Plug the words "Lee Harvey Oswald" into Google image search and you'll turn up all the classic pictures of the man who shot John F. Kennedy: the mug shot, the backyard portrait of Oswald holding a rifle, and the moment in which Jack Ruby puts an end to his life. There is also a whole lot of Internet ridiculosity: cleverly Photoshopped images depict Oswald in an X-Box T-shirt, holding a banjo, playing in a band. My favorite shows James Leavelle, the Dallas detective who led Oswald on his fatal perp walk, attending a high school dance party.
This perpetual state of half-real visual irony is simply part of our culture now. The Onion satirized 9/11. We get election news from "The Daily Show." To promote his healthcare initiative, the president of the United States appeared on a talk show led by one of the stars of "The Hangover" movies, and was subjected to jokes about the Zune. All of this can make John Altoon's Oswald piece from 1964, seen here, seem like another drop in the Internet irony bucket.
Altoon is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Los Angeles-born son of Armenian immigrants, Altoon was an artist's artist who died of a heart attack in 1969, at the age of 43. He was one of the early artists in the fabled Ferus Gallery lineup, and was a larger-than-life figure, known for donning a pair of bright, striped pants that occasionally worked their way into his paintings.
In art circles, however, he is best known for his abstract work, which combines landscape elements with what appear to be the cavorting shapes of bodily organs. He also produced a bunch of drawings of penises engaging in all kinds of charming activities (riding a roller skate, holding flowers, practicing gymnastics).
The Oswald piece, however, is a stand-out. For one, it brings together Altoon's various skills. He was a painter, but he had also studied commercial illustration. Second, there is its collaborative aspect: the Life magazine logo was created by Ed Ruscha, who at the time was one of his colleagues at Ferus. And, lastly, there's the fact that Altoon drew himself into the piece. He is the muscled Tarzan in the skimpy loin cloth, transforming Oswald's gun into a limp garden hose.
The untitled work is surreal and irreverent -- and certainly not in keeping with the more somber and shocking art being made about Kennedy's assassination in the immediate wake of his death. That same year, Andy Warhol produced his silkscreen "Nine Jackies," Wallace Berman featured an altered Oswald assassination picture in his magazine Semina, and painter R.B. Kitaj created "Dismantling the Red Tent," which though it doesn't feature Kennedy or Oswald, nonetheless conveys a sense of loss.
All of this makes Altoon's loopy piece seem strangely prescient. It's irreverent in an Internet age kind of way, digesting an event by poking fun of it, manipulating and remixing it. But unlike many Internet jokes, which are one-note gags, there is something elusive about Altoon's image. Is the Tarzan figure a specter or a superhero? Is it symbolic of the failures of American might? Is it simply a joke? Because Altoon was dead within a few years of making the piece, it is impossible to know.
"It's very enigmatic," says the exhibition's curator Carol Eliel. "You don't really know what it means."
"Untitled," 1964, is on view at LACMA as part of the retrospective "John Altoon" through Sept. 14. 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, lacma.org. "Object Lesson" will be a regular feature on this blog, providing an in-depth look at a single work of art.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times