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John Altoon--the guy on the motorcycle--was a star at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery on North La Cienega from 1957 to 1966. Now shuttered, Ferus was the incubator for modern art on the West Coast and helped launch the careers of international art stars like Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Above, Altoon with (clockwise from top right) artist Billy Al Bengston, gallerist Irving Blum and artist Ed Moses.
Ocean Park Series #12 (1962) is one of a group of oils on canvas Altoon named after the Ocean Park neighborhood where he lived in Santa Monica. He painted abstract interpretations of fish, the sea and the sky using fast, intuitive strokes.
This untitled oil from 1962 shows Altoon’s facility with color-blocking and negative space, concepts he’d learned in his previous career as a commercial illustrator.
Untitled (Paris: Dior Evenings) (circa 1962-63) combines ink, pastel and airbrushing on illustration board. Its risqué subject matter reflects Altoon’s edgy yet witty personality, as well as his reputation as a ladies’ man.
This untitled work from Altoon’s 1964 “Hyperion” series (again, named for the location it was painted, when the artist lived on Hyperion Avenue) is an example of his use of glowing color and shapes that look like organs and other body parts.
John Altoon suffered from depression for much of his life, until he came under the care of prominent psychoanalyst Dr. Milton Wexler, who restored his ability to work, in the early 1960s.
Untitled (ABS-50), 1966.
Altoon was influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and ’50s, which he was exposed to as a student at Los Angeles art schools including Otis Art Institute and Art Center College of Design.
John Altoon in his studio. Sadly, when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1969, he had recently married and purchased a new building in which to work. To learn more about Altoon’s outsized personality--and influence on his fellow artists--watch the 2008 PBS documentary The Cool School, which details the Ferus Gallery and its artists.
What’s not to love about tales of Los Angeles in the Swinging Sixties? (Hello, groovy Laurel Canyon pop stars!) Well, here’s a doozy: John Altoon, arguably the greatest painter in the city’s then-nascent modern art scene, died of a heart attack at 43, making him just a footnote in L.A.’s art history.
That is, until now. Altoon will finally get his close-up courtesy of LACMA, when it debuts the first major retrospective of his work on Sunday. We’re fascinated by both the man, who was a charismatic schizophrenic, and his art, which is full of bold colors and biomorphic shapes.
We expect this show to be cocktail-party chatter all summer long, so click here to see a preview.
“John Altoon,” through September 14 at LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; 323-857-6000 or lacma.org
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