John Altoon - Los Angeles Times

What to see in L.A. galleries: John Altoon, Maria Lassnig, a funky fairy tale and stenciled magic

By David Pagel

Although John Altoon died in 1969, when he 43, his paintings and drawings look as fresh as the day they were made. They may, in fact, be even fresher.

The rambunctious loveliness that was Altoon’s stock in trade is served up in abundance at Kohn Gallery, where 11 paintings on canvas and board and 18 works on paper — all made from 1958 to 1968 — have been beautifully installed.

Raw, jaw-dropping talent spills from the surfaces Altoon touched, except for a few early canvases, painted before he had worked the formulaic maneuvers of academic expressionism out of his system and came, face to face, with his own whiplash facility.

In one fell swoop, Altoon seems to have discovered that the sexiest art unfolds in the imagination. There’s little that’s very explicit in his best compositions. But each seems salacious, not quite pornographic, but far too steamy to be suited for anyone’s living room.

It’s difficult to articulate just what makes Altoon’s paintings so lusty — and lust-worthy. But that’s part of the fun. As soon as you say what you see in his abstract configurations of swollen blobs, probing protuberances and welcoming crevasses, you feel that your words exaggerate the playful relationships that unfold in his elusive images.

Altoon takes viewers back to Surrealism by way of spray-paint and comic strip figuration. His works make so much room for the imagination that it’s all but impossible to exhaust the visual acrobatics — and intellectual gymnastics — of his shape-shifting pictures. Hedonism never looked better, nor made for such long-lasting satisfactions.