Portrait of a Spanish Poet by John Altoon, completed 1959
Los Angeles born artist John Altoon, spent nearly 5 years working on the painting he titled Portrait of a Spanish Poet. Often subtitled (Lorca), the piece is ostensibly a portrait of Spanish writer Federico García Lorca. It was completed in 1959 (the same year Altoon married B movie and television actress Fay Spain) and was included in Altoon's second solo show at the Ferus Gallery in 1961. By the time of that show Ferus had moved to its second location at 723 North La Cienega in West Los Angeles and had been under the direction of Irvin Blum for 3 years. Altoon's relationship with the gallery was firmly established by the late-'50s, being represented by Ferus. The painter had yet to fully transition to the more figurative approach he adopted in the 1960s, with the work being very much a product of his exposure to Abstract Expressionism due to his time spent in New York City as well as the Bay Area School with exerted a strong influence on the LA art scene during the 1950s.
John Altoon, Tony Lanreau, and Maggie Ryan, Venice, California, photo by William Claxton, 1959
The painting and Altoon made a cameo appearance on the dust jacket of the original 1959 edition of Laurence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians, the writer's survey of Beat Culture at the turn of the decade. Many (most?) had no idea that that giddy, shirtless beatnik in William Claxton's photo had painted the work of art hanging on the wall behind him, much less that he was the heart and soul of the burgeoning Ferus Gallery scene in West Los Angeles and Venice Beach. The connection was likely more due to Claxton, rather than Altoon laying any Beat Generation claims as the modern art circles on both Coasts tended to distance themselves from the Beat poets in spite of any lifestyle similarities.
Jazz Guitar: Jim Hall, Pacific Jazz 1227 12" LP, 1957, cover photo by William Claxton featuring John Altoon
Clax also played a role in Altoon's slightly earlier entree to mainstream exposure. As the staff photographer and cover art director for Dick Bock's Pacific Jazz Records, Claxton played a major role in the label's West Coast Artist Series that was begun some time in early 1956 as this excellent, highly recommended article outlines in detail. By the time it came to release guitarist Jim Hall's debut LP on the label, Bock and Claxton took a slightly different approach to the series by not only featuring the work or an emerging West Coast artist, but also by including a photo of the artist at work. The artist in question was John Altoon who was featured in the shot (albeit with his back to the camera). The device had already been used once the previously year for a Chico Hamilton Quintet release (also featuring Hall), but the Jim Hall/John Altoon/William Claxton image seems to capture the zeitgeist with slightly more authenticity.
Dick Bock, Jim Hall, John Altoon, and William Claxton, 1957
Altoon's career - and life - was short. He battled what some called true demons throughout his lifetime - but, in spite of his concerted efforts to manage his struggles, he died of a heart attack at the age of 44 in 1969.
For more information about Altoon and the Ferus Gallery scene, I highly recommend Morgan Neville's 2008 documentary film The Cool School.
If you live in or are going to be in the Los Angeles area before September 14, 2014, I strongly encourage you to visit the first major John Altoon retrospective, currently on exhibit at LACMA.