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Memories of John

When John Altoon died in the early spring of 1969, it was brutally sudden. Kitaj called from Los Angeles to give me the news, and spoke of having been at a party the night previous at which he'd met John finally, and then shortly after saw him leaving in a rush with Billy Al Bengston, apparently in some difficulty. As it happened, they were on their way to see Dr. Asher, John's friend and collector, to whom he'd previously complained of heartburn, showing up occasionally in the evening with the hope the doctor could fix him up. Suggestions that he come around to the office for a complete checkup never got him there. The "massive coronary" described as cause of death before he had been got to the hospital was the last thing he'd have thought of—still in his early forties, with a life at last solid and productive, and a great deal of the past's psychosis now mitigated, thanks to the help of another friend, Dr. Wechsler.

He was so particularly L.A. American, so much the determination of this country's conflicting 'images' of itself, that one is forced willynilly to think of art and artist as one. It was a decisive way of life as well as all else. More, he was a classic storyteller with a humor and a wit that kept working in all manner of demands. So I tell you in large part what he told me without the least interest in whether or not it is precisely true or accurate, as they say, to the facts. We don't live facts, we live our imagination of them.

Long before I ever met John he was already instance of that so-called power of the imagination, and when we did meet, I confess

New Mexico Studies in the Fine Arts 6 (1981).


that this one sense of him I had immediately to recognize. When I was a kid in the Depression, given our unstarving but nonetheless modest circumstances, the elders would prod us to finish up our food by saying, "Remember the starving Armenians . . ." At that time I knew no Armenians, but hardly wanted them to starve, so that they became exotic, haunting persons in my head. I wished I could give them the food, rather than eat it only on their behalf. As he later told me the story, John was sure my Armenian. I got the sense of a poverty stricken family, three children (he had, as I remember, a sister and brother), a father working in a bakery, lifting the sacks of flour. John said that when he was eighteen his father got him a summer job at the bakery, and he undertook the same labor but couldn't keep it up—whereas his father, now in his sixties, doggedly continued until he at last retired, then lost his sight a very short time after. This same man had for years the dream of returning to the site of where his village had been, previous to the Turks and the slaughter of his family. He was possibly the only survivor and when John himself attempted to locate the place, after his father's death, he found that it was now in Russian territory and effectually nonexistent. Then there was the uncle who lived up in the valley, outside of L.A., whose modest plot of ground blossomed with the proverbial fruit trees like the promised land.

Meanwhile John's mother was dying of cancer all the time he was growing up. He said nights when he was supposed to be sleeping, he'd listen to the adults talking of the situation, rehearsing meager hopes, provisions, the mother painfully and quietly enduring. John said he'd go to the movies, forget for that time his mother was ill and dying, then hit the street and sunlight only to remember it all. He proposed himself as a classic delinquent, always in some trouble or other, cutting school, hanging out, testing the edges. He said often he'd get in the back window of their place just as the police were at the front door, to ask his mother where her son was—and she'd answer, he's up in his room, and then go to get him. And there he blessedly was.

I'm not now sure just when the family began to think of him as the artist. Families with a very tender and legitimate hope have often a person, one of them, who is given such an office and responsibility. What may well have been John's quite usual interest in copying pictures—surely a lot of kids do it—became in any case a family dream, and he got a very useful encouragement. He'd copy the covers of magazines and all would delight in how much these copies looked like the actual picture. He was clearly talented. Their


imagination, and his also, was that he would become a successful commercial artist, which is my recollection of what he does in fact get trained to be. Art, in its reflective and aesthetic presence as value, had little to do with either their understanding or needs. You are what you can do.

One of John's stories was how he used to sell newspapers in downtown L.A. and the guy just across the street from him, also selling newspapers, was the subsequently terrific science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. He told of the gang he hung out with at the beach, of great destructive challenges like riding motorcycles no hands at speeds exceeding 100 m.p.h., or driving souped-up cars at like speeds, blindfolded. I was dazzled and a very attentive listener. And I believed him and still do, incidentally. For example, my own favorite was the account of the stunted tree, growing in a more or less vacant lot adjacent to Wilshire Boulevard, some well traffic'd section thereof, which John and his cronies managed to turn into a giant slingshot by hacking off its two spare branches to make a crotch, getting a length of inner tube for the sling itself, putting a substantial boulder therein, and laboriously hauling it back as far as they could, then letting go to have the boulder go sailing up over the battered board fence into the traffic (jesus!), hitting thankfully the hood of a car only, and stopping it dead. The kids are long gone before the dazed onlookers can figure out what's happened. Hardly a nice story—but it satisfied some lurking anger with the part of life that feels like trying to cross an endless street against hordes of indifferent drivers. Or—more honestly—I just like that it worked.

I met John quite unintentionally in 1954, having come back to this country from Mallorca in order to teach at Black Mountain. I'd get to New York as often as I could, crashing variously with friends. One, from college days, a pianist, Race Newton, was living on Spring Street and across the inner court lived an extraordinary lady, Julie Eastman. The novelist Fielding Dawson has given her a succinct immortality in An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline (1967): "Creeley had kept me spellbound about her—the witch from El Paso. Creeley had written a beautiful story about her and the jazz pianist who lived across the courtyard from her, and the jazz trumpeter who lived on the floor below her . . ." So that was Race, and the other man, also from Boston days, was Ty Frolund. My story was called "The Musicians" and it was by fact of these various associations that I came to know John.

Like Fee, I no sooner met Julie than I was remarkably interested, not in her body, as they say or so I told myself, but in the weirdly


pervasive authority she seemed to gather out of the air. Literally I followed her around and so it was she took me along on some of her errands, as she said. One was involved with going up to see Peter Stander, Lionel's bright nephew, then both painter and actor, and also intrigued by Julie—and very jealous on the instant that I was the new attraction although, dumbly, I never figured out his instant hostility until later. And then, that same afternoon, on a corner round about 27th and 4th, we ran into John, who looked me over quickly after Julie's introduction, then asked her about getting his portfolio back. It seems she'd been taking it around for him—he was getting what straight commercial work he could then—and had also been living with him it turned out, but that was now over, but the portfolio hadn't been returned. Dear Julie!

I think I saw John very briefly after that, possibly once or twice. I know I must have given him my address in Mallorca, to where it proved I returned very shortly, to try another year with my wife then (patient woman, but so was I). Anyhow, back in Mallorca, we one day got a letter that John was coming and would have with him two other couples, also painters and their wives, Arthur Okamura (from Los Angeles as was John) and Leon Berkowitz and poet-wife Ida. Terrific! I loved Americans at that point—I'd had the colonial battle all by myself far too long, and no matter Robert Graves and family were most decent to us, and friend then Martin and Jan Seymour-Smith had both got us out of France and kept us company thereafter, it was just a persistently different world, and I was sick unto death of trying to make actual my own. In retrospect, the closest any friend also a painter from that world ever got for me was René Laubiès, a singular man in all respects whom Pound had directed me to—and he showed me Fautrier, Hartung, took me to meet Julien Alvard, etc., but again I was far more interested by a small show that Pollock had at his gallery, Paul Fachetti's, at that same time—a veritable letter from home.

We were living in Bonanova, up from El Terreno, the suburb of Palma where the heavy money tended to settle. There was a trolley line out from the city and it continued up to the edge of the hills, where John, Arthur and Liz, and Leon and Ida, all managed to find houses. I was very homesick for simple conversation, so almost immediately I began to spend as much time as possible with all the new arrivals, but particularly, as I recall, with John, just that he was by himself and was usually free. He'd set himself up in the garage attached to the house he'd rented, itself packed in against the steep slope of the hill. It was windy up there, and I remember that John's easel, which he'd often put outside, would now and then crash with


a sudden gust of wind, dumping the painting on the gravel. I make it sound almost intentionally awkward, on his part, but now recalling, I wonder if he wasn't, in fact, making it as hard on himself as he could. He was working with oils, for example—never a happy means or medium for him, just that the paint physically slowed him in a way ink or air brush didn't—and to further complicate the process, he'd begun to use raw pigments, mixing them on the spot. It was an incredible sight, these piles of dry pigment, then the sizable can of linseed oil, then John, his eyes on the canvas, reaching out with his free hand to get hold of the oil which he'd pour, still without really looking, on one or more of the piles. Then, with his brush he'd sop some of it up, and off he'd go—remarkably, altogether articulate.

His friends back in New York had been people like Gandy Brodie, mavericks, or certainly inconvenient. John spent time at the Arts Club but never felt easy about it. There was an edge of masters and disciples he didn't easily accept, or not in that manner. He felt it no respect of those one did thus revere, to lean on their agency and provision. He'd told me he'd come to New York specifically as a commercial artist, an up and coming one, in the proverbial light-weight suit, straight from L.A., only to find the weather harshly cold and beyond all expectation. He'd been invited to an annual dinner of successful elders, people like Gilbert Bundy (whom it was felt he might one day take the place of). He was shocked by their cynicism, particularly by Alfred Dorn's taking him over to a window of his penthouse, where the celebration was being held, and pointing out an old tenement where he said he'd grown up and his mother still lived. He could spit on it from that very window, and did. John got drunker and more angry, and after being asked to say something, as the newly arrived youngster, gave them veritable hell, or what he hoped was that. They applauded, and said it was just what they needed, someone to keep them awake. I don't finally know how crucial to him, or successful otherwise, John's commercial work was finally. He drew extraordinarily, always, no matter the occasion—I felt him an absolute genius in this respect—and that gift was equal across the board. For one thing, he never used the usual device that projects an image for tracing, but worked always 'free hand'—and did endless studies, in this way, for very mundane drug ads indeed. I don't think it was any question of his perfectionism, call it. He simply felt most active and comfortable working that way.

But because of this training, and the facility he brought to it, he was wary of the pretty, or call it the literally beautiful, in common


sense. I remember one time he did a hauntingly lovely sketch of my son, David, looked at it, said, too pretty , and tore it up. Often he'd smudge, blur, distort, work over, do anything he could to break up the simple, direct containment of his line. He'd watch our kids draw, and delight in how they could know, intuitively, where the action was, where the line could find it.

He was a very warm, intensely reassuring man during this time. I knew nothing of his periodic depressions, actually the paranoid seizures, that so battered him during those years. My own life was falling apart and it seemed to me as if John had some psychically determined intuition of it all. Then, as my wife drew farther away from me, it happened she was drawn to him, and that could have no simple resolution. I left to come back to the States, and for some years only heard occasionally of how he was.

So some time after, I was living in New Mexico, I must have got word of him through some mutual friend like Tony Landreau, or possibly Stu Perkoff, whom I'd just met at his reading in San Francisco, etc., etc. Those particulars are always hard to get exactly. In any case, we were back in touch by the late fifties and my wife, Bobbie, and I would stay with him now and then when we were on the west coast. I recall one place he had then, a sort of bungalow feel to it, somewhat down Wilshire Boulevard, or off in back. There was a younger man living with him, whom he'd befriended—shy, raw in manner, very loyal to John, I remember he gave Bobbie a little leather purse he'd made, as a compliment. John himself gave us many drawings; I was embarrassed but deeply pleased and grateful to have them. He was working in ink, drawing with intensely quick resolution, extraordinary haunting suggestions of people, things, very often animals or birds. I have one of a mournful crow-seeming bird, with a little window of sorts in its breast, with a little man's face in that. I could dig it, like they say. He'd give us piles of them to look through, they were on a mat board, often very large—there was just no way to make a simple choice, or probably one wanted them all.

When John talked of women in the abstract, like they say also, he gave a sense of this utterly blonde, clean, white person, impeccably erotic often, but with no pubic hair, for example, and really no odor nor tone of any specifying kind. She was the American dream, in short, and she was far more a defense, I thought, as an image, than any active desire. I know that John had girl friends who were the classic dumb blondes—but I don't know that, I'm only saying they looked great, and were always nice to me. I never had a chance to know his first wife, Fay Spain—we talked once on the telephone


after they'd separated and her intelligence and care of him was very moving. He had said it was the money that had made it hard, the fact she could go out and buy a Mercedes the way he might a pair of pants. When he went on location with her, he was the awkward, in the way husband. That could never sit well with him, despite how much they shared as people who had made it the hard way.

Then, more years later, after a time out in Santa Monica—I recall a great time on the carousel with John's terrific dog running round and round after us—he was back in a place on Harper. (He did a great series of that name, sadly slashed during a time of breakdown.) But writing, I can't trust my memory of the time pattern. But this I do remember very vividly. I was in L.A. again, another old friend, Neil Williams, was there also, and he knew John well. Neil was telling me about John's great new wife, Babs—which proved utterly true. He said she really ate and I should watch her in action. So not long after, as it happens, we all four went out for dinner and I think we had the proverbial steaks, which tend to get filling, after ample drink, so it seems we variously left this and that, the salad, the bread, the steak, etc. All of which Babs politely, quietly, and completely ate up. God knows where it went, she never showed it. I think the fact was she had a factually healthy person, as my mother would say, and the system was working perfectly.

At this point I feel empty that so much hasn't got said here, even arguments I'd like to continue on John's behalf as to why hasn't there been more use of him. Not much is so good or so humanly relieving. Talking to Tibor de Nagy one time at his gallery, being there to see what he had of John's, in fact, he said that possibly people were intimidated, even spooked, by the humor. They didn't know what to do with a picture that was so inescapably funny, and if it was in part laughing at them, it surely could be with them also. John invited me generously into a portfolio once, the first Gemini ever did and the first ever of his lithographs—and we cast about for a title, and ended up with a pretty crunky one, Of Women . Not even Picasso ran so many particularizing numbers on that possibility as did John—cowboys and Indians, the works. My own favorite is one of the usual dowdily buxom lady leaning over the fence to attend a gesticulating, squatty, and naked man, who is pontificating in an amiable way whilst his erect and knobby malehood stands forth from him in a charmingly emphasized way, i.e., the head is a singularly yellow rose. Well, one picture is worth a thousand words—but don't tell me art doesn't mean something. John Altoon always did and so do I. If you don't mean it, why bother.


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Memories of John
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