John Altoon Biography

(Former abstract painter)

Birthday: November 5, 1925 (Scorpio)

Born In: Los Angeles, California, United States

John Altoon was an American abstract painter, best known for his figurative drawings of the 1960s and as a leading figure in the Los Angeles art scene during the 1950s and 1960s. He was influenced by the Abstract Expressionism Movement and his use of colour, energetic abstract expressionism and gestural brushstrokes resembled the works of noted Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning. Altoon was also a prominent member of the Ferus group that operated in LA and included artists like Edward Kienholz, Robert Irwin and Larry Bell. Altoon’s works have been held at several exhibitions including at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. One of his notable works includes the Ocean Park series. Altoon also gained notoriety for his zestful, exuberant and aggressive personality, his reckless life style, and for his bouts of depression and paranoia that at times became destructive and violent. He suffered from schizophrenia and had a tragic early death from a heart attack. The robust and charming personality of Altoon, who remained highly popular in all his circles, his struggle with mental illness and his untimely death perhaps, left a far greater legacy than his art itself.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 43


siblings: Carmen Altoon

Born Country: United States

Artists American Men

Died on: February 8, 1969

place of death: Los Angeles, California, United States

U.S. State: California

City: Los Angeles

Diseases & Disabilities: Schizophrenia

More Facts

education: Art Center College of Design, Otis College of Art and Design

Childhood & Early Life

John Altoon was born on November 5, 1925, in Los Angeles, California, US, to immigrant Armenian parents. Following his high school graduation, Altoon served as a radar technician in the Navy in the Pacific during the Second World War.

Following the war, Altoon used the GI Bill to go to art school. He took his formal training in the art at the Otis Art Institute from 1947 to 1949, at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles from 1947 to 1950, and at the Chouinard Art Institute in 1950. 

He received the Anna Lee Stacey Award for his drawing in the spring of 1950. Such feat led him to paint full-time in his studio in Santa Barbara.

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From 1951 to 1955, he stayed in New York City. There he worked as a commercial illustrator and his exposure to the New York School of Abstract Expressionists led him to produce large gestural paintings during such time. In-between in 1954, he had a yearlong sojourn in France and Spain. During his short stay in the Majorca island, Altoon got introduced to American poet and author Robert White Creeley and the two went on to produce the portfolio About Women. It included 3 poems and 10 lithographs.

Following his return to Los Angeles, Altoon started teaching drawing at Art Center and it was there that he met several artists who were associated with the contemporary art gallery called Ferus Gallery that operated in Los Angeles from 1957 to 1966. He became a prominent member of the Ferus group which included other artists like Edward Kienholz, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston and Larry Bell. This group of Southern California artists was named so because of their association to the Ferus GalleryObjects on the New Landscape Demanding of the Eye , the inaugural exhibition held at the gallery from March 15 to April 11 in 1957 included works of Altoon, Frank Lobdell, Craig Kauffman, Jay DeFeo, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, and Sonia Gechtoff. As an artist of the gallery, Altoon helped in generating new thinking in the LA art world that loomed large in contributing to the present stronghold of LA on the contemporary art scene. Irving Blum, partner in the Ferus Gallery described Altoon as a romantic, loving, defiant, highly ambitious and slightly mad person who was the closest in spirit with the gallery.

Altoon was greatly influenced by the Abstract Expressionism Movement and this was palpable from his figurative and abstract paintings. The use of colour in his works which were characterized by energetic and expressive brushstrokes reflecting gesturalism resembled the works of eminent Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning. Visual vocabulary of Altoon included distinctive and peculiar forms that were roughly based on botanical and biological objects.

Altoon rose to prominence with his artwork and emerged as a prominent figure in the Los Angeles art scene during the 1950s and 1960s. He was most reputed for the figurative drawings he created during the 1960s which were characterized by skilful draftsmanship and sexual imagery. His abstract drawings and paintings often included subjects related to fantasies and dreams. Exhibitions showcasing his work have been held at different places including at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, The Baxter Museum, Pasadena, and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In 1961, during his Ferus Gallery years, Altoon moved into a studio in Venice, California. There he executed the Ocean Park series that consisted of eighteen paintings and some works that he produced on paper. The series portrayed an area around Venice and Santa Monica beach towns in California and had the direct from brain to hand and brush approach for which Altoon was widely reputed.

In the ensuing years, he produced other series like the Advertising Parodies series from 1962 to 1963; and the Animal, Cowboys and Indians series from 1966 to 1968. Meanwhile he worked at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1965. Besides earning fame for his oil paintings, Altoon was also known for his influence as an art instructor.

The American documentary film titled The Cool School, directed by Morgan Neville and narrated by Jeff Bridges profiled several artists including Altoon. The documentary that premièred at the Cleveland International Film Festival on March 7, 2008, was about the rise of the LA contemporary art scene. Several Ferus artists who featured in the documentary said that Altoon had the quality to charm everyone and was the most fun loving and friendly one among all and he was liked by everyone, everywhere.

This high-spirited and dynamic artist known for his outsized personality and reckless intensity as described by Leah Ollman in a 1999 article in Art in America, however struggled with his mental illness. During his late 30s, Altoon was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Noted psychoanalyst Dr. Milton Wexler started treating him since the early 1960s and thrived in restoring the artist’s ability to work. Since then until his death, Altoon produced several works. According to his fellow artist Bell, Altoon was possessed by real demons.  

His paintings are housed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at the National Gallery of Art and at the Norton Simon Museum. In 1997 a retrospective exhibition was held at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Personal Life

In 1959 Altoon married American actress Fay Spain. The couple went to Reno, Nevada, for their honeymoon. As they led busy lives, the couple enjoyed their leisure time relaxing in the house they remodelled in the San Fernando Valley of California. They remained together till 1962.

Altoon married Roberta ("Babs") Lunine in 1966 and the two remained together until his death in 1969.

Altoon’s striking personality often overshadowed everything, even his art. He was an alcoholic and maintained a reckless lifestyle that was marked with riding motorcycles at high speeds and driving cars blindfolded. He was also considered to be a skirt-chasing man. He was referred as the “baddest of the bad boys” in the Art in America magazine in February 1999. He suffered from schizophrenia and had frequent bouts of paranoia and depression which often turned him uncontrollably violent and destructive so much so that he would often destroy his own works.

Altoon died of a major heart attack on February 8, 1969, in Los Angeles, California, and was survived by his sister Carmen Altoon, his niece Laura Shodall and his nephew Jerry Shodall.

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