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It Speaks to Me: Charlie White on John Altoon pastel at MOCA

June 13, 2012
  • A detail of John Altoon's "Untitled (F-16)," 1962, pastel and ink on illustration board.
A detail of John Altoon's "Untitled (F-16)," 1962, pastel… (Brian Forrest )

Altoon was a true artist's artist, and for a previous generation he was a cultural fixture and intense character within the Ferus group. Looking at this drawing, you begin to understand why he was so admired and also how someone so adventurous might have fallen out of the canon. While many of his paintings lean toward Abstract Expressionism, this work really feels like a benchmark for opening up a type of visual analysis of preexisting popular forms. The girls are executed in an illustrational style popular at the time in children’s books and advertising. But by taking the subjects' pants off, Altoon has made what you could call a raunchy or abject move. It’s like the trick pen from the same era — turn it to one side and the bathing suit comes off the girl.

I see in that move an attitude and aesthetic that would blossom on the West Coast — a way of looking at, deconstructing, and meddling with popular forms that differed from East Coast artists' more formal and perhaps cerebral interest in appropriation, still nearly two decades away. This can be seen in Paul McCarthy's work with Disney characters, in Mike Kelley's handling of memory and in Charles Ray's "Family Romance" sculpture. Today this instinct continues on the West Coast with artists pushing against the Hollywood machine, revealing suppressed elements within the popular image's supposedly impregnable goodness.

-- Charlie White as told to Jori Finkel

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