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"Toxic Beauty," a retrospective at NYU’s Grey Gallery, brings together the writing and visual work of an extraordinarily socially engaged artist.
By Roslyn Bernstein
In his high-school yearbook (Roslyn, NY, class of 1971), the artist Frank Moore, then only 18, included a little line drawing and a self-description that began, “Failed first test in trig.” It was a candid and whimsical admission from such a deep thinker, whose career brought together his passion for nature and things green with his concern about genetically modified food, his anger over environmental degradation, and his critique of the medical establishment and the health care industry.
The current exhibit, Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore, up until December 8th at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and the Tracey/Barry Gallery in the Fales Library, spans Moore’s entire career. Curated by independent scholar Susan Harris with Grey Art Gallery director Lynn Gumpert, the exhibition includes 35 major paintings and over 50 gouaches, prints, and drawings. Based upon nearly 44-linear feet of archival material, sketchbooks and documents (56 boxes) housed in the Frank Moore Papers at the Fales’s Downtown Collection, the show and its accompanying catalogue illuminate Moore’s serious nature, his love of research, his love of drawing and sketching, and his talent for writing. “Frank Moore was multi-faceted,” said Gumpert.
When Klaus Kertess’s plans for a Frank Moore exhibition fell through, according to Gumpert, David Leiber and Michael Boodro from the Gesso Foundation (Boodro was a fellow Yale student and life-long friend of Moore’s), approached Grey and Gumpert said yes. Not herself a Frank Moore scholar, she enlisted Susan Harris who meticulously scoured the archival material at Fales. “It took us almost two years, or three graduate curatorial assistants, one per semester,” said Gumpert. Harris started with the exhibition template that Klaus Kertess had begun and “simply added, subtracted and refined the check list. And, then of course, we had to deal with the pragmatic realities of shipping, costs, and permissions, etc.” The most significant addition, she said, was the archival material, which “helped shape the texture and the personal tenor of the show.”
Moore studied at Yale where he double majored in painting and psychology. It was the moment of abstract painting, but Moore writes that, upon his graduation in 1976, “abstraction fell away like a graft that didn’t take.” He started painting the figure. For the rest of his life, Moore, who much admired the Hudson River School, painted detailed figurative works, filled with images both real and fantastic: a self-portrait, his head bald from chemotherapy, exhaling butterflies; miniature buffalo roaming a landscape of bed sheets in place of prairie.
Reading through Moore’s 100 notebooks, writings, poems, and drawings, Harris discovered his “emotional outpourings, confessions, protestations and deep, dark thoughts that were breathtaking, unexpected and extremely poignant.”
The Grey exhibit follows the 2002 retrospective of Moore’s work, “Green Thumb in a Dark Eden,” a show organized by Sue Scott at the Orlando Museum of Art which was meant to be a mid-career retrospective. Frank Moore worked on the planning and execution of the Orlando exhibition, but his career was cut short when he died from AIDS in 2002, shortly before the exhibition opened.
Moore’s own writing reveals much about himself as a man, an artist, an activist, and a socially engaged citizen. Reading through Moore’s 100 notebooks, writings, poems, and drawings, Harris discovered his “emotional outpourings, confessions, protestations and deep, dark thoughts that were breathtaking, unexpected and extremely poignant.”
In a 1994 interview with Holland Carter, Moore explained the origins of his love of nature. He was born in Stuyvesant Town on 14th Street in New York City, living there for four or five years before his parents moved to Long Island. But his father’s family lived in the Adirondacks and “in the summer we’d usually be shipped up there. I had a lot or cousins and we congregated at my grandfather’s house in an extended family situation. That place had a big impact on my esthetic. I loved it up there. I loved the landscape, the wilderness, the whole rustic thing, that colonial American sense of everything being handmade, earth-connected.” His childhood love for the land and for nature deepened after he bought a country home in Deposit, New York in 1987.
Moore’s sculptural frames, which incorporate twigs, birds, Adirondack lamps, books, and drugs, reflect his interest in the natural world and augment his paintings. Gumpert notes that Moore, who worked as a set and stage designer, “loved to create objects.” In one frame Moore carved feathers and then cast them in resin. In another, the word wizard is spelled out in letters made of blue-filled syringes and surrounded by white bottles of Zovirax and other AIDS medications.
Two fractured self-portraits serve as reminders of Moore’s art school training with its emphasis on abstraction, and a powerful documentation of a young artist’s search for himself.
At the entrance to the exhibit, two fractured self-portraits from 1986 confront the viewer: reminders of Moore’s art school training with its emphasis on abstraction, and a powerful documentation of a young artist’s search for himself. Easter Basket shows Moore in a bright blue shirt and white T-shirt on a split screen, with a pink and grey basket-weave background. His head is cut in half vertically and his eyes appear on the left and the right, one about six inches above the other. In Mehboy, Moore experiments with four diagonal cuts, with one eye ending up dead center in the portrait, and the second appearing mysteriously just above his ear. The background here is a motif of white vines on green. “Both, said Gumpert, “show Moore trying to figure out how the parts will come together.”
In 1987, Moore learned that he and his partner Robert Fulp were both HIV positive, and understandably his painting took on a more urgent message. Aesthetic Impulse (1988) shows a hand with long nails painted bright red grasping a scissors and about to cut the stems of two flowers—inside the flower two nineteenth century German glass eyeballs.
Two years later in The Great American Traveling Medicine Show, a large landscape reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s surrealist dreamscapes, Moore fills the sky with the word placebo in skywriting. Below are the sick, stick figures clustered around a traveling salesman who offers up the cure in a bottle. The landscape includes the severed trunks of redwoods, on one a gallows with a body swinging, on another a bloody syringe, a pool of blood collecting on the earth below. It is Moore at his most powerful, the painting shared by severed redwoods and suffering souls, with two taxidermied birds on twigs adorn the gilded wood frame.
Moore’s lament for the poisoning of pure water, the deforestation of woodlands, the genetic engineering of seeds and plants, and the killing of wildlife runs like a leitmotif throughout the show. In Wildlife Management Area (1990), Moore hangs a red plaque around the deer’s throat, merging the animal and the trophy. Although antlers and lamps are mounted on the artist’s frame giving the work a quaint feeling, the overall effect is shocking as we stare at the deer wearing his own plaque.
Elsewhere, in a letter to Howard Stein, a financier and art collector who owned Moore’s work, the painter wrote about his intent in Niagara (1994-5): “This painting shows a giant DNA molecule rising out of the mist at Niagara Falls, only this molecule is not made of organic bases ACGT that are so familiar, but instead is fashioned from chemicals which cause cancer and birth defects, ‘heritable mutagens,’ which are released on a daily basis in and around the Niagara Falls (which contains the famous superfund site known as Love Canal).”
Throughout this exhibit, we feel Moore’s anguish over the toxic nature of AIDS drugs, the agonizing treatment AIDS patients endure, and the fragility of human life. In Bubble Bath (1990), AIDS is the metaphor. We see a used condom, an AZT bottle, and a toilet with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on it; the artist’s frame is composed of copper pipe with two metal faucets, echoing the bath theme. The result is a work that is the complete antithesis of a soothing bubble bath with men having sex drawn in white lines in black bubbles.
At the center of Arena (1992) lies a patient on a dissection table. Moore’s partner of eight years, Robert Fulp had recently died and the work shows Fulp taking his last breath, a doctor close by. He is surrounded by skeletons, one on horseback. Outside the arena, in the top left corner is Moore’s Buddhist spiritual guide, John Giorno, who is leading a group in prayer and on the top right, Act Up activists struggle behind a police barricade. One carries a sign asking Who’s in Charge? Between the groups, Moore added silkscreened details including strands of DNA and various scientific formulae. The wall text tells us why Moore did so: “I silkscreen stuff to make sure people know I did not simply invent it. It is clearly coming from another source.” In another painting from the same year, Debutantes, Moore depicts himself and his friend, writer Hilton Als as children in a playground where slides and climbing gyms have been replaced—in their place, historical torture devices for sodomites are silkscreened on the work.
Throughout this exhibit, we feel Moore’s anguish over the toxic nature of AIDS drugs, the agonizing treatment AIDS patients endure, and the fragility of human life.
The Wizard (1994), a large painting, 68 by 95 inches, is mounted in a clear resin artist’s frame, filled with pharmaceuticals used to treat AIDS. A burning landscape, its vast and intricate terrain, reminiscent of the apocalyptic landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch, lies before us, with piles of pills and test tubes filled with blood. In the foreground, walks Dr. Jean-Claude Chermann (followed by four white mice), a doctor who, according to the wall text, “played a key role in the identification of HIV at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and in whose research Moore participated.”
In Freedom to Share (1994), Moore paints a Thanksgiving table surrounded by a multi-racial group celebrating the holiday: their eating utensils now surgical tools, their glasses beakers, and the turkey on the serving platter, a mound of syringes filled with blood. AIDS, we see, is no longer just a gay disease.
Three years later, in Lullaby (1997), the landscape has changed dramatically. Now tiny buffalo roam across a bed, covered with white sheets, like a snow-covered plain. There are two pillows but the bed is empty. There are no needles, no pills, and no syringes. The painting, drawn from the artist’s dreams, stands in dramatic contrast to the Bosch-like frenzy characteristic of Wizard and Oz (1999-2000). The label says that the work evokes an “American Arcadia” but there is a sadness, an emptiness to the piece. Are the buffalo resurgent as we are told or are they rather shrunken reminders of the past? Was Moore thinking back to his mother who sang him to sleep with “Home on the Range?”
The Frank Moore exhibit continues in the Tracey/Barry Gallery at Fales where it is possible to see Beehive (1985), a 16-minute experimental film project that involved a collaboration between Moore and dancer/choreographer Jim Self as well as storyboards and studies for the film. Moore did all the sets, costumes, opticals, titles and special effects. For the exhibit, Fales Director Marvin Taylor restored the color in the film, which was shot in Moore’s Crosby Street loft. “The Beehive is a masterpiece,” said Gumpert. “It will be included in an anthology of the most important video performances of the 20th century.”
Although Gumpert and Harris originally thought of mixing up the archival materials with the paintings in the two exhibition spaces, ultimately, it was not possible since Fales has no security guard and no climate control. Had there been more space and money, Harris would have liked to include Yosemite, a very large painting that they could not afford to bring to New York from an island in the Pacific Northwest and earlier works to give viewers a better sense of the art Moore did in the 1980s when he showed at the Paula Allen Gallery. Still, despite the limitations, the resulting exhibit is an extraordinary one, especially resonant in these days of the debate on global warning and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As Frank Moore wrote in 2002, “…As beautiful as our modern Arcadia may appear to be, it is a beauty that is alloyed with all the complexities and toxicities of modern life.”
Lynn Gumpert’s favorite painting in the exhibit is With This Ring…(2000). Gumpert believes that the work “is uniquely Frank, the disembodied hand, the silkscreened genetic codes, the octopus holding the ring, Jackie Kennedy in a wedding dress marrying the cricket with the bee as the priest, and Moore’s signature/initials on the white pill. There are mutant ants at work, too.” While we see Bosch in Arena, here it is just Frank Moore, said Gumpert, “Totally bizarre and mystic and yet incredibly compelling.”
For information on programs related to Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore, see
Grey Art Gallery website.
In addition to Guernica, Roslyn Bernstein reports on arts and culture for such online publications as Buzzine and Huffington Post. Bernstein is a professor of journalism at Baruch College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.