San Francisco

John Altoon

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

An exhibition of paintings and graphics by John Altoon organized by Gerald Nordland for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was shown there during December and at the Pasadena Art Museum in January. Fifty out of the 66 items which comprised this exhibition were graphics executed during 1966 and 1967, and of this 50, 35 were works in ink and watercolor on board from the Harper Series (Artforum Vol. V, No. 6). A mere scattering of 16 works in various media from Altoon’s prolific output between, and inclusive of, the years 1959 and 1965, was shown in an adjoining gallery, presumably to supply the interested viewer unfamiliar with Altoon’s earlier work with a synoptical retrospective context for the artist’s recent trends.

In the Harper Series Altoon sometimes engages in hilarious spoofs with flippantly drawn phallic-biomorphic imagery, but often, too, he succeeds in conjuring inexplicably comical, wholly abstract cartoon-fantasies in which enigmatically absurd shapes seem incongruously animate and interinvolved, producing the effect of comic-strip slapstick entirely without direct representational allusions. Part of the trick, no doubt, is a phenomenon of oblique reference inherent in Altoon’s employment of shapes and linear devices borrowed from familiar conventions of comicstrip draftsmanship, heavily invested with slapstick associations (as for example a link sausagelike columnar shape with zigzag and/or loop scribble-hatching: a common hieroglyph in old comic strips for rising smoke, frequently placed over a head as an ideogram for “exasperation”). In a series of drawings designated as Satires (1967), Altoon’s wit takes a more explicit and sardonic turn, exploring a cartoon mythology of human and zoomorphic figurative themes with allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Aesop’s Fables.

Palmer D. French