John Altoon: Little-known giant, now at LACMA

John Altoon, LACMA

John Altoon in his studio, ca. 1968. John Altoon, LACMA, Los Angeles. (Image courtesy Getty and Joe Goode)

The work of John Altoon is anything but innocuous, yet its playfulness can lead you to think otherwise. His paintings and works on paper burst with color; his ink drawings sizzle. Looking at Altoon’s work is a bit like walking through a fun house: some images are abstract and distorted; others are crystal clear. It’s a successful retrospective that makes you wonder “What’s next?” each time you shift left or right. There’s candy on every wall.

John Altoon, LACMA

John Altoon, Ocean Park Series, 1962, oil on canvas. John Altoon, LACMA, Los Angeles. (Image courtesy Orange County Museum of Art)

John Altoon, LACMA

John Altoon, Untitled (F-8), 1962-63, pastel on illustration board. John Altoon, LACMA, Los Angeles. (Image courtesy Estate of John Altoon and The Box)

John Altoon, an exhibition organized by LACMA and the Rose Art Museum (Brandeis University), is the artist’s first major retrospective. Altoon died young, at age 43, and his brief career has made him easy to overlook. But he is important. The vinyl quotations on LACMA’s gallery walls, with quotes from big names like Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston, are testament to his impact. Many referenced his uncanny ability to fluidly traverse figuration and abstraction; one friend called him the fastest draftsman you will ever meet. Indeed his quick, impassioned lines are electrifying; they enliven every room. I spent one minute following the curls and intersections of a single eye.

Another signature are his phalli, which range from conspicuous to not; some materialize only after a few moments of looking. F-24 (the F refers to “figurative”) is a blend of Pop Art and personal touch: a soda can pours out a stream of sludge, the color of body fluid, catching a phallus in its wake. It is playful, grotesque, and strangely erotic– an effect that, combined with his distinctive use of line, are quintessentially Altoon.

John Altoon, LACMA

John Altoon, Untitled (F-24), 1962-63. John Altoon, LACMA, Los Angeles. (Image courtesy Estate of John Altoon and The Box)

John Altoon is on view at LACMA through September 14, 2014.

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