Norton Simon Museum to Spotlight Altoon : Art: On Thursday, 35 works by the late L.A. artist will join the mix of French Impressionists and Old Masters in Pasadena.


A John Altoon show at the Norton Simon Museum? Sexy fantasies by a local hero in Pasadena's palace of French Impressionists and Old Masters? Unexpected as it may be, an exhibition of 35 works by the late Los Angeles artist will go on view there Thursday.

The show, which continues through Sept. 18, is the museum's first one-man show of Altoon's work and the first time many of the pieces will be shown there. All the works in the exhibition--three oil paintings, two watercolors, 10 color lithographs from Altoon's "About Women" series, produced at Gemini G.E.L., and 20 lithographs made at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop--are drawn from the collection of the former Pasadena Art Museum, which Norton Simon took over in 1974.

The upcoming exhibition will present a sampling of works by a prolific artist who died at 44, in 1969, of a heart attack. Trained as a commercial artist, Altoon was a fluid draftsman and an exuberant colorist with a gift for capturing fleeting feelings and sexual yearnings on paper and canvas. Though his work ranges from abstraction to caricature, he is best known for juicy images of biomorphic shapes floating through dreamy space.

The Norton Simon Museum, on the other hand, is famous for historic masterpieces by the likes of Raphael, Cranach, Zurbaran, Degas and Van Gogh. Altoon's show will present a striking contrast to those treasures, but it does not signal a revolution. Contrary to popular perceptions, contemporary artworks have been on view--though rarely in a prominent position--since Simon bailed out the financially strapped Pasadena Art Museum and installed his own collection there.

Indeed, the Altoon show points out that change is a fact of life at the museum, which has achieved the status of a cultural treasure that is taken for granted. When he was in good health, Simon constantly tinkered with "permanent" displays and he was famous for changing temporary shows right up to the minute they opened. Now 86 and afflicted with a debilitating neurological disorder, he has delegated most curatorial decisions to his staff.

Longtime curator Sara Campbell and her associates have developed an ongoing program in which six exhibitions are on view at any given time. One of these shows typically is drawn from the museum's contemporary art holdings and another from the photography collection. "Lewis Baltz: The Tract Houses," a show of 25 photographs done in 1969-71, is the current photography show (through May 3).

Only about 1,000 of the museum's 12,000 artworks can be displayed at any one time. With a large portion of space consumed by more or less permanent displays of the most valuable treasures, there seems to be no danger of running out of fresh material.

The Altoon show, organized by curatorial assistant JoAnne Severns Northrup, seems particularly unusual because the work differs sharply from the museum's image. The exhibition reflects the spirit of an artist who was influential in the '50s and '60s, when Los Angeles' art scene was beginning to develop a strong identity. Along with such artists as Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Kenneth Price and Ed Moses, Altoon was part of the original stable of the Ferus Gallery, a seminal showcase founded in 1957 by artist Edward Kienholz and dealer-curator Walter Hopps.

Northrup's Altoon show brings up the subject of that fabled member of La Cienega Boulevard's gallery row. On Sept. 23, five days after Altoon's work goes back into the museum's vault, another exhibition will present a broader view of Ferus. Northrup is currently culling the Simon collection to assemble works by artists who were affiliated with the gallery.

Meanwhile, change also is afoot in parts of the museum that are devoted to older artworks. "Eugene Blery: Views of the French Countryside" offers landscape prints by a 19th-Century French artist, through May 9; "La Fiesta Brava," featuring Francisco de Goya's bullfight etchings, runs through July 11; "The Nabis" presents works by members of a late 19th-Century French Symbolist movement, through July 18.

A summer show, opening on July 22, will focus on the lure of water. Campbell, who is organizing the exhibition, plans to display about 15 depictions of French seaside pleasures by realist Gustave Courbet and Impressionists such as Edgar Degas, Eugene Boudin, Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

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