John Altoon at LACMA

Hosted by

John Altoon was just 43 when he died in 1969.  He was at a party with his second wife Babs and their friends Billy Al Bengston and Penny Little. He didn’t feel well. They all rushed over to the nearby home of collector Betty Asher because whose husband was a physician.  Altoon sat down and died of a massive heart attack. It is said that a thousand people attended his funeral.

John Altoon, "Untitled (Paris: Dior Evenings)", c.1962-63
Ink, pastel and airbrushing on illustration board
60 x 40 inches
Private collection, courtesy Fred Hoffman Fine Art
© 2014 Estate of John Altoon, photo © 2014 Museum

Since that tragic moment, the reputation of the artist considered to be among the most talented and certainly the most popular of the Ferus group has been sidelined, despite regular exhibitions over the years. LACMA curator Carol Eliel has done the sleuthing to bring together a healthy but thankfully not overwhelming selection of paintings and drawings in the exhibition on view through September 14. After hearing so much about Altoon’s legendary skills as a draftsperson, his erotic flare, his originality, I was curious to see a large body of work. Happy to report, the rumors of his talent are true.

John Altoon, "Untitled", 1963-64, from the Hyperion series
Oil on canvas
60 x 56 inches
Private collection
© 2014 Estate of John Altoon, photo courtesy Nyehaus, New York

Born in L.A., the son of Armenian immigrants, Altoon attended Otis and, after a stint in the Navy, Art Center and Chouinard before moving to New York in 1951 and then to Europe. The first gallery includes paintings that are indebted to the abstract expressionist painters, especially Willem De Kooning and Arshile Gorky. When Altoon moved back to L.A. in 1956, he was among the first group of artists to show at Ferus. He retained the expressive brush strokes but very quickly put them in service of eccentric and suggestive shapes floating on expanses of white canvas.

John Altoon, "Untitled", 1964, from Sea View series
Ink, pastel and airbrushing on illustration board
60 x 40 inches
Collection of Joseph and Deborah Goldyne
© 2014 Estate of John Altoon, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

At that time, he was the epitome of cool. He had a dog named Man, asked jazz musicians to play while teaching drawing to students and his bare-chested photograph was on the cover of The Holy Barbarians, Lawrence Lipton’s 1959 account of Beats living on Venice Beach. He was married for a time to sultry movie star Fay Spain. Yet, he also suffered from what seems to have been a severe bi-polar disorder for which he was hospitalized many times. His tumultuous marriage didn’t help.

To make a living, he did illustrations for advertising agencies, designed the covers of many jazz albums, and was known for his exceptional speed. The show includes a few hilarious spoofs on advertising with bold lettering provided by Ed Ruscha. Most of this sort of work was representational and in the 1960s, he succeeded in combining his skill at rendering the figure with his brushy abstraction to realize his most exceptional paintings. As captivating, are his drawings. Certainly, what has survived is more numerous. He excelled in the lyrical, lusty line,  defining delightful double entendres. The nasty is regularly redeemed by humor as in the drawings of naked women cavorting with monstrously large phalluses or being kissed and fondled by frogs. No surprise that younger artists ranging from Paul McCarthy to Laura Owens have been attracted to Altoon. McCarthy’s daughter Mara McCarthy, proprietor of The Box on Traction Avenue, has shown the drawings and introduced them to a new audience. The show was co-organized with the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University where it will travel in the fall. For more information, go to

John Altoon, "Untitled", 1966
Ink and watercolor on illustration board
30 x 40 inches
Nyehaus, New York
© 2014 Estate of John Altoon, photo courtesy Nyehaus, New York

Even Altoon’s casual figure drawings have a special style. Seventeen are on view at Samuel Freeman Gallery through July 5. They were left behind from a time when Walter Hopps had hired Altoon to teach life drawing classes at the Pasadena Art Museum, an education program led by Gwenda Davies. Though they are quick studies, they reveal the way he harnessed the essential energy of quick observation.


John Altoon, "Ocean Park Series #8", 1962
Oil on canvas
81 1/2 x 84 inches
Norton Simon Museum, anonymous gift
© 2014 Estate of John Altoon

In addition to the LACMA catalogue on Altoon with texts by Eliel, Paul McCarthy and a number of other artists, there is The Astonising Works of John Altoon, a monograph by Tim Nye, who has shown the work at his New York gallery. It is published by Monacelli and a handsome thing it is, with thick cardboard covers featuring the bold graphic lettering that Altoon used for the covers of jazz albums for Chet Baker and others. It features notebook scribbles and sketches culled from the Altoon files at the Archives of American Art, photographs of the artist in the studio, texts from poet Robert Creeley, the late curator Walter Hopps, the late therapist Milton Wexler and dealer/writer/curator Klaus Kertess. The book provides an intimate presentation of a much-loved artist along with some pretty and some smutty pictures.

Banner image: John Altoon's Ocean Park Series #8, 1962; Oil on canvas. 81 1/2 x 84 inches; Norton Simon Museum, anonymous gift; © 2014 Estate of John Altoon