Los Angeles

John Altoon, Ocean Park Series #12, 1962, oil on canvas, 81 3/8 × 84". From “Ocean Park Series,” 1962.

John Altoon, Ocean Park Series #12, 1962, oil on canvas, 81 3/8 × 84". From “Ocean Park Series,” 1962.

John Altoon

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

John Altoon, Ocean Park Series #12, 1962, oil on canvas, 81 3/8 × 84". From “Ocean Park Series,” 1962.

Bare-chested on the dust jacket of The Holy Barbarians—Lawrence Lipton’s classic account of the Beat scene around Venice Beach, ca. 1959—John Altoon was cast as a ruffian, a role that stuck. His life was no doubt the stuff of legend, from his Hollywood marriages to his death from a heart attack at a party in 1969 at the age of forty-three—to say nothing of the mental hospitals or his antics in the company of Edward Kienholz, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, and other Ferus Gallery “Studs” in between. But to promulgate the glib cultural ethnography such details suggest is to disregard the work Altoon produced in just a decade of active engagement, from the late ’50s until his death. Although Altoon’s work has increasingly been exhibited in recent years, especially since a 1997 survey mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, this traveling retrospective, organized by Carol S. Eliel at LACMA (and currently on view at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University through December 21), is the first to bring major attention to the artist’s oeuvre. Eliel has done Altoon a massive service in making the works themselves—eighteen paintings and fifty drawings—the show’s great subject. If anything, the words of Paul McCarthy, Monica Majoli, Laura Owens, and Monique Prieto quoted on gallery walls and in the accompanying catalogue partly occlude the persona of Altoon: The considered responses of these artists foreground his influence through what he made, not how he lived.

Altoon himself held de Kooning—and Arshile Gorky—in high esteem; the show made this clear by opening with Altoon’s Mother and Child, 1954, which can easily be seen as a kind of dual homage. While themes and iconography—prurient cartoons and genitalia-laden, candy-colored biomorphic fantasies—overlap in Altoon’s early expressionist paintings, ink illustrations, and drawings, the exhibition’s juxtapositions of media here made evident both how fluid his mark-making is in each particular register and how difficult it seems to have been for him to translate one mode into the other. There is, for example, a man with a buoyant erection reaching out like a doubting Thomas to touch the nipple of a female companion in the ink, watercolor, and airbrushing on illustration board Untitled, 1966; in a telling passage, the lines forming her contour and delineating his finger abut in a single unarticulated dark mark where he reaches his target. Other paintings allow glimpses of emergent forms that, like de Kooning’s, slip back into the pigment from which they are produced. Some oils on darker backgrounds stage such becomings, while others, especially the “Ocean Park Series” pieces from 1962, produce them more casually, almost as a matter of course.

Perhaps befitting a show addressing such a short career, there was not so much a sense of resolution here as one of reconciliation. Altoon had by the mid-’60s seized the airbrush to produce works that brought line and color together, even if, as in the above example, they touch rather than fully interpenetrate. While his calligraphy remains, these later pieces also allow for tricks unburdened by gesture. In another untitled work of 1966, the airbrush conjures gradients of color and shadow in would-be abstract fields while also evoking a more literal (if no less fantastical) field interrupted by forms that resemble paths and breasts sprouting from a fertile ground. Though bosoms, ladies naked from the waist down, and male buffoons are the stuff of Altoon’s world, what’s truly at stake here are his materials: slick oils, effervescent pastels, and airbrush pigment. In an interview produced for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, former Ferus principal Irving Blum recounts an incident in which Altoon took a knife and followed him to the back of his gallery, whereupon the artist slashed his own paintings into ribbons. It is known that he destroyed many pieces. LACMA’s spacious and considered hang gave weight to each remaining work, a convincing display not only of Altoon’s prodigious facility but also of the gravity and the aspirations of his project. It just happens that such efforts sometimes took the guise of a male organ gamely perched atop a roller skate.

Suzanne Hudson