When Abstraction Was Funny

John Altoon, Ocean Park Series #8, 1962. Norton Simon Museum
"Philip Guston Now," currently in Boston, tells the now-familiar story of an abstract painter who scandalously turned to figuration and satire. The theme resonates unexpectedly with a modest show at the Norton Simon Museum, "Alternate Realities: Altoon, Diebenkorn, Lobdell, Woelffer." Was there something about the West Coast that made it easier to shed New York School seriousness?

Guston spent his formative years in Los Angeles, attending Manual Arts High with Jackson Pollock and becoming acquainted with the L.A. branch of the Ku Klux Klan. But Guston's career was spent in and around New York. The NSM show presents four lapsed abstractionists identified with L.A. and the Bay Area. 

Joe Goode, John Altoon in his Studio, about 1968. (c) Joe Goode

The works here are not funny ha-ha, but neither are they just funny-strange. John Altoon trained as a commercial artist at Chouinard and produced erotic cartoons as well as semi-abstract paintings. Two paintings here feature stripes, an in-joke referring the artist's taste in clothing. In his drawings and lithographs Altoon invented a private language of phallic and yonic forms, executed in the nervous hand of his cartoons. Altoon died young, but he has become an artist's artist appealing to Mike Kelley, Laura Owens, Monique Prieto, and others.

Installation view, "Alternate Realities: Altoon, Diebenkorn, Lobdell, Woelffer" at Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena
Richard Diebenkorn, Bottle, 1960. Norton Simon Museum (gift of the artist)
Richard Diebenkorn, untitled (lithograph), 1970

Of the four artists here, Diebenkorn is by far the best known (and the least funny, which may be no coincidence). Three spectacular paintings (including Bottle) aren't funny at all. But Diebenkorn's inclusion caused me to find humor in certain lithographs. An untitled 1970 print can read as a deadpan response to Hockney's pools. 

Emerson Woelffer, Homage to Duchamp (lithograph), 1970

The title supplies the punchline in Emerson Woelffer's Homage to Duchamp. The minimalist, cut-paper form is revealed as Duchamp's famous profile of George Washington, created from an American flag. 

Like most NSM exhibitions, this one is drawn from the storeroom, from an amazing trove of then-contemporary art assembled before Norton Simon's takeover. 

Frank Lobdell, November, 1961, 1961

Emerson Woelffer, Winterscape, 1955


Anonymous said…
> Was there something about the West Coast that made it
> easier to shed New York School seriousness?

That seriousness or lack of same may be due to the way that the climate of LA-SoCal plays a role in a lot of things, more than might be assumed.

However, amazing things and talented people exist everywhere, whether in sunshine-dryness or snow-rain. But there is a different look and vibe in a so-called Mediterranean climate compared with, by contrast, a Northeastern or cloudy-Europe climate.

I've read about how artists of the Impressionist period felt one way about the weather/sun in a place like Paris, another way about areas in the south of France.

David Hockney noticed the quality of sunlight in LA is different from the sunlight in London.

Creatives types are known to favor the tone/theme of dark clothing in NYC, while they'd look out of place in LA.