Finally...Altoon Gets His Due

Powerful work of Los Angeles artist John Altoon featured in first major retrospective
Haircut #2 and Untitled
Two pieces featured in LACMA's Altoon exhibition are 'Haircut
#2' (left - 1965) and 'Untitled' (circa 1964 - right).
(courtesy Estate of John Altoon)
Jazz Players
Altoon's 'Jazz Players' (1950).
(courtesy Estate of John Altoon)

'Los Angeles 1957' was a setting ripe for American avant-garde. The city was growing by leaps and bounds, architecturally too, including the striking new Capitol Records building. Fledgling artist Edward Kienholz co-founded the Ferus Gallery on La Cienaga Boulevard to help nurture and market the town's artistic growth, and a talented community blossomed from it.

One such artist was John Altoon, an L.A. native typified by a latter owner of the gallery as the one "closest in spirit" to that group's collective identity. Trained as a commercial artist in the city's best art schools—Otis, Chouinard, Art Center College of Design—Altoon exhibited at Ferus and was a central figure in that community.

Altoon had returned home in 1956 after four years studying with Abstract Impressionists in New York and one living in Europe. In the meantime, L.A. had lost a promising star from its signature industry in James Dean.

Los Angeles would likewise lose Altoon prematurely to a heart attack in 1969, three years after Ferus closed. Like Dean's limited body of work, Altoon's legacy in the art world is small but powerful, taking commercial and Abstract Expressionist influences to a place rarely visited by his peers.

Now, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is giving Altoon's work a stage it has lacked with the first major retrospective on this little known and somewhat controversial artist, running June 8 to September 14.

'John Altoon,' LACMA's exhibition of approximately 70 pieces of Altoon art on loan from various collections, tracks a life plagued by depression and schizophrenia through the man's work. Presented chronologically, it starts with a 1950 oil-on-masonite titled 'Jazz Players' and ends with an untitled drawing from 1968. Obvious highlights in between are three oils from three different museum collections drawn from Altoon's L.A. masterwork, the 18-painting Ocean Park series (1962).

Much of the art appearing in the LACMA's Altoon exhibition is also captured in the newly released hardcover book John Altoon. For more on the LACMA show, click here.