New York

John Altoon

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

John Altoon’s short career offers near-perfect fodder for art-historical mythmaking. It contains all the ingredients of a durable fable: a fiery personality (he fought mental illness, often trashing his own work and threatening to destroy that of others); right-time-right-place fortune (late 1950s Los Angeles, coming into its own as an art community); the esteem and affection of fellow travelers (among them Ed Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, and others in the Ferus Gallery stable, of which he was a stalwart); and an early death at age forty-three in 1969 (due to a heart attack). True to parable form, redemption follows years of posthumous obscurity except among West Coast cognoscenti. A swell of scholarly and institutional attention to postwar LA over the past decade or so has renewed interest in many of the period’s artists, including Altoon, who seems finally to be getting his critical due—a retrospective in San Diego in 1997 and two New York solo shows in three years, this one the most recent.

Two paintings and a pastel, all large scale and hung together in a side gallery, provided a glance at Altoon’s early-’60s style, a vestigial Abstract Expressionism filtered through LA’s cotton-candy palette by way of the Bay Area. Untitled (Hyperion Series), 1963–64, features two quasi-organic masses, apparently on the verge of coupling and coalescing into form, hovering against an allover violet encrustation. The bulk of the exhibition, however, was work on paper. By the mid-’60s the artist was painting fewer canvases, producing instead scores of ink, watercolor, pastel, and graphite drawings on the big illustration boards he had used in a series of intermittent advertising jobs. Eighteen of these, executed between 1966 and 1968, filled the main space with a phantasmagoria of sexual dissipation and Rabelaisian humor.

Altoon was a masterful draftsman, and the number of works on view afforded a thorough reckoning of his restive, quivering line, used variously to streak, hatch, dash, dot, smudge, shade, and shadow. A few continue the abstract biomorphic lyricism of his earlier work, but most are cartoonlike vignettes of men and women, absent their clothing and their wits, in alfresco romps with one another and with sundry animals. Here a frog, suckling a woman’s breast (ANI [Frog #5], 1968), there a pair of buxom ladies, who appear to be watering a yellow rose that crowns the hypertrophied penis of their consort (F-24, 1966). Picasso’s erotic sketches are a clear referent, so too the dream-like transmogrifications of the Surrealists: Knees look like nipples, bottoms like bosoms, noses like phalli. For all of their graphic density, the drawings feel spare, which renders their bawdiness all the franker; figures are surrounded by expanses of white board, and color is used frugally, in mists of druggy pastels applied with an airbrush (a nod, perhaps, to the finish fetish of contemporaries such as Craig Kauffman).

It will be ever difficult—and is perhaps not even desirable—to untangle Altoon’s personal history from his art. (That these drawings were made while he underwent intensive psychotherapy, for example, goes some way toward accounting for their freewheeling, free-associative ribaldry.) Yet the reward of this show was that seeing the work in depth had the surprising and salutary effect of making his life feel less proximate to it. Altoon’s conjured world, screwball and fantastic, revealed itself to be as compelling a subject as his biography.

Lisa Turvey