By many accounts, no one drew faster than John Altoon. Drawings stacked up in the artist’s studio, not so much by the pile but by the pallet, and he would destroy hundreds at a time. His line was twitchy, furious in its intent, and from it sexualized forms rose from the paper in thousands of slashes of thin ink and pastel. For many, Altoon, in his frenzies, was the symbol of bohemian freedom in 1960s Los Angeles. As his schizophrenia, diagnosed in his late 30s, turned into depression and paranoia, this freedom turned sinister. He was dead – from a heart attack – at the age of 43.
The survey at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), organized in conjunction with the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, draws together a well-edited but scattershot installation featuring a multitude of styles, false starts and strangely fresh achievements. Joining around 50 works on paper or board are 18 works on canvas, rather modest given the artist’s reputation for being prolific. This show marks something of a rediscovery of Altoon, and many of Los Angeles’ leading practitioners profess their love for the city’s consummate artist’s artist in the exhibition’s catalogue and wall texts. The result is dicey, an exhibition of wild intensity more convincing in its energy than in its arguments.
After an obligatory gallery of advanced juvenilia, one finds Altoon’s most synthesized and clear achievement, his ‘Ocean Park’ paintings (all 1962), named after the location of his studio at the time. In canvases such as Ocean Park Series #8 and Ocean Park Series #12, a brutal and vibrant confidence reigns: strides of unmixed colours strike against a void of white, morphing into plentiful orifices and penises. Laura Owens and Monique Prieto offer their thoughts on these paintings in the catalogue and rightly so: this comic world of sexual insouciance and off-kilter abstraction would inspire many artists to come.
What follows Ocean Park are frenetic drawings and paintings rendered in electric and often gaudy pastels – reminiscent of Cy Twombly as well as the schizophrenic graphic artist, Jim Woodring – in which breasts, genitalia and bodily organs literally become landscape, with each mountain and hill an opportunity for promiscuity and hedonistic fantasy. Altoon drew from advertising, pornography and fairy tales, and was often able to shock with images such as Untitled (1968), a princess in full coitus with a large toad.
There is a tension between Altoon’s achievement and his influence. Looking back through the formalist lens of abstraction being practiced in Europe and New York in the 1940s and ’50s, Altoon seems late to the surrealist and expressionist party and a bit derivative. The catalogue offers a balanced view of his debt to Willem De Kooning and his similarity to Arshile Gorky (with whom he shared Armenian heritage), but the fact is that Altoon owed too much.
However, if we look forward instead of back, to the future of art in LA., then Altoon is not only influential but a strange prophet. It would have been awkward, perhaps, for LACMA to have used the thesis of another institution in their effort to contextualize Altoon, but the artists in Paul Schimmel’s 1992 show ‘Helter Skelter’, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), are Altoon’s direct descendants. The MOCA show offered an alternative to the sunshine and paradise cliché of LA., tunneling into the violent subtexts and grotesque fantasies that still define LA.’s dark-side. Paul McCarthy, for instance, whose work was loaned to LACMA for the Altoon show, seems to burrow in the same psycho-sexual fairy tales that Altoon dreamed during the summer of love. Mike Kelley owned an Altoon work (also in the show), and when Altoon picked up an airbrush to offer contorted orifices and genitalia dancing across bright, colourful fields, it is hard not see a framework for Lari Pittman.
In June this year, Christopher Knight wrote in the Los Angeles Times that ‘For a brief, shining moment in the 1960s, John Altoon was the great American painter of the great American sexual revolution’. This may or may not be true. However, what we can see is that Altoon, through his illness and his life, marked a moment when LA.’s paradise was starting to turn sour, when the optimism of revolution met the stranglehold of the 1970s. Whatever one thinks of the work, Altoon was the augur of all that would come later in LA.