Like a flash he was gone. At the age of 44, John Altoon -- painter, gadabout, ruffian, lothario -- had died of a heart attack. Beloved by his colleagues and followers, Altoon existed in a fecund Los Angeles landscape populated by robust artists, but in actuality, he came first, carving paths into areas of art where there were none. Upon his death, he was summarily tucked away into the history books, blipping on the radar from time to time, while his contemporaries' -- like Richard Diebenkorn -- retrospectives traveled the world, and his friends from the Ferus Gallery like Robert Irwin and Ed Ruscha were canonized.
"The art world is a very enigmatic place," says Carol Eliel, the curator of Modern Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Altoon is getting a long-overdue survey in several galleries. "I think of someone like Ree Morton, for example, who disappeared off the radar screen, and it took her awhile to come back. People who die early suffer from that. He wasn't consistently being shown in Los Angeles, so the community that would have been receptive to the work was not able to see it on a regular basis."
But every once in awhile, it's as if Saint Anthony, the patron saint of finding lost things, unearths a few paintings, and a previously forgotten artist will become relevant again. Eliel describes stumbling across Altoon's work in shows at Los Angeles gallery The Box (owned by Mara McCarthy, daughter of Paul, a longtime admirer of Altoon's, who wrote an impressionistic poem in the front of the show's catalogue) and at Mary Boone Gallery in New York.
"Both of the shows were just incredibly rich," says Eliel. "The work is so complex and nuanced that it bears close and repeated looking. That was the moment when I thought, 'Wow, somebody needs to do a full-fledged retrospective of this artist.' And then I thought, 'Wow, that could be me.'"
The complexity of Altoon's work stems from its variety. Altoon started out working in advertising and painting jazz album covers for Pacific Jazz in the 1950s, which was the same activity Robert Irwin was doing at the time (Andy Warhol was also painting jazz covers, and though there's no evidence, Eliel cites a rumor that Altoon and Warhol worked simultaneously at the same ad agency). Though Eliel notes Altoon never actually equated painting to jazz musicianship, the carnal qualities of jazz would definitely permeate into Altoon's more overtly sexual works.
Later, while staying in New York, Altoon would come across Willem de Koonig's abstractions, which would develop into an idiosyncratic mixture of post-modern figurative paintings and drawings and semi-figurative abstractions.
It's interesting to note that Altoon was creating both the abstract work and the figurative work at the same time. There are the images Altoon hired a young Ed Ruscha to ink words onto, which subverted Colgate toothpaste advertisements. One image in particular ("Untitled (F-24)," 1962-63) shows a businessman swinging the door open to a coyly seductive woman partially undressed, with a nude woman hung on a cross sketched in the background. The text says, "WHO WON... when clinical testing compared Colgate Dental Cream with the most widely accepted fluoride toothpaste? YOUR FAMILY WON!" It's a sight gag, turning the banality of toothpaste into a sexually charged scene, and a self-fulfilling prophecy about sex selling much more than in the future of advertising.
In the same room as the Colgate drawings, hung next to each other in the show are two works from the same era, one a pastel featuring a woman with a man behind her -- both nude from the waist down -- holding a box of White Owl cigars ("Untitled (F-8)," 1962-63) and a colorful oil painting with amorphous shapes that resemble organs ("Untitled," c. 1964).
"There's all kinds of figuration that's bursting out of the abstractions," says Eliel. "There really is a remarkable compositional parallel between the two." Adding to the diversity of the artist's aesthetic dialect, Altoon's advertising background shows up prominently in his work. Take the cigar work, for instance. Though too sexualized to actually be an ad, the L.A. Times' Christopher Knight describes it as, "The cigar scene turns into an ad for post-coital relaxation."
Altoon was probably best known amongst his peers for his sexual frankness. His abstract paintings are populated by easy-to-spot, squishy genitalia. There are a few walls full of squiggly line drawings, mainly of nude women in various states of repose. All this came only a few years after Wallace Berman was arrested for having sexually explicit imagery deemed pornographic by the LAPD Vice Squad, landing him in jail.
"[Altoon's work] had an undercurrent of humor that made it a bit more palatable to people," says Eliel about how Altoon got away with the sexual undertones in his work during the fraught times.
The show flicks on a long-dormant light, illuminating a talented artist that lived in those times, an artist who briefly bequeathed upon history a few great paintings and drawings, and of course a full-size character. There were few artists then that were doing such distinct styles with the skill and élan Altoon was able to do each one. And for that, it's safe to say Altoon won't be forgotten again.