New York

John Altoon

Edward Thorp Gallery

Henry Geldzahler’s recent exhibition “Underknown,” at P.S.1 last fall, was another example of the current trend of reevaluating artists who didn’t quite achieve major recognition during their lifetime, or slid into obscurity after death. The absence of the Los Angeles abstractionist John Altoon from the show was symptomatic of his continued neglect by the East Coast establishment. Although Altoon’s drawings and prints were the subject of a posthumous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 (Altoon died in 1969, aged 44), his paintings remain more or less unknown in New York. Always restless and willing to experiment with new techniques and materials, drawing for Altoon was “anything except oil on canvas”; as a result, the volume and range of his drawings have tended to overshadow his accomplishment as a painter.

This recent exhibition was a minisurvey of Altoon’s paintings from the last decade of his life. Unlike many of the abstract artists who emerged in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Altoon never completely broke with the tenets of Abstract Expressionism. His antiformalist stance, and his refusal to settle into a signature style, have been perceived by some as a sign of sloppy thinking, but one could as appropriately remark that instead of becoming reductive and formalist, he explored a wide range of possibilities.

An untitled work from around 1960 is a thickly painted allover field in which shapes and ground interact with a tenacious violence. Paint strokes change direction suddenly and aggressively. Clearly, Altoon envisioned the act of painting as a way of simultaneously striving for Dionysian release and achieving an identity. His approach during this period parallels Willem de Kooning’s direction in his abstract landscapes from the late ’50s.

By the early ’60s Altoon has evolved another approach. Instead of working and reworking the paint he lays down a thin, scumbled surface. Employing patches of color and lines to interact with the atmospheric ground, he depicts genitalialike shapes and biomorphic forms like Arshile Gorky’s, but where Gorky’s shapes are attenuated and nervous, Altoon’s vocabulary is sad, funny, and bewildered. The emotionality and wit of these imaginative works set them apart from most of the abstraction of the time. Needless to say, Altoon’s iconoclastic approach fared far better in California than it did in New York.

In Haircut #2, ca. 1965, Altoon depicts both a representational image—a rooster—and a hippopotamuslike biomorphic shape. Image, shape, and ground are scumbled and patchy. Haircut #2 doesn’t fit into anything going on in the mid ’60s; it is both a remarkably individualistic accomplishment and a prefiguring of artists such as Elizabeth Murray. The work is potent with possibilities, and it seems certain that Altoon would have explored them further had he lived longer.

John Yau