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It is fitting that the first major retrospective of John Altoon’s work takes place in his hometown, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), since the show’s assembly necessitated considerable sleuthing by curator Carol S. Eliel, often with the aid of Altoon’s Los Angeles-based contemporaries. John Altoon, a compact show featuring eighteen works on canvas and fifty on paper or board, fills five galleries of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum and offers the first comprehensive look at the artist’s prolific oeuvre, or what remains of it (Altoon destroyed much of what he made during the short period in which he worked). That it was also shown at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum is fortunate, increasing the artist’s exposure on both coasts. Following his early and untimely death at the age of forty-three in 1969, Altoon slipped from prominence, though shows at The Box in Los Angeles (2008 and 2010) and Mary Boone in New York (2009)—which in fact impelled Eliel to mount the LACMA retrospective—have put his work on view in recent years. (Another, smaller show of graphite drawings at Samuel Freeman in Los Angeles ran concurrent with LACMA’s, from May 31–July 5, 2014.) Thematic exhibition catalogues and anthologies tend to feature two bodies of Altoon’s work: his brightly colored biomorphic abstractions and his so-called satires and nightmares from the mid-1960s. The LACMA show is revelatory, in part, for bringing to light Altoon’s late 1950s expressionistic painting and especially his early 1960s illustration work, the latter of which emerges in the LACMA installation as a mid-career fresh start as well as a bridge between Altoon the painter and Altoon the prodigious draftsman.
The first and earliest works in the retrospective, dating from 1950–61, show Altoon wrestling with the legacies of modernism: fracturing and rearranging forms on the picture plane, working through Abstract Expressionist mythology, and testing the consistency of paint through techniques like scumbling. Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, David Smith, and Clyfford Still are all evident here. By 1961 Altoon sped up the application of paint; a suite, including Trio, Trip Series (1961), evinces his quick work with vibrant gouache passages outlined in scrawled pastel and suspended against the blank ground of the paper or illustration board.
This white ground opens directly onto Altoon’s Ocean Park paintings of 1962, a series of eighteen canvases that he completed in less than a year immediately following the Venice relocation of his studio. A sense of place is palpable, though the forms are largely abstract; one grey-green form reads as a seagull, bulbous turquoise zones as succulents, and blobs with yellow tendrils appear, variously, as a sun setting or hovering directly overhead. In Altoon’s final engagement with Abstract Expressionism, speed, virtuosity, and intensity are apparent both in the roughly, often incompletely painted chalky ground and the paint spatters atop it. It is as if the canvas was thrown into a centrifuge and spun until the forms’ surfaces ruptured and spewed out droplets of color; Ocean Park Series #12 (1962), with its flecks of yellow and green, is a prime example. In an inspired description of Altoon’s biomorphic forms, artist Monique Prieto likens the visual effects of this velocity to “insects flattened on the windshield, splattered just to the edge of recognition” (quoted in the exhibition catalogue, 38).
By this point in his career, Altoon was central among the artists at Ferus Gallery, that hotbed of avant-garde activity on La Cienega Boulevard opened by Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz in 1957. Kienholz’s replacement the following year by the young, suave, ambitious Irving Blum signaled a divarication in the Los Angeles art scene between the Beat and jazz sensibility of Wallace Berman’s art and poetry journal, Semina, and the cooler, cleaner aesthetic of the up-and-coming Ferus stable. Altoon seems to have deftly, and singularly, navigated both subcultures. One of his ink drawings appeared in the second issue of Semina, for example, and, from 1956–57, he both designed jazz LP covers and allowed designer William Claxton to reproduce his paintings for the same purpose. Barefaced and cross-legged on a communal mattress, Altoon further emblematized the beatnik lifestyle when he graced the dust jacket of Lawrence Lipton’s book The Holy Barbarians (New York: Julian Messner) of 1959. But Altoon was equally at ease with the bright palette and Pop imagery of his early 1960s work, and his larger-than-life persona gained him fame within the Southern California art scene. Indeed, Altoon emerges not only as a bridge but also as an anchor for Ferus; Hopps recalls that the financial success of the artist’s drawings kept the gallery afloat and even enabled it to mount additional shows (Walter Hopps, “Cry Me a Little Basket of Tears,” The Astonishing Work of John Altoon, New York: Nyehaus and Monacelli Press, 2013, 62).
Altoon was trained as an illustrator (he studied at Otis Art Institute from 1947–49, Art Center College of Design from 1949–50, and Chouinard Art Institute in 1950), and among the greatest revelations of John Altoon are his 1962–64 inks on illustration board. These include a send-up of a Dior fashion ad, a jocose reimagination of JFK’s assassin on the cover of LIFE, and a sexually fraught twist on a Colgate spread. Their scale (sixty by forty inches each) links the artist’s illustrations to his paintings simply by fact of his studio practice: size alone necessitated that Altoon work his drawings upright, on an easel, rather than flat, as is customary. His facility to draw big is clear here: the marks are put down confidently and quickly. Unlike many commercial illustrators, Altoon worked at full scale, opting not to use a projector to enlarge his work.
Untitled (F-28) (ca. 1962–63)—the number here relates to an identification system posthumously devised by the artist’s estate, with “F” indicating “figure”—is the most fascinating of this series. In it, a woman clad only in lingerie and heels stands behind a crouching telephone technician, who, fumbling, uncomfortably glances down at his screwdriver. Above this domestic interior, lettering appended by Ed Ruscha brings the viewer up to speed: “Here is one repairman who doesn’t send a bill!” Rainbow pastels propel the eye toward two paintings hanging behind the woman. Altoon slyly comments on the state of contemporary painting; not only are these representations of canvases by the abstract painters Morris Louis and Wolfgang Hollegha, both then at the height of their fame, but Altoon’s composition is based directly on a Hans Namuth photograph of the famed critic Clement Greenberg’s apartment that appeared in Vogue, right down to the profile of the couch (“Private Lives—With Art: A Famous Art Critic’s Collection,” Vogue [January 15, 1964]: 92–95). (If Namuth took the photograph the same year it was published—1964—that would warrant a re-dating of Untitled (F-28), and it would align this illustration with Altoon’s work as a life drawing teacher at the Pasadena Art Museum, a post Hopps hired him to fill just after becoming director.)
In this context, the stripes that appear throughout Altoon’s output present themselves as markers of self (his iconic striped trousers), site (associations with Santa Monica Pier and the carnivalesque, including beach towels and surfboards), and an acute awareness of his own art-historical moment (dominated by monumental, East Coast abstract painting). If Altoon is hard to place canonically, it is not for ignorance of what was happening around him. In a style antithetical to the formalist concerns of the Color Field painters Greenberg so ardently championed, Altoon’s imagery in Untitled (F-28) carries connotations of mixed messages and severed communication. From 1962, then, Altoon is shown to be a keen critic of contemporaneous culture (both of the “popular” and “high art” varieties), right at the point when large-scale abstraction was at its apex and, simultaneously, Pop emerged as a cohesive phenomenon. (It was also in 1962 that Blum staged Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol’s first solo exhibition on the West Coast, at Ferus.) There is no doubt as to where Altoon’s sympathies lay.
If Altoon’s magazine sources tie his illustrations to the specific temporality of their making, what comes after is untethered to time. As archetypes of a shared cultural language, characters from children’s tales crop up throughout the works in LACMA’s last two galleries; in Jim’s Fancy (1966), a puffy pink house with a curling green chimney appears alongside a gooey cookie and what resembles the back half of a four-legged animal, recalling Little Red Riding Hood (or is it Hansel and Gretel?). In 1967, Altoon began a suite of drawings loosely derived from another Grimm fairy tale, The Princess and the Frog, and the year after, he started his Cowboys and Indians series. Everywhere, narrative is infused with sexual energy (a blonde maiden, legs spread, pulls a Native American chief toward her, while in another work—from 1968, one of the latest in the show—a frog seems simultaneously to be pleasuring and springing from a reclining figure’s groin). In some cases, the explicitness of the work seems directly related to the energy of Altoon’s line, as demonstrated by an untitled watercolor and ink sketch from 1967 in which a prepubescent girl, delicately sketched, stands awash in a field of warm pinks. A gnarly phallic form—drawn with a line so erratic it seems to writhe with electrical current—lurks behind, aimed directly at her head.
While these last illustrated series hint at narrative, they ultimately frustrate it, leaving the viewer unable to divine a coherent story. Some commentators point to Altoon’s unstable psychological state and therapy sessions with Milton Wexler to explain such content. Yet Altoon was simultaneously, and continually, painting large-scale, biomorphic abstractions (ones like Untitled #26 of 1964–65, from the Sunset series), which present a similar conundrum. In bringing together such an extensive number of works, the LACMA exhibition enables the beholder to identify and trace Altoon’s unique abstract language—forms like spades, hands, hooks, and organs of respiratory or circulatory systems—across paintings and years, which likewise suggests an ever-elusive narrative. While Altoon’s drawings stand as the most brilliant component of his oeuvre, as well as his site of experimentation, that is not to say less of the paintings, which are masterful in their own right. After all, Altoon’s aspiration, as early as his years in New York, was to be a painter above all else.
John Altoon proves itself a significant and overdue assessment of a figure whose often-inaccessible work caused him to fade prematurely from art-historical discourse. The reproductions in the LACMA catalogue alongside those of Nyehaus’s recently published volume, The Astonishing Works of John Altoon—which also offers valuable archival material—are welcome additions that will enable further analysis of the artist. Altoon left indelible marks, literally and metaphorically, and LACMA has done well to unearth them.
PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
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