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Thursday, June 23, 2016

John Altoon

Looks real, doesn't it? It's not. John Altoon's 1963 political statement
was never published, or even commissioned, by the magazine.

Two Figures and Dove,
ca. 1957, John Altoon
Most art buyers don't realize it; and one might go so far as to say it's kind of a modest little secret seldom mentioned in the world of high art; but when someone purchases an ex-pensive work of art, the buyer is actually paying for the "persona" of the artist as much, or more than, the work of art itself. I could easily paint in the manner of Picasso, as could most artists. But short of fraudulently passing it off as by Picasso's own hand, the painting would be worth little more than the cost of the supplies (if that). Certainly, for a young artist on the make, the quality of the work and the uniqueness of his or her ideas are crucial. But as prices rise, as they sometimes skyrocket to ridiculous heights, there gradually ceases to be any relationship whatsoever between prices and quality. There is, on the other hand, a direct relationship having to do with how colorful, exceptional, even tragic that artist's life may have been. That factor becomes more and more the case with Modern Art and its Postmodern progeny. The California abstract expressionist, John Altoon, is an excellent example.

The artist's "image" meant more than his art images.
Although John Altoon had all the academic credentials, and even taught college art classes at Los Angeles' Art Center, where he'd done his undergraduate work around 1949, his art was not really exceptional. L.A. born in 1925, Altoon was of the right generation to embrace Abstract Expressionism, which he did. However, he is more notably recalled today for his idiosyncratic figurative abstractions, rife with oddball biomorphic forms, frenetic in approach, yet in color, imagery, and attitude, representative not of the New York School, but of Los Angeles. An artist friend, Billy Al Bengston, praised Altoon as, "...the most brilliant, off-the-top guy. It probably killed him to have to think because he'd just come up with things and he'd do [them]."

Altoon was included in the inaugural show of L.A.’s iconic Ferus Gallery in 1957. From the left: John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Allen Lynch, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston
John Altoon was an influential avant-garde artist who dominated the Los Angeles art scene of 1950s and ‘60s as much by his charismatic personality as with his paint brushes. Most of his works fall under the heading of Abstract Expressionism, but it would be more accurate to say he "used" the movement rather than contributed much to it. He rose to prominence as a part of a group of artists known as the "Ferus Group" because of their association with the Ferus Gallery, an important L.A. art landmark of the era. Altoon was included in the inaugural show of the Gallery in 1957, along with artists Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, and Clyfford Still, and was part of the gallery’s star-studded roster alongside Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin, and Billy Al Bengston. This group also included artists such as Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses and Larry Bell. Altoon was a highly popular figure in this circle largely due to this boisterous presence and passionate individuality, which have left us with a far greater art legacy than his paintings.

Untitled 1961 (top-left); Untitled (Sunset series, top-right), 1964; Untitled, 1965 (bottom-right). The titles aren't much help.
With his outsized personality and reckless intensity, John Altoon loomed large in the L.A. art scene of that era. But by the time he turned thirty, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia suffering bouts of depression and paranoia. However, in the early 1960s Altoon became a patient of Dr. Milton Wexler, a prominent L.A. psychoanalyst who restored his ability to work. The period from that time until his death was the most productive and stable years in his life. During this time Altoon was considered a prominent member of several Los Angeles art circles, a man with an imposing character, but also a man who was an alcoholic, and who saw few limits when it came to living life.

Teaching and painting JAZZ!
From near the beginning of his art career, Altoon forged connections to jazz in his paintings. One of his earliest works, Jazz Players (above, right), ca. 1950, depicts two saxophone players in a figural composition that appears to foreshadow his decision to use jazz musicians as models in the Art Center class (above, left). He also contributed five album covers to the West Coast Artists Series for Pacific Jazz Records, a Los Angeles–based record label. When Altoon’s friend, noted jazz photographer William Claxton, became art director for the label, he invited a number of California artists, including Altoon, to create original artwork for the series. Altoon’s album covers (four of which are seen below) included cover art for some of the most prominent jazz artists on the west coast. Yet, despite his success, and to some extent because of it, there was always the matter of the artist's temperamental personality; a man plagued by bouts of depression, boisterous hard-drinking, skirt-chasing alternating with episodes of mania that often turned destructive and ugly. John Altoon died young, in 1969, at the age of forty-three from a massive heart attack--all a part of the artist's personal story, that which causes collectors to cherish his art...and pay dearly for it.

Top-left to right: The Jazz Messengers featuring Art Blakey, Ritual, 1957, cover art by John Altoon, design by William Claxton; Chet Baker Big Band, 1956; Russ Freeman and Chet Baker, Quartet, 1957; West Coast Jazz, Solo Flight, 1957, cover art by John Altoon, design by William Claxton.
Coffee Drinkers, 1953, John Altoon


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