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Five reasons to see John Latham's work at the Serpentine

The late grandaddy of British conceptual art will leave you puzzled, but here’s why you should see this mindboggling show

By Matt Breen
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Image © Luke Hayes
Image © Luke Hayes
'A World View: John Latham', Serpentine Gallery. Image © Luke Hayes

1. His ideas were big

Latham’s work – which encompasses painting, sculpture, film and performance – revolves around a theory he called Flat Time. It attempts to describe the universe in time-based rather than spatial terms. Already going cross-eyed thinking about this? Sure. There tends to be lots of books, glass and spray paint involved.

'A World View: John Latham'
'A World View: John Latham'
'A World View: John Latham', Serpentine Gallery. Image © Luke Hayes

2. He was a troublemaker

Latham clearly took pleasure in sticking two fingers up to the establishment. Books, with all their claims of infallibility, rarely came out well. As a tutor at St Martins in the ’60s, he chewed up an academic book as an ‘art action’, and returned its pulped remains in a phial. The library didn’t see the funny side: he was promptly sacked from his post.

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Latham
Latham
'A World View: John Latham', Serpentine Gallery. Image © Luke Hayes

3. He influenced everyone

It’s a sad fact that many incredible artists are eclipsed by those they tutored and mentored – and Latham was one of them. But in acknowledgement of this, the Serpentine has programmed a group show in its Sackler space of four artists who have been influenced by Latham. Look out for ping-pong tables, spray tan and presidential candidacies.

latham
latham
'A World View: John Latham', Serpentine Gallery. Image © Luke Hayes

4. He believed in art

Latham believed that artists have just as important a role in society as scientists, philosophers and the rest. He and his wife Barbara Steveni even set up the Artists Placement Group, which set out to find artists jobs in government offices. Latham found a post in the Scottish Office’s planning department in 1975 and was (we imagine) a massive pain in the arse trying to get piles of scrap waste recognised as monuments.

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'A World View: John Latham'
'A World View: John Latham'
'A World View: John Latham', Serpentine Gallery. Image © Luke Hayes

5. He was radical

In a year when it’s tempting to assume that radical British art mainly involves paintings of the Yorkshire Dales, here’s something weird, tough and uncompromising. Yes, you might leave the gallery feeling bewildered and frustrated. But who ever said that art should be easy? 

'A World View: John Latham' is 'at The Serpentine Gallery Until May 21.

Find out what our critics make of the latest London shows

Ibrahim Mahama
Diesel Room. Non-Orientable Nkansa. 'Sekondi Locomotive station 1901-2030', 2016. © Ibrahim Mahama. Photo: Ibrahim Mahama.

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