The recent death of the British artist John Latham (1921-2006), who was perhaps best known in the U.S. for chewing and distilling a copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture in 1966-67, evoked my own memories of collaborating with Latham on a book project. It almost came to naught. Back in December 1994, when my large-format, illustrated monograph on Latham’s art and ideas was about to be published by Middlesex University Press (MUP), the press received an alarming letter from Latham’s solicitor. He demanded that the book be withdrawn and threatened legal action if it was not.
MUP was a new press and its staff, which had no experience in dealing with eccentric visual artists with huge egos, was shocked and astounded to receive such a letter, especially after having invested thousands of pounds and months of work in the project. Naturally, they sought an explanation from me.
My research for the book had taken seven years. I began the project after being impressed by a show of Latham’s early book reliefs held at the Lisson Gallery in 1987. Latham’s works were esthetically powerful and they were also informed by theories about time that I found intriguing. Latham’s cosmological writings were difficult to follow but I thought that once I understood them, I could explain them to a wider public.
I had contacted Latham, visited his home and studio in South London where he lived in bohemian squalor and found him friendly and cooperative. He welcomed the attention and the prospect of a monograph. Numerous tape recorded interviews followed, even though interviewing him was problematic because of the meandering nature of his thought process and his habit of endlessly repeating his ideas about physics and time in a private language he had invented (a language that many thought was intended to intimidate and confuse).
I also interviewed many people who Latham knew or had quarreled with, in order to check the accuracy of his memories and accusations. Naturally I read everything I could find that had been written by him and published about him. In addition, I obtained his permission in writing to reproduce his artworks. Most images for illustrations were supplied by the Lisson Gallery at no charge.
For a long time it seemed that my research had been in vain. No art book publisher was interested in the book -- perhaps because Latham was notorious for burning and mutilating books in the cause of visual art. However, they also claimed that monographs about contemporary artists were not economically viable unless tied in with a major exhibition. (I duly tried to persuade museum curators to organize one and the Tate Gallery did mount a small show. I also strove -- unsuccessfully -- to interest television arts programs in Latham and I paid from my own savings for the reconstruction of a lost work from the 1960s entitled The Skoob Box.) It was only when MUP was established in 1993 that I was able to get my manuscript accepted and the university’s research funds made a high quality book with color illustrations possible.
I suppose I should have seen the solicitor’s letter coming, because as the publication date approached, I began to receive long letters from Latham on a daily basis demanding changes and expansions to my text. He wanted his criticisms of the Arts Council to be strengthened (he was in dispute with the council for years and I was once told their Latham file was the largest in their possession) and he wanted his time-based theories to be expressed in his specialist vocabulary rather than in my words. This would have made the book less accessible and in any case a key theoretical essay by Latham, "Time-base and Determination in Events" (1972-73), was to be reprinted in an appendix.
Latham and his wife Barbara had read early drafts of the text and made numerous comments, many of which I had incorporated. Of course, it was far too late to make any further changes, even had I been willing, because the printer had been booked, a book launch at the Tate Gallery had been scheduled and the text of the book had already been checked by a lawyer for any libelous statements.
I informed Latham it was impossible to make any changes and that if the book did not satisfy him, he should publicly disown it -- and that would no doubt result in some useful publicity!
As I told MUP, Latham seemed to think the book was his rather than mine, simply because it was about him. I explained that I had taken note of his suggestions for changes but that, in the final analysis, I was the author not him, that I was not a paid advocate of Latham nor a ventriloquist’s dummy. I advised the publishing firm to call his bluff, which it did, and the book appeared without any further action by Latham. He was even present at the launch event held in February 1995 at the Tate Gallery, where I delivered a lecture on his work that was greeted by a packed audience with considerable applause.
Destruction had played a major role in Latham’s life (notably, as part of his wartime experiences in the Royal Navy) and his career (his contributions to the influential 1966 "Destruction in Art Symposium" in London, for example) and I suspected that he had a strong self-destructive urge that made him want to sabotage any project as it neared fulfillment. Perhaps he actually feared success. Failure and rejection sustained his rebellious, anti-establishment stance. And, despite his undoubted personal charm, he was an extremely demanding and dictatorial individual. His wife was a loyal supporter of his art but even she was not willing to live under the same roof. One of his sons, a philosopher living in New York, even told me he would only review my book once his father was dead. Given the stress of dealing with the enormous egos typical of so many contemporary artists, it is no wonder that most art historians prefer to write about dead artists rather than living ones.
JOHN A. WALKER has recently published Work: Ford Madox Brown’s Painting and Victorian Life (Francis Boutle, London).