L.A. cool comes to New Canaan
Updated 5:33 pm, Friday, March 11, 2016
NEW CANAAN — With the eyes of the American art world focused on New York, a cultural imbalance emerged between the East and West Coast art scenes in the mid- to late-1950s. Meanwhile, a continent away from the well-publicized New York School, a pocket of artistic energy was quietly coming into being in Los Angeles. The place was the Ferus Gallery, the time was 1957 and the movement was L.A. Cool.
“There was a whole stream of artists that came from there. It was the avant-garde gallery,” said James Reed, curator of a new exhibition, “John Altoon: Selections from the About Women Series,” at the Silvermine Art Center, which features lithographs by Altoon, one of the Los Angeles scene’s most enigmatic figures.
Altoon was born in Los Angeles in 1925 to Armenian immigrant parents and, after serving in World War II, attended the Otis Art Institute, the Art Center College of Design and the Chouinard Art Institute, where he honed his skills. After brief stints in New York City and Europe, and periods of failing mental health and erratic behavior attributed to schizophrenia diagnosed in the 1930s, Altoon settled in Los Angeles in 1956 on the eve of Ferus’ opening.
“He was one of the leaders,” Reed said. Among the Ferus group of artists were gallery co-founders Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholtz, Bob Alexander, Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bangston, all of whom, with Altoon, helped to establish a scene that persisted through the late 1960s in what was previously a modern art vacuum.
Still, any success the group achieved, whether collectively or individually, was almost exclusively local. It was not unheard of for the work of prominent New York artists to show at the gallery — works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella were exhibited at Ferus — but the inverse was exceedingly rare. According to Reed, while Altoon is well collected at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - the first major retrospective of Altoon’s work was held at the latter in 2014 - East Coast representation of the Los Angeles avant-garde is limited, and most people remain unaware of Altoon’s work.
To acquire the lithographs from Altoon’s “About Women” series, Reed worked with art collector Stephen Ames, sifting through the little information that was available online about the series, and then acquiring them from the New Zealand government, which, Reed said, possesses a sizable collection of Altoon’s work. The process took nearly a year.
“You don’t see him in the books, he doesn’t show up at auctions. So to put this together was a pretty rare thing,” Reed said.
The result of Reed’s efforts is a collection of 10 Altoon lithographs based on three poems — “Anger,” “The Woman,” and “Distance” — written by Robert Creeley. Altoon drew considerably from Abstract Expressionism, and the works in the series often depict distorted figurative subjects rendered just beyond recognition. “He didn’t break away totally from having objects. They aren’t identifiable objects, but they do have an object quality to them,” Reed said.
The series, dating from 1965 and 1966, was completed just before the closing of the Ferus Gallery in 1967, and just a few years before Altoon’s death of a heart attack at age 44 in 1969.
Altoon’s success, like that of the Ferus scene, was short-lived. But in some small segments of the art world, as evidenced by the current New Canaan show, which runs through April 8, L.A. Cool survives.
“When I lived in San Francisco,” Reed recalled, “the joke was that everything starts in California and the East Coast picks it up and claims it for themselves.”