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John Altoon, “Untitled” (1966), ink and watercolor on illustration board (all images © Estate of John Altoon, all photos © 2014 Museum Associates / LACMA)

LOS ANGELES — John Altoon lived in Venice, California, back in the day, during the 1960s, before the ’70s kicked into polyester high gear. In his current retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, curator Carol S. Eliel organizes a view of this Los Angeles artist’s work that spans from his early beginnings in art — heavy strokes of more Cubist-type work — to his delicate, sexually charged ink and watercolors leading up to his death. The challenge with these types of retrospectives is always balancing the artist-as-personality with the artist-as-maker. Eliel does a good job of pulling viewers in through both channels, still ultimately leaving one to wonder about the mystery of John Altoon.

Accounts of the artist often reference his diagnosis of schizophrenia in his late 30s, his death in 1969 at age 43, and his larger-than-life personality. But, like any retrospective, this one springs first and foremost from his creative output, not his personal life. As the first major retrospective of his work, the LACMA show aligns Altoon with well-known art historical movements of the 1950s and ’60s, tracing how he came up in LA’s scene at the time with Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, and other male artists deemed the “Ferus Group” because of their affiliation with the Ferus Gallery.

John Altoon, “Jazz Players” (1950), oil on masonite, collection of Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California, gift of Stanley Marcus

The oil-on-masonite painting “Jazz Players” (1950) offers a portrayal of two men in pure musical ecstasy as they release air into their horns. Altoon’s style early on is reminiscent of Cubism’s jagged, variously sized and cobbled-together angular shapes; these works show how curious and curiously different the artist’s style was before he found the abstraction for which he’s best known. That begins to invade and pervade everything fewer than 10 years after those jazz players blew their instruments. In “Untitled” (1964), from the Hyperion series, a shape that could be either an enlarged green and red pill or a misshapen parakeet is perched atop an angled branch, which spouts from a blue, jellybean-like blob. Hyperion is a street that winds through Los Angeles, but nowhere in this painting do we see roads leading anywhere recognizable; rather, the forms and shapes twist like nerve endings plucked and pulled from the body. It’s not quite horror-flick gore, but it’s not Abstract Expressionism either; it is Altoon’s own version of artistic madness, which gets splattered like crushed bugs and drooping phalluses and fallen suns across canvas.

John Altoon, “Untitled (F-24)” (1962–63), private collection (courtesy of Hauser & Wirth)

In another section of the show, titled “Altoon and Women,” we see a variety of ads that the artist appropriated and reworked. The section could be called “Altoon and Advertising,” because all the pieces here respond to the commercial output of the 1960s Mad Men era. For “Untitled” (F-24)” (1962–63), Altoon copied a Colgate ad campaign’s text — “WHO WON … YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WON” — using the same over-the-top tone, but also inserted a woman who appears taken with the green-painted pubes of a female Christ on the wall. The woman’s right bra strap has slid off her shoulder, somehow becoming entangled with lady Christ’s pantyhose. Was Altoon gesturing toward the advertisement’s religious undertones, calling out the conflation of consumerism and faith, or was he commenting on women as freshly minted target consumers in this bygone era?

Towards the end of both Altoon’s life and this exhibition, the artist’s imagery veered into the psychosexual, with penises parading around on legs, popping out of pants, engaging in battles with fairytale-like soldiers and onlookers. A male person-dog, his neck tied to a stick shoved into the ground, stares on as a topless woman wearing a taxidermy bear head strolls by. Is this a strange take Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti, with its painting of nude, exotified women, or is it a scene from some grown-up version of Lord of the Flies?

John Altoon, “Untitled” (1958), graphite and ink wash on illustration board

We all have to go sometime, and some of us depart in darker ways than others. The wall text in this retrospective describes Altoon as both struggling with mental illness and being a gregarious, highly extroverted artist, at times reading like more of a caricature than a fully developed character. Either way, it colors how we view the work. There’s a tendency to feel more sympathy toward a so-called “genius” artist who struggled with mental illness; our culture glorifies that. In this regard, perhaps it’s best that we’re given only a passing overview of what Altoon’s life was like without learning the full story. To know him too well might affect our experience of his art too much. There’s gotta be some mystery, even after death do us part.

John Altoon continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through September 14.

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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...