John Altoon was as well-known for his gregarious, over-the-top personality as much as he was for his art. As Ed Ruscha put it, “He's one of those guys who can walk into a room and he's just got this presence… Everybody knew all about Altoon and all his capers.”
Altoon became a fixture of the Los Angeles art scene in the late 1940s, attending the Otis College of Art and Design from 1947 to 1949 followed by a year at both the Art Center College of Design and the Chouinard Art Institute. He was awarded the Anna Stacey Lee Award for drawing in the spring of 1950 and shortly thereafter, spent four years working and showing in New York with a brief sojourn to Spain and France.
While his time in New York proved moderately successful, it wasn’t until 1957, after returning to the West Coast, that Altoon truly came to prominence. That year, Walter Hopps and Edward Keinholz of Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles began exhibiting a group of more than 35 artists who congregated in Venice Beach, West Hollywood and other Westside neighborhoods. Included alongside Altoon in what was dubbed the “Ferus Group” were Billy Al Bengston, George Herms, Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha. The group showed at the gallery from March 1957 to November 1958 and played a significant role in the burgeoning contemporary art scene of Southern California.
While Altoon began his career creating cubist-inspired works, he ultimately became known for the delicate and often eccentric watercolor and ink compositions that became his later focus. These organic abstractions, heavily influenced by Altoon's dreams, nightmares or psychoanalytic sessions made him a cult favorite. His creations tended toward the fantastical and psychosexual with a heavy dose of surrealism, often portraying figures that were part human, part animal and part genitalia.
Sadly, Altoon’s career was short-lived and in 1969, at the age of 43, he passed away from a massive heart attack. His work, which garnered a devoted following in the 50s and 60s with its quirky beauty and dark wit, continues to speak to audiences today and has recently seen a resurgence in popularity. Though brief, his contributions to contemporary art were highly influential and he is held in high regard by those who knew him and worked with him.
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