John Altoon Biography

An American artist, John Altoon was one of the most noticeable figures of the avant–garde artistic scene of Los Angeles of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Quick Facts

Birthday: November 5, 1925

Nationality: American

Famous: Artists American Men

Died At Age: 43

Sun Sign: Scorpio

Born in: Los Angeles, California, United States

Famous as: Painter

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siblings: Carmen Altoon

Died on: February 8, 1969

U.S. State: California

City: Los Angeles

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

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John Altoon was an influential avant-garde American artist of his time who dominated the art scene of 1950s and ‘60s Los Angeles. Most of his works came under abstract expressionism, the first true artistic movement that emerged out of America. He rose to prominence as a part of a group of artists referred to as the ‘Ferus Group’ because of their association with the Ferus Gallery. This group included artists like Edward Keinholtz, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses and Larry Bell among others. A highly popular figure in all his circles, this boisterous painter was a very passionate individual whose personality left a far greater legacy than his artistic works. By the end of his thirties, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he was only 43 when he passed away following a massive heart attack. This marked the tragic end to the life of a lively, boozing, skirt-chasing man harried by bouts of depression and episodes of mania that was often destructive and violent.

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John Altoon’s Childhood And Early Life
John Altoon was born to immigrant American parents in Los Angeles, California.Not much information is available on his parents, early education and early life. However, certain records suggest that Altoon had a fairly creative childhood. From 1947-1950, in a period of 4 years, Altoon underwent formal training in art in three different institutes: Otis Art Institute, Art Center College of Design and Chouinard Art Institute. Beginning as an abstract expressionist, he turned to figurative works by the 60’s. These works were characterized by skillful draftsmanship and sexual imagery. His art was also shaped by his visit to Europe where he stayed in Spain for some time. He also served in the US Navy during WW II.
Altoon’s was a personality that overshadowed everything else, even his art. During his time and till recently, he was considered a prominent member of the art circles of Los Angeles, not because his art was considered as extraordinary, but due to his personality. A man with an imposing character, he was an alcoholic who had few limits when it came to living life.
Work And Style
Altoon’s work was primordially influenced by “Abstract expressionism”, although he is best celebrated for his figurative works. His work has been described as a mish-mash of “vaguely figurative, botanical and biological forms.” A man of “outsized personality and reckless intensity” the influence of John Altoon loomed large over the L.A. art scene during the 1950 and ‘60s. Rebellious, romantic, ambitious and slightly mad, Altoon’s painting oozed with mischievous humor and intellectual rigor.
Death And Legacy
The life of the person who had charmed everybody took a tragic turn when in his late 30’s he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Altoon suffered from frequent bouts of paranoia and depression. At the heights of such bouts, he would turn uncontrollably violent and would often destroy his own works. Eventually, at a relatively young age of 44, he died of a major heart attack. Though his works have been exhibited and has received much more attention of late, his true legacy will always lie in the sheer exuberance with which he lived his life. He was survived by his sister Carmen Altoon, his nephew, Jerry Shodall and niece, Laura Shodall.



 Born in Los Angeles, California, America

1947 – 1950:

Underwent formal training in art in three different institutesOtis Art Institute, Art Center College of Design and Chouinard Art Institute.

Circa 1962 – 1965:

Diagnosed with schizophrenia


Died of a massive heart attack

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Last Updated
- March 01, 2019

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