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John Altoon: Paintings and Works on Paper 1963-1968


John Altoon, 1966,
John Altoon, 1966, "F-24," 30" x 40", ink, watercolor/board.

John Altoon (1925-1969) was said to be a boozing, boisterous braggart with reckless intensity and an appetite for destruction. Imposing, swarthy, and diagnosed as schizophrenic in his late 30s, he was plagued by bouts of depression, paranoia, and manic episodes that often turned caustic and ugly, at times involving the destruction of his own work. He died young, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Somehow in this romantic maelstrom he was able to produce paintings and drawings that have congealed into his artistic legacy—an uneasy, searching beauty that’s fascinating to see nearly forty years after the artist’s death.

This exhibition, which opened the Mary Boone Gallery’s new Fifth Avenue location, was curated by Klaus Kertess and focuses on paintings and works on paper from 1963 to 1968. His mental health problems aside, Altoon was an important character in the Los Angeles art scene of the 1950s and ’60s. His unruly personality and enthusiasm energized the circle of artists associated with the Ferus Gallery, a nexus of L.A. avant-gardism that included such still-influential figures as Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, and Ed Ruscha. Irving Blum, partner in the gallery, recalled, “If the gallery was closest in spirit to a single person, that person was John Altoon—dearly loved, defiant, romantic, highly ambitious—and slightly mad.” After completing art school in Los Angeles, Altoon moved to New York where he spent the next four years (1951-55) earning his generational rite of passage through the New York School of painters and their Abstract Expressionist practice. But Altoon walked away from it, sojourning to Europe for a year, and then returning to his native Los Angeles where he found the space to pursue his restless artistic thoughts.

The work in this show is from that time in the artist’s life, and it provides a compelling narrative of how one artist found his way out of the dominant mode of the day. Many would do it, but Altoon’s example shows someone working at the fringes with ephemeral essentials. He invoked the phantoms of semiautomatic imagery—vaguely figurative, organic forms imbued with surrealist absurdity—while lacing the whole project with a Southern Californian vibe: a funky palette of sunflower, crimson, pumpkin, morning-glory, pale flesh, and mustard ocher--. There are only two paintings in this show, both from 1964. In “Untitled” (Hyperion Series) (1963-64) two mutant shapes, one resembling a vaguely bovine creature, the other a pig, float hazily in a murky ether of crimson-blue pigment. These central forms oscillate between image and abstraction with fresh visual buoyancy. It’s a barnyard logic where the bulbous and lumpy intersect, where fleshy pinks and lime greens jostle with their muddy surroundings in static hilarity.

It’s Altoon’s drawings (which make up the bulk of this exhibition with 18 works) that show a truly bizarre, perverse, and innovative side of the artist. Mists of color applied with an airbrush play around the drawings’ quivering, physically intuitive line. The austere detachment of color mixes strangely and effortlessly with Altoon’s shaky, elegant hand. The combination perfectly serves the content. Loosely referred to as “satires” or “nightmares,” these strangely figurative pieces depict intimate, erotic fantasies and ambiguous ceremonial situations that lay bare the foibles of the human condition. It’s here that toads peek out of vaginas and women anoint the erect penis of a musketeer with malt liquor. Where Saturn, perched on a crescent moon, devours the foot of his child, ogled by a fat trout and a naked idiot.

Asinine and intelligent, crude and elegant, amusing and disturbing; in short, they’re an uneasy fusion of the high and low so often found in American art. Phillip Guston did it too, at about the same time as Altoon, when he turned away from the purely abstract toward the narrative and its latent, cloudy morality. Theirs was a remarkable achievement that influences painting in this city to this day. But where Guston employed a crude cartoon styling of Americana channeled through R. Crumb, Krazy Kat, and the Ku Klux Klan, Altoon turned toward a different America, where anxiety and violence are replaced by the carnivalesque, grotesque sexual repression, and base instincts. It’s the kind of masked, freakish morality extending from James Ensor through bathroom stall scratchings. It’s where we can’t help but bet the devil our head and romp arm-in-arm with our old friend, the giggling little imp of the perverse.


Craig Olson

Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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