An Altoon Short Life

The Ferus Gallery gave Southern California modern art.

Intended by artist Ed Keinholz and curator Walter Hopps in 1957 as a “fuck you” to the East Coast idea that only New York knew anything about art, Ferus gathered together a bevy of avant-garde and modern LA and San Francisco names that made Los Angeles (and the rest of the country) take notice. A boy's club of testosterone and Type-A behavior, the gang—eye-rollingly nicknamed “the studs”—included John Baldessari, Llyn Foulkes, Wallace Berman, Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha, among others. Under director Irving Blum's visionary leadership, the gallery gave a number of heralded artists their first shows, including Pop Art legends Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns; Andy Warhol and his maverick soup cans had their first exhibition at the Ferus in 1962.

Crucial to the gallery's history, but missing in action for modern audiences, is abstract expressionist painter John Altoon, who, despite critical appreciation of his work, failed to reach the same level of success as his peers. Loved and applauded by his fellow artists, he was a man with a big appetite for women and wildness, but he struggled with schizophrenia and depression until his death from a heart attack at age 43.

The drawings and paintings in Laguna Art Museum's (LAM) visually diverse, though ultimately underwhelming, exhibition “John Altoon: Drawings and Prints” are meant to coincide with the larger retrospective of his work now at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The LAM show covers a transitional 14-year period in Altoon's career, a time when he left his friends in California, moved to New York, exhibited, studied in Europe, and then returned home. Trying to make ends meet on his way to a career as a fine artist, Altoon pimped out his substantial skills as a figurative artist by doing work for hire: He designed a handful of jazz-album covers for Chet Baker and others, drew political covers for Life magazine and sports imagery for others, as well as created sexually charged illustrations for men's magazines.

The first two drawings you see at the LAM show are modest chalk on paper. Altoon's ability to bring life to what would otherwise be a static drawing of a dog licking itself is remarkable: the wiggling black scratches vibrate with tension, the lines on top of lines are nervous bundles of musculature. The other (also from 1952) of a man holding a vaguely phallic newspaper, uses a similar bundle of squiggles and scrunched black to suggest the shifting of the body and shuffling of pages.

Jai alai, the fastest sport in the world, is the basis of two illustrations: The fierce black-and-white acrylic on board (circa 1957) shows the player with his back to us, his face hidden as he extends a cesta basket to catch, then hurl the pelota back into the game, his other arm in the air so that the figure fills one corner of the picture to the other. The color acrylic of another player features him rearing back as if to fend off an oncoming ball, the cesta relaxed at his side, contrasting the bent legs, crouch and twist of his torso amid bright blocks of bold purple, blue and violet. It's LeRoy Neiman with talent and without the bombasity.

Music is the inspiration of several others, with the feelings they recall ranging from the studied cool of Beat culture to the innocence of childhood to the emotional tug of war between music and memory: Jazz bands with black ties be-bop for an unseen audience; a young boy plays a saxophone for a gathering of animals; a violinist plays as a woman weeps and twirls behind him. Is she an abandoned muse, the inspiration for the sound? Someone at home, listening, lost to the song's power? We're left to create our own story.

Another figurative piece has a possible biographical aspect: a man in his underwear stretches for a bird (or plane) just out of his reach. While the image can certainly be looked at as aggressive, the ink-on-paper drawing has a palpable, naked vulnerability to it, especially if looked at in context with the artist's mental-health issues.

The remaining pieces are mostly abstract. The most memorable is the biomorphic—misshapen blobs that might be hearts, kidneys or stomachs—smack in the middle of Altoon's canvas, surrounded by white, held captive like specimens under a microscope; they don't offer much, even after an extended viewing.

Placing the work in the intimacy of the upstairs gallery was a smart choice by LAM curator Grace Kook-Anderson, underplaying its slightness, but the end result is that there's little here to inspire you to want to find out more about Altoon—or ask why it has taken almost 50 years for someone to consider his oeuvre worthy of a retrospective. It's simply an also-ran to the bigger (and far more interesting) exhibition in Los Angeles.


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