Full Stop is a monumental painting comprising a large circular black spot in the approximate centre of an unprimed canvas. The spot was created by repeated action with a spray gun, its curve delineated using weighted sheets of newspaper cut to the correct shape and, as a result, traces of rectangular forms are faintly visible outside the circumference. The circle’s edges are blurred, particularly on the left side where a sprinkling of tiny and slightly larger dots emerge from the dense black of the large spot. The semi-mechanical process of making the spot, in which many dots are applied to the canvas at the same time, suggests the mechanical process of printing rather than the more traditional painting processes normally associated with a canvas. The painting’s canvas is unstretched and is displayed pinned to the wall in the manner of a wall-hanging evoking signage and heraldry. The title, Full Stop, refers to text, and evokes the printed word. At the same time, the blurred edges of the spot and the slight halos around some of the larger dots at its circumference recall a solar eclipse, a black hole or the negative of photographs of light reflecting off planets in the dark galaxy.
Born in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Latham studied painting at Chelsea School of Art (1947-51). He created dark-toned quasi-allegorical oil paintings until, on a revelatory day in October 1954 (referred to in his later writings as ‘Io54’ or ‘Idiom of 1954’), he used a spray gun filled with black paint to make his first ‘process sculpture’. In the dense black area of sprayed paint, composed of millions of tiny dots of pigment, Latham saw a new way of understanding time and matter through a unifying atemporality. He elaborated a complex philosophy of time – the Time-Base Theory – combining physics, philosophy and art and described the significance of the mark-making process permitted by the spray gun in a text entitled The Mark (1954):
Use of a paint-spraying device enables a unit Least Mark, (quantum of a mark) to serve as a representational accretive historical process. This has opened up several new approaches to form. A drawing by accretion of points proposes a dimensionality that eliminates action in clock time (departing from the current action painting techniques of the day). It suggests a geometry of atemporal sources of some kind and a continuum visually perceivable as an atemporal omnipresent ... the credibility of which is under challenge in an extended time context.
(Quoted in Art after Physics, p.106.)
In the early 1970s Latham went on to use this process in a series of One Second Drawings (see Tate T02070), in which he sprayed sixty boards for one second each with black acrylic paint. The action embodies the idea of what he called a ‘least event’, the very action of making elementary marks in an empty space (in this instance on a blank white board) manifesting itself as an elemental – or quantum – structure. Latham created Full Stop during a three month period spent working in the Chelsea Hotel, New York, during his first visit to the USA. His ‘quantam’ theories are contemporaneous with and similar to the processes of American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt who, during this period, was establishing a series of such modular structures fundamental to representation in two and three dimensions as the line and the cube. However Latham differed in his concern with the dimension of time, more completely expressed in his complex work, Time-Base Roller 1972 (Tate T11975).
At once seeming to make a statement about endings – the end of culture or at least the end of the language of painting – in another sense, Full Stop speaks of beginnings. The painting embodies the emergence of matter in empty space, a concept central to Latham’s art, which he also expressed using the binary system of 0 and 1, later formulated as the ‘state nought – state one’ or ‘0 1_1 0’ idea. This duality emulates the yin and yang power diagrams of Eastern art and Zen Buddhism. In Latham’s later works, such as God is Great #2 1991 (Tate T11969), these dualistic concepts are expressed using sheet glass (emptiness) and books (matter) in a commentary on religious belief systems.
John Latham: Art after Physics, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1991, p.13, reproduced p.8, cat.no.20
John Latham: In Focus, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain, London 2005, [pp.7 and 10], reproduced front cover in colour
John A. Walker, John Latham: the Incidental Person – his Art and Ideas, London 1995, p.60, reproduced p.61