Untitled, (Haircut #2)
Oil on canvas
60″ x 56″
Hratch and Helga Sarkis © 2014 Estate of John Altoon
Photo: courtesy Museum Associate/LACMA

If an éminence grise can be not just an old but a ghostly presence, the Los Angeles art world’s is -was- John Altoon. Until his death, at age 43, in 1969, Altoon, the baddest dude in the Ferus Gallery stable, was the dynamic presence around whom his friends, his peers, his acolytes, and his dealers all revolved. In a scene notable for its craggy, ornery (and, yes, macho) individualists, from Kienholz to Bengston to Foulkes, Altoon was the toughest, craziest, most contradictory of them all. Yet he was also the most romantic, about life and art equally. Altoon was so uncool he was cool.

All this passion, to our never-ending benefit, inheres in Altoon’s artwork. After all, he was living in order to produce art, and his visual vocabulary erupted and metamorphosed in parallel to his life, right down to the fact that his style (or at least, his abstract style) would change noticeably every time he moved studios. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Altoon retrospective relies on this fact to clarify his evolution, and to take note as well of his willingness to work abstractly and figuratively at the same time, although his representational work was even less orthodox than his abstraction.

Altoon was a professional illustrator, and not only had a command of representation, in particular the human figure, but was attuned to the stylizations of his era’s commercial culture. These influences found their way into Altoon’s figurative art, especially in the 1960s, as the rise of Pop emboldened his use of advertising formats and tropes. If he had been in New York, he would have been more a Mad Man than the madman he was. But even had he plied his trade(s) in the world’s art capital, as he tried in the early ’50s, Altoon would have identified with the Action painters who influenced him rather than the Pop artists who came afterward.

Altoon was never a Pop artist per se; his Abstract Expressionist aesthetic, and ethos, kept him raw. He was close with Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha-even employing Ruscha to do lettering in several large pieces-but was unwilling or unable to produce the kind of emblematic, cerebral imagery they were producing. Altoon’s insistence on working in two modes at once&ndashand in tweaking the niceties of both-made his audience nervous. But he did both so well, so wonderfully and so wackily, and was such an expansive, obviously brilliant, restless soul that he was able to attract rather than repel a diverse cross-section of LA artsters-never mind that his figurative work, and even some of his abstract, brimmed with rudely, riotously erotic reference.

Ocean Park Series #8
Oil on Canvas 81 1⁄2″ x 84″
Norton Simon Museum anonymous gift
© 2014 Estate of John Altoon

There was a greater tolerance in Los Angeles than in New York for both abstraction and figuration; the art scene here was simply too small to segregate into ideological camps. But Altoon was one of the very few artists who did both, and with unusual deftness and eloquence. Perhaps it was deftness OR eloquence-while his nervous, tightly meandering line invariably displays a virtuoso’s touch, Altoon handled paint as if he were struggling with brush, medium, and canvas alike, seeming to haul paint to surface with great effort and employ even more labor in getting it to conform to his odd, voluptuous formal vocabulary, almost as if the paint itself were resisting his perversity. Many of Altoon’s paintings seem at least a bit unfinished; their burgeoning shapes and sour-candy colors need the compositional breathing room, as he recognized. But for all the splashed and scumbled paint, there is a lot of space where the eye comes to rest (or, worse, is met by a shimmer of spray-painted-spray-painted!-detail) and isn’t sure where to go next.

Still, this awkwardness seems right, and certainly in tune with Altoon’s gruff, mocking, ribald humor. The figure&ndashground relationships he establishes so starkly in his paintings of the ’60s subtly mimic both Old Master portrait formulas and those employed in the rendering (drawn or photographed) of his era’s pin-ups and porn shots. Altoon’s abstract images look like objects of desire-except when they look like equally fleshy objects doing the desiring.

The retrospective’s selection of paintings and abstract drawings favors the 1960s, when Altoon was working like this and also when he was allowing himself to produce his most overtly figurative work, so it paints him as something of a sex maniac. Maybe he was, at least in the last decade of his life-a decade during which it seemed all of Western society was obsessed with sex. Only the first room of the show provides much of a look at Altoon’s pre-’60s work, displaying several figural paintings from the early ’50s (one a product of his New York stay, influenced equally by de Kooning and Rico Lebrun) and hardly more from his first mature period later in that decade. During this period-in which a striped motif recurs in painting after painting, echoing, as curator Carol Eliel notes, the vertically striped Italian pants Altoon favored for much of his life-the artist, back from New York and Europe (where he’d had a nervous breakdown), struggled both with inner demons and doubts about his painting. The all-too-few examples at LACMA, scraped and twisted, bristle with an almost insomniac energy bordering on panic and rage. Next to these, Altoon’s work of the following decade, for all its erotic insistence, seems confident, fluid, very funny, frequently beautiful, and occasionally even glib and snarky. The contrast is telling.

Altoon didn’t get his demons under control until the mid-’60s, undergoing various treatments that took the edge of his bipolarity (but may also have contributed to his early death from a massive heart attack). Clearly, though, he won back some of himself by telling the art world and everybody else to stick it, insisting “I’m gonna paint and draw whatever I want to.” Going from hangdog to horn dog, Altoon found new buoyancy in existence. The bulk of the retrospective focuses on the randy, rollicking work of Altoon’s last decade-a clarifying if not exactly chronological emphasis, reminiscent of the stress people now put on Philip Guston’s similarly blasphemous late work. Altoon’s later stuff blows through various taboos with even more gusto than Guston’s, however, starting with sexually charged quasi-advertisements and moving on to fairy tales and cowboy-and-Indian stories enacted by some very naughty creatures. (In deference to LACMA’s younger audiences, the selection is actually pretty tame as Altoon goes, but still portrays him as one of the least inhibited artists since Picasso.) All the while, the abstract equivalents of these priapic adventures quiver on the opposite walls.

LACMA’s portrayal of Altoon was, er, fleshed out this summer with additional shows at the Laguna Art Museum, which displayed its diverse selection of the artist’s work on paper, and a stunning show of drawings from live models at the Samuel Freeman Gallery. These studies, tender and delicate almost to invisibility, suggest no one more than Klimt (whose work on paper Altoon may have seen at Felix Landau’s gallery across from Ferus). Meanwhile, Tim Nye has published “The Astonishing Works of John Altoon” (Monacelli Press), documenting the 2010 gallery show that Nye presented in New York and assembl
ing a range of testimonials by those close to the artist (including Walter Hopps, Robert Creeley, Ed Kienholz, and Altoon’s shrink Milton Wexler). An even wider (and sexier) range of abstract paintings and erotic drawings can be found in the book than in the current museum retrospective. Considering that the LACMA survey more whets than sates our appetite for Altoon’s ferocious, transcendent funk, the more amplification the better. One hopes that, as John Altoon enters the canon- in Los Angeles, and beyond-his randy ghost can rest easy.

“John Altoon” can be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until September14, 2014.

“John Altoon: Paintings and Drawings” remains on view at Laguna Art Museum through September 21, 2014.