John Latham

Observer IV


Not on display

John Latham 1921–2006
Plaster, resin, books, wire, metal and spray paint on canvas and board
Object: 2440 × 1830 × 380 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

Following 'The Burial of Count Orgaz' 1958 (also in this room), in 1959-60 Latham made four book reliefs. These comprise the 'Observer' series of which this is the final work. Like the other three reliefs, 'Observer IV' has a triangular composition. The three points forming this structure represent three kinds of 'observing persons' which Latham connects with the three brothers in Dostoevsky's novel 'The Brothers Karamazov'. He interprets the brothers as representing three states of existence and self-awareness. The three points in the work thus correspond with the brothers and, in turn, with the states that the brothers represent. The mass of material on the right relates to Mitya who signifies spontaneous experience and instinct. Mitya is connected by a tube to Ivan at the top of the canvas who signifies an intellectual state capable of observing the Mitya state. The small, wedge shape at bottom left is linked with Aloysha - independent of Mitya and Ivan and signifying a higher reflective level capable of observing the other two. Dostoevsky's novel informed Latham's view of the artist as an 'incidental person' who, like Aloysha, is an independent observer, reflecting and reaching insights through intuition. Latham has commented that the 'Observer' series 'isn't intended as allegory but as geometry (evenometry) of the three basic kinds of person.'

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

John Latham born 1921

T03706 Observer IV 1960

Plaster, resin, books, wire, metal and spray paint on linen canvas glued to hardboard 2440 x 1830 x 380 (96 x 72 x 15)
Not inscribed
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: John Latham, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Sept.-Oct. 1975 (no number, repr. p.34, details repr. p.35); Arte Inglesi Oggi 1960-76, Palazzo Reale, Milan, Feb.-March 1976 (no number, repr.); John Latham, Tate Gallery, June-July 1976 (8); John Latham, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Sept.-Oct. 1976 (5); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, Tate Gallery, Feb.-April 1986 (not in cat.)
Lit: Rosetta Brooks, John Stezaker, ‘Introduction' and notes, John Latham, exh. cat. Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf 1975, pp.7-14 and p.30; Terry Measham, ‘John Latham: An Inevitably Unfinished and Undefinitive Account of his Work', John Latham, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1976, pp.8-16; J. Latham, Event Structure, Calgary 1981, p.53; Richard Hamilton, ‘John Latham' in John Latham, Early Works 1954-1972, exh. cat., Lisson Gallery, 1987, p.12; John A. Walker, ‘John Latham and the Book: The Convergence of Art and Physics', Burlington Magazine, vol.129, Nov.1987, pp.715-20

‘Observer IV' has a triangular composition within a rectangular framework of hardboard which is the work's main support. The three points of the triangles represent three kinds of observing persons. A long tube hangs down from the apex to connect with the densely packed mass of wires, tubes, metal fragments and books on the far right of the relief painting. This area, which has been heavily sprayed with paint, is in stark contrast to the lightness of the connecting wire. The third corner of the triangle is located towards the bottom left of the relief plane by a small wedge shape "invert book".

Latham began to incorporate books into his works in 1958. His first book relief ‘The Burial of Count Orgaz' is also in the Tate Gallery's collection (see T02069, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, 1979 p.102, repr.).

‘Observer IV' is one of a series of four reliefs dating from 1959-60. There is a close correspondence between the reading of the triadic structure of ‘Observer IV' and the three brothers in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. John A. Walker writes:

There are times in Latham's oeuvre when the title and contents of books are relevant to the meaning of the piece: the burning of art books near museums, for example. A more complex allegorical relationship between a relief and a book occurred in his Observer series of four reliefs dating from 1959-60. This series explored a triadic structure partly inspired by Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. The brothers, Latham considered, represented three different levels of intuition and self-awareness: Mitya, a state of spontaneous experience; Ivan, an intellectual state capable of observing the Mitya state; and Alyosha, a higher level reflective state capable of encompassing the other two ... Dostoevsky's novel contributed to Latham's conception of the artist as an ‘incidental person', that is, one who stands at some distance from events and who is capable of reflecting upon them critically. The triadic structure of the Observer series was a key motif in Latham's thinking and iconography (John A. Walker 1987, p.718).

John Latham sent the following statement to the compiler (September 1988):


Summarises the visual map of a universe:
- that starts as an Insistently Recurrent Least Event;
- which Least Event is represented by one initial point, a visible ‘quantum of mark' on which the work is based,
- and from which the Work has grown by accretion to a present stage, where the geometry of a Reflective Intuitive Organism such as we can claim to be, is outlined in the OBSERVER series.

THE DIMENSIONAL FRAMEWORK: A language of form referring to the framework of ‘event' entailed, simplifies and specifies what in the language of words has been found impossible, - owing it seems to the clash between dimensional frameworks used respectively by artists and by users of ordinary language.

Key incongruities, between this language of form (Event Structure in the JL [John Latham] translation) and orthodox language logic, start with a concept of extendedness to define event. For example:

In event structure: - in the least event OI-IO - The In-forming Component derives from a State O nonextendedness o, and is an Impulse to Extend causing an extension State I. State I establishes a unit of extended duration compatible in the observed world with the unit of one photon (wave function or corpuscle); which then being completed returns to State O.

The transposition in the idea of "energy" as "force" (to "Impulse and Discharge of" as In-forming Component) marks a paradigmatic shift:
From a dual comprehension of the world as a mysterious interaction between mind and matter, to one that operates within the singular framework defined in terms of event and event structure principle.

In this framework there is no necessary structural spatial coordinate. The OBSERVER "space" is metaphor for time-base "distance".

OBSERVER IV proposes a principle of dynamic geometry, inherent both in this Work and in the interpretation of the quantum of mark art Idiom of 1954 (Io54 in the text Report of a Surveyor, 1984), that is applicable equally to human action as to the said physical action.

The Io54 marks that point where FORM AS ART coincides with FORMULATION AS SCIENCE.

That is to say that,
- while it is by now assumed that the works also qualify as a new approach to sculpture, painting, or visual form,
- the interpretation of OBSERVER IV will also obey criteria required for a theory to qualify as a scientific theory, (see the papers defining the argument).

In so far as the intersection of the two trajectories of Art and Science is identified in these documents, the predictions needed by event structure theory to qualify as science rather than as metaphysics, centre

(a) on the nature of gravitation as understood in physics, and
(b) on sources of human action being found to derive from described time-based but nonlocated sources, rather than from "the brain" (Sources are mediated via electrical (Least Event) occurrences in the brain that may be organised from any part of the Time-Base Spectrum (see papers) - thus giving rise to ideas such as the unconscious, the subjective and the persona et cetera)
In both classes a and b numerate results are likely to be found.

Latham stated how he wanted to explore the three-dimensional black/white format of the book, whereas previously he had been concerned with working two-dimensionally. He sought to introduce a ‘linear time in the same context as omnipresent, atemporal time'. Latham's book relief paintings have the effect of changing literary form to physical form. A tension exists between the book as a narrative object which can be experienced subjectively (reading) transformed to an objective thing. The transformation of the books is heightened by their destruction which, in ‘Observer IV', comes about by burning and spray-painting. By burning the books, Latham ‘sought to change their shape' and to minimalise their ‘mass-produced' character while retaining their shape as recognisably books.

When asked the title of the book included in T03706 Latham said he could not remember and that it was unimportant. What was important was that among the black/white pages was a red and a blue page.

In conversation with the compiler (April 1988) Latham described ‘Observer IV' as ‘the score for a complex universe', a universe not only material but also reflective and intuitive. He compared the surface of the work to a musical score, that is to say, lacking ‘temporal extendedness'; ‘a vehicle for instructions that are not united by the temporal unity of, for example a performed piece of music'. Thus ‘Observer IV' could be seen as providing ‘the impulse to play'. Latham started with a ‘white page' (the canvas). The predominantly white element in the top left hand section of the work which is positioned ‘at a distance from where experience enlarges the person' stands for intellectual knowledge and tidy classification and stands for the ‘Ivan' principle - order and rationality. This order extends across the white sections of the canvas to the darker relief section at bottom left to which it is connected by a cord. The dark section represents the ‘Mitya' or unreflective principle and extends out beyond the edge of the canvas into a ‘Jeni Chaos' but, according to the artist, ‘with genetic instructions' complement ‘Alyosha', the square hollow to the left of ‘Mitya', stands slightly apart; he is distanced but still intuitive. It is he who, according to Latham is able to make the right connections, to understand ‘the score'.

The artist considers the following information as ‘further documentation' to the work.

The date 1954 quoted by Latham refers to his intuitive recognition of the ‘least event' by a ‘one second drawing' made with a spray gun which produced a drawing from an action involving ‘a minimum duration of pressure on its trigger' (see Hamilton 1987, p.13). In Event Structure (Calgary 1981) Latham gives the following definition of a least event:

A change of state with the implication of a before and an after (initially undefined as to space or time). If the constructions are used as a representans r for a representandum R, then in r a Least Event is the coincidence between a least visible black with its complement white, and constitutes the single constant determining an Insistently Recurrent Least Event. Translated into verbal terms accounting for R, the LE is the coincidence of not-nothing on a state of nothing. It takes two LEs to afford an extension. A space-time effect is ‘invented' (state 2) by the co-existence of two forms of recurrent LE (p.58).

Thus a least event as represented by ‘Observer IV' is ‘the assembly of objects framed by the canvas edge presented as though "frozen" from a temporal continuum' (Rosetta Brooks and John Stezakner 1975, p.29).

T03706 is a physical expression or interpretation of the proposition made by Latham, for a least event. The book works were all a result of Latham's investigations into ‘the properties of the medium itself and what they inherently carried - with the mark itself a first condition of art' (Latham 1984, p.22). Latham has expressed his investigations theoretically in his proposal for a ‘least event' ‘... a minimum change of state occuring over a period of minimum duration' (quoted in Hamilton 1987, p.13) which later found physical expression in a series of one second spray paint drawings (see Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1970-2, 1974 T01201).

As John A. Walker and Richard Hamilton point out, Latham's interest in problems of time and space have lead him to discussions with scientists as much as with artists and to seek to demonstrate major correspondences between art and science.

John Latham has described himself as working in his art with ‘three types of time and no kind of space.' He uses the space between, for example the sprayed dots in T03706, to indicate that there is ‘extendedness' (that is a state before the differential classification of time and space) between one part of the ‘score' and another. Latham has stressed the need for the reflective ‘intuitive intellectual' (the Alyosha of T03706) to have access to the world of decisions. He has therefore extended his work via practical exercises, for example, the Artists Placement Group (APG) introducing the artist into the World of Industry.

In a letter to the director of the Tate Gallery (3 June 1983) Latham gave a short history of the ‘Observer' series:

‘Observer I' was made in 1958, and went, under the aegis of Herbert Read to the first Venti Quadri exhibition at the Ariete Gallery in Milan. A prize went on that occasion to Sam Francis. Read reported that ‘Observer I' aroused curiosity rather than admiration' there. It was bought by the collector Boschi (Milan) and didn't come back to England, but I have a photo of it, reproduced in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf catalogue State of Mind [Sept.- Oct. 1975].

‘Observer II' was made in 1959, and went up in the ICA in the first Sixties show at the ICA, organised by Lawrence Alloway. Also there were the SHAUN and SHEM [a double work on doors half in England and half America, whose title is taken from the names of the two brothers in James Joyce, ‘Finnegan's Wake' 1939], going to the MoMA NY [Museum of Modern Art, New York] for their collection after Assemblage [The Art of Assemblage, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Oct.-Nov. 1961], to hang alongside a Rauschenberg piece. ‘Observer II' was bought by a collector from Virginia who donated it to the Washington Gallery of Modern Art [National Gallery of Art, Washington]. Present whereabouts of it are unknown but I heard it went to the Corcoran [Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington].

‘Observer III' is in the Ulster Museum [Ulster Museum, Belfast]. This version differs from the other relefs in having a gilt rather than a steel finish.

The version IV was made along with another 3 - point relief in a 7' x7' x7' interior I called SKOOB BOX, early in 1960. SKOOB BOX carried a lighting cycle in black (UV) and white light, and was a summary of the Observer series in being completed by a spectator (contributing visual attention within the concept). This work however was destroyed at the Round House where it was in store ... on grounds apparently that it offended and was not art.

The following is an edited version of the note written by Rosetta Brooks and John Stezaker on T03706 in the exhibition catalogue for Latham's 1975 Düsseldorf exhibition (p.30):

In his notes for the series [Observer series] Latham refers to the triadic structure as analogous to the tripartite relation of the ‘Brothers Karamazov'. However, although the ‘Observer' series is allegorical, it is only structurally so, and the association should not imply any personification of the triad. Two distinct ‘Observers' represent two distinct modes of cognition, the second aspired to by Latham himself in his attempts at ‘distance' [which Latham describes as ‘meaning adopting a (time base) source along the line A-Z beyond that considered normal i.e. intuition of a new kind (comprehension?)] by a form of temporal disjunction. In Dostoevsky's plot the position is embodied in the brother Alyosha. This position is external to interpersonal or social interests, the point of isolation from habit and convention. It is not, however, a point of absolute ‘freedom' but one of relative freedom necessary to the change of relations making up the triad. One could make further analogy with Latham's later time-base ideas but it would be dangerous to take the analogy too far and over-emphasise the allegorical structure of the paintings.

The different spatial relations established by the presence and absence of sprayed line, tubes and wires connecting different apexes of the triangle, certainly derive some of their significance graphically from such allegory. However, to take this at face value and without the characteristic twist of significance in Latham's work would be a misunderstanding. The device of the work itself is a form of ‘observer'-like distancing which is meant to close off the different triadic relations by exposing their own means of allegory. The allegory is itself distanced by a reduction of the painterly spatial relations to the temporality of their production (as spray-painted marks). The individual assemblies of everyday objects making up a titled triangle are reduced within the whole painting event to concentrations of black paint (which implies a concentration of time and therefore, energy ...) In much the same way that Heidegger saw our expressions as beings of time both revealing and obscuring the overall structure of the world (Being), so Latham's ‘observer' paintings both reveal and obscure the allegory of the observer (p.30).

Latham has commented (note to compiler April 1988) that the Observer series ‘isn't intended as allegory but as geometry ("eventometry") of the three basic kinds of "person", viz "sensually undifferentiated", "reflective or intellectually observing" and intuitively open, e.g. Alyosha.'

In the catalogue for Latham's Tate Gallery exhibition Terry Measham wrote:

Latham's system emphasizes the importance of the observer role. The witnessing of events is a separate event in itself. In general terms that is a simple notion of relativism which is nevertheless surprising and illuminating. For example the art world got into a twist in the 50s about the ‘event' nature of Jackson Pollock's painting. Harold Rosenberg, the New York art critic, wrote of Action Painting that ‘what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event'. To which his reviewer, May McCarthy, gave her celebrated reply: ‘You cannot hang an event on the wall, only a picture.' Latham's solution to the puzzle is simple: making a picture is one event and showing it is another ... Latham's Observer principle, however, goes much deeper than commonsense relativism, valuable though that is. He distinguishes between two Observer positions: ‘Observer I' and ‘Observer 2' (These numerals are not to be confused with those which attach to the series of physical works carrying the title ‘Observer' which are numbered for ordinary catalogue differentiation). The two relative positions are described in a diagram ‘State of Mind' and now included in the revised version of Latham's paper ‘Time - Base and Determination in Events' which was specially redesigned for the Milan exhibition. For two representative photo-types of Observer, Latham seizes on Ivan and Alyosha from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, the intellectual, is compelled to order and classify. He observes but does not penetrate. Aloysha, on the other hand, is not only able to classify, but is able to observe himself classifying (pp.15-16).

In a letter to the Tate Gallery of 17 June 1985 Latham provided the following introduction (dated March 1985) to ‘Observer IV':

I would ask the Tate who else they consider to have defined the trajectory of art as left by Rauschenberg's blank Canvas as a Work, 1951, - this in consideration of the all round positions achieved by Duchamp and by Joyce ..?

It has been acknowledged by most of the conceptual and art-language artists of the late Sixties period that they picked up on the 1954 idiom [see John Latham, Event Structure, Calgary 1981, pp.7-17 and John Latham, Report of a Surveyor, Stuttgart and London 1984, pp.18, 22] and on the transposition to books, process sculpture. The work in MoMA New York [Museum of Modern Art, New York] that went alongside a Rauschenberg in 1961 functioned this way also in that area, while Art & Culture fitted the next generation without a moment's promotion either by a commercial interest or a dealer. The absence of comment on this pair of passes signifies a lot that confirms my theory, but the serious thing is that the public has missed out on the most important point in the whole trajectory. Who else has been in line?

The One Second Drawing and book relief series including OBSERVER IV defines a position anterior to distinctions (eg art, science, physical, mental etc.) and embodies all of them within a new dimensionality first verbally described in TBDE [Time-Base and Determination in Events] (Düsseldorf and Tate versions). The description has had to be given by myself, in the absence of a single informed commentator.

I find increasing evidence that this interpretation leads sciences. Cosmology as physical science lately propounded a mathematical reasoning that will fit the idea of the universe as an Insistently Recurrent accretive Event, where this is implicity in the form from the beginning, (is exemplified in Joyce and perhaps elsewhere) and where the accretive component is contradictory of the Laws (thermodynamics).

The total absence of comment on these developments has enabled other interests to fill the position otherwise vacant, that furthers the classical trajectory at the vanishing point. Were the public to be allowed proper access to and introduction about these effects there could not be such a desperate slide to ultimate fission in society ... Through APG (Artists Placement Group) there has been a strong beginning of potential influence or thinking in decision making. It has been actively opposed by the arts bodies inter alia. However, this has been carried out in the flawed framework, so it will be seen as mistaken. The Tate is asked to consider only art and artistic considerations, concerning the nature of extendedness, form, in-forming, and ordering. All these elements are together in the Event structure framework, apart and undefined in existing frames. The applicabilities will appear everywhere, after these first principles are understood. Every activity described in language will be re-presented in terms of event structure, and be enlarged.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.522-6

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