PRINT February 1967

John Altoon

JOHN ALTOON’S RATHER ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST pen and ink drawings with watercolor are spirited manifestations of a rich and fantastic inner world, filled with almost Surrealist inhabitants who float through light and air. The drawings are compelled by a primitive energy which bursts through his forms and colors, and then is formalized, distilled by the large white space of the canvas. Faultless in their draftsmanship, they are immediate, paintings of a moment, jarring in their visual impact, and beautiful.

The exhibition in Los Angeles’s David Stuart Gallery featured the Harper Series of 1966, in which the images evolve in the center of a large white background which provides the formal setting and boundary. Certain images, like the phallus, reoccur in different forms and settings, so that many of the pictures are like phallic fantasies, executed with an airy exuberance. The wriggly lines of the hatched phalluses, which are bound like a sandaled foot, play out these wide awake dreams. The earlier pictures of this series are infused with deep color tones and bright pinks, purples and greens—such as the one which is like a portrait of a phallus rising from a pair of pink shoulders. Behind the portrait are small circular aqua lights which diffuse away from their deeper center. They are like neon lights, but delicate, even beautiful.

There is a particularly ingenious picture which is the emanating point for the other works. An abstracted lower half of a three-footed man is represented with a cruciform at the crotch and a bishop’s mitre as its crowned forest. A red outline of a heart squared at the bottom envelops it. A cock-like bird flies above.

It is not that these pictures are just richly imaginative, moving and private, ingenious and droll, they are also powerful—from the theme and structure of the phallic portrait, to the cruciform crotch, to a beautiful over-ripe flower in reprobate pastel tones which seems to blossom from a framed phallus.

There are seven powerful figurative pen and ink drawings (some with color) in which Altoon reveals the meanness, violence, and obsessions of the middle class, reminiscent in this respect, of Daumier. But Altoon does not really stand as a critic or judge who accuses but rather as one who examines with acumen and humor. The images are ruthlessly vivid, biting, and funny, but not accusing. The sensual dream appears small but articulated in the hand of the protagonist in Any Family Perhaps on Sunday while the wife is with her dog and the daughter plays at tennis like a dog in heat. In Isolation Ward two men (all the figures are naked in these revealing characterizations) stand with hatchets raised overhead and chip at a large ice cube in which sits a brooding fellow human. These are desperate portrayals of people who can react only violently or lewdly.

Judith Wechsler