John Latham

Man Caught Up with a Yellow Object

1954

Artist
John Latham 1921–2006
Medium
Oil paint and commercial emulsion paint on hardboard
Dimensions
Support: 1221 x 977 mm
frame: 1345 x 1107 x 67 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1991
Reference
T06490

Not on display

Display caption

Latham used a spray gun to sweep diluted black paint across a base layer of grey. The Shape of a body developed out of this haze. It remains fragmentary and truncated, partly overtaken by the accompanying yellow object. This loss of bodily form suggests more profound anxieties, which were widespread in the 1950s, about alienation and the futility of individual action. However, Latham himself sees the yellow object as a symbol of enlightenment, and he associates the tiny dots of spray painting with the units of time that constitute reality.

Gallery label, September 2004

Technique and condition

The following entry is based on an interview with the artist held on 24 February 1992.

The painting is executed on untempered hardboard in mixed paint media. There is an earlier abandoned painting on the reverse side of the hardboard. The front of the painting is executed on the smooth side of the hardboard.

The grey paint layer is a mixture of white and black commercial emulsion paint. A small amount of red was also added to create the warm tones in areas; 'the light patches would have been put in knowing I was going to paint over the top some sort of figure, but I didn't have any idea what kind.' The initial layers of paint are deliberately thin to reveal the colour of the hardboard in places. Areas of thinly scumbled black paint is a mixture of turpentine and oil, sprayed onto the surface through an electrically operated pump, and then wiped off. The pump would frequently break down, spitting out large blobs of paint which the artist later accepted as creating 'the sense of the unexpected' in his work. The painting was completed over a period of two days, 'one for the background, the emulsion would be dry before I painted it the next day', when the final drawing was applied.

The reverse side has a textured surface, visible through the paint layers, and represents 'an experiment using the rough side of hardboard', later abandoned by the artist as a failure. It is executed with oil paint and 'Wallart', a decorating powder manufactured at the time by Winsor & Newton. This was mixed with water, 'which would flow and set very beautifully', for an impasto effect.

The painting was lightly surface cleaned and the dry feathered edges of the hardboard secured. The artist confirmed that the scratches and dents in the surface were damages which could be left if they were not seen to interfere with the image.

The panel is fitted in it's original frame and both the front and reverse are glazed.