John Altoon: Drawings and Prints


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June 29-October 5, 2014

John Altoon (1925-69) is best known as a painter, but drawing was an important aspect of his working practice throughout his career. Like his paintings, his drawings show a remarkable boldness, speed, and ability to improvise.
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This intimate exhibition of drawings and prints looked at Altoon’s hesitation between being a commercial illustrator and a fine artist. On the commercial side, he made illustrations for articles in magazines such as Caper and Escapade. He also designed album covers and in 1956 was included in Pacific Jazz’s “West Coast Artist Series” along with Robert Irwin, Sueo Serisawa, and Keith Finch.
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By the early 1960s, Altoon’s work as a fine artist was his priority. Even as his style became more abstract, elements of the figure and the importance of line were evident throughout.
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John Altoon was born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of Armenian parents who had emigrated from Turkey. While still a teenager, he joined the Navy and went to the Pacific to participate in major military campaigns before the end of World War II. When he returned, he studied at the Otis Art Institute and the Chouinard Art Institute. In 1950 he moved to Santa Barbara, where his work caught the attention of the director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Donald Bear. This led to an exhibition, although Altoon moved to New York just before the opening. In New York, he worked as both a commercial and a fine artist for four years. In 1954, he received a grant that helped him travel to Europe. He returned to Los Angeles in 1956 and the following year became one of the founding members of the Ferus Gallery with Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps. In 1962 the innovative abstract paintings of his Ocean Park Series led to an exhibition at the Whitney Museum that circulated to several other museums the following year. Altoon died of a massive heart attack in 1969, at the age of forty-three.
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Timed to coincide with the major exhibition of Altoon’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this summer, the exhibition was curated by Laguna Art Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art Grace Kook-Anderson and was on display in the museum’s upstairs gallery June 29-October 5, 2014.