John Altoon, Untitled, 1959

John Altoon
Oil on canvas, 1959
69 x 72-5/8 inches
Gift of Ruth and Murray Gribin
John Altoon, a painter of lasting importance to the history of Los Angeles art of the 1950s and 1960s as both catalyst and pioneer, was at the center of the circle of artists that showed at Ferus Gallery. In 1956, after stints in New York and Spain, Altoon returned to Los Angeles and developed his own approach to abstract expressionism.
Altoon completed this untitled painting in 1959, a year in which he exhibited twice at Ferus and his work was undergoing significant changes. As this luscious painting shows, he was moving toward a light and colorful pastel palette; and he was experimenting with a thick, buttery paint application and a profuse use of white. His broad, gestural brushstrokes seemingly obliterate any underlying images and calligraphy, as though attempting to thwart their appearance. His personality—larger-than-life, macho, uninhibited, and unbalanced—comes across in his brushwork and becomes an inseparable part of his art and its effect.
The painting heralds the direction that Altoon was going in finding his own distinctive voice, albeit only a few short years before his death. Although John Altoon always suffered from deep depression and psychosis, it was from a massive heart attack that he died in 1969 at the age of forty-three.