and avant-garde. His long and varied career involved engagement with a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, film and performance. His creative output revolved around the notions of time, consciousness and perception on a cosmological level. He sought to restore the lost relationship between the individual and the whole through his art.

This artistic approach was compelling and challenging and his work aimed to stimulate action as opposed to passive contemplation by the viewer. Latham's work has spanned many art movements over the last sixty years from Art informel, New Realism and Happenings, to Assemblage, Conceptual and Minimal Art. His Time Base theories, use of found materials and emphasis on process in action and language has provided an influential and resounding model for younger generations of artists.


In his 1959 masterwork Dante and Beatrice, John Latham combines oil paint with found books, plaster, and wire mesh to transform his burlap panel into a three-dimensional object. The painting comes to life as elements from his spray gun are laid beside old volumes of Dante in the dark coloured structural relief. With his spray gun, he developed his own philosophy of time known as 'Event Structure', which proposes that the most basic component of reality is not the particle but the least event. This new approach to form using what he called his 'atomising paint instrument’ marked an important point in his artistic development:

"Many interesting effects and inferences exist to be derived from the free mark made by this device. It destroys the picture plane in a legitimate way where contemporaries were at such pains to establish that plane." (John Latham, Time-base and Determination in Events, reprinted in an appendix to John A. Walker, John Latham: The Incidental Person – His Art and Ideas, London: Middlesex University Press, 1995, p.199).


Latham's works have recently been exhibited in the following solo presentations: A World View: John Latham, Serpentine Galleries, London, 2017 and Viva Arte Viva, 57th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2017. Further key exhibitions include The Art of Assemblage, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 196162; Painting and Sculpture of a Decade, Tate Gallery, London, 1964; documenta 6, Kassel, 1977; John Latham in Focus, Tate Britain, London, 200506; John Latham: Time Base and the Universe, PS1 Contemporary Arts Centre, New York, 2006 and Destroy the Picture: Painting The Void 1949–1962, 201213 at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's