Let It Shine
Angela Leroux-Lindsey explores the long-lasting effects of Frank Moore’s toxic beauty
From the moment of his HIV diagnosis, Frank Moore’s painting became an apparatus of criticism against industrial medicine and bio-engineering even as his body, kept alive by pharmaceuticals, endorsed them. This paradox informed his work for fifteen years. Moore is rooted in thematic spaces that have magnetic emotional cores, pulling social, medical, economic, and environmental controversies into paintings that remain deeply personal. Moore did not use his illness as an opportunity to project self-pity or mourning; he used it to structure a matter-of-fact and witty allegory of hypocrisy. [Editor’s note: In the June 1997 issue, A&U became the first national magazine to feature a full gallery of Frank Moore’s art.]
Spanning thirty years, “Toxic Beauty: the Art of Frank Moore,” housed at the Grey Art Gallery and curated by Lynn Gumpert and Susan Harris, is the first comprehensive retrospective of Moore’s paintings, gouaches, sketches, films (including the fantastic and innovative Beehive, a collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Jim Self), research notes, source materials, and ephemera. Spanning Grey’s gallery space and the Tracey/Barry gallery at Fales Library, the permanent home of Moore’s papers and personal library, “Toxic Beauty” coincides with the ten-year anniversary of Moore’s death at age forty-eight. He learned he was HIV-positive around 1987 and entered an intensely prolific creative period. Moore split his time between his studio in SoHo and rural New York, where his aesthetic and politics were informed by the elegant and symbiotic ways in which different elements of nature coexisted.
Troubling this version of paradise was man: Toxic chemical byproducts are routinely dumped onto environments, destroying delicate ecosystems, and those byproducts are a side effect of medical advancements that produce the kinds of drugs that treat HIV/AIDS symptoms. As early as 1986, Moore was consumed with this split effect, creating a pair of self-portraits that refract his identity. In Easter Basket, a vertical line halves his face, the right side shifted up so his mouth is parallel to his left eye. On the right he is frowning, filled with self-doubt or perhaps fear; on the left he is calm, wise. In Mehboy, he is also cut and shifted, this time horizontally, this time inscrutable. In both the background pattern is intact. Moore is not schizophrenic in his fracture, but calculating.
Soon his work takes a hyperrealist turn that sharpens its narrative yield and gives Moore room to utilize a battery of artistic techniques. In The Great American Traveling Medicine Show (1990), Moore depicts a population beset by illness and surrounded by a landscape of desiccated redwoods. Among them is a pharmaceutical salesman hawking items from a truck labeled “THE CURE,” a biting commentary on the medical-industrial complex and its self-proclaimed ability to design and administer effective drugs. A skywriter dissents, and leaves a trail of cloud that reads “PLACEBO.” As he often did, Moore layered his biomedical polemic with an environmental one, accusing advancement in medicine as coming at great cost to the earth and its creatures.
Embracing the flexibility of mixed medium, Moore liked to overlay oil paint with silkscreened images and three-dimensional found objects, often scientific or historical, to strengthen the nonfiction elements of his complex underlying concepts. In Arena (1992), Moore riffs on the play between past and present, man and science, in a scene depicting an early-modern medical arena with an audience circling an impending autopsy. The body at center stage is his recently-deceased lover Robert Fulps, who is attended to by an ineffective doctor and surrounded by a collection of figures related to this time in Moore’s life: John Giorno, his spiritual mentor; the members of ACT UP, pushing against the media corps and police officers, both representing misinformation and unwarranted conflict; other figures are dancing, embracing, or teaching; everywhere there are skeletons, standing in as both emblems of medical research and harbingers of death. Silkscreened onto the center wall are scientific images likely culled from an old medical text, a reminder that epistemology is malleable.
His piece Niagara (1994) is dominated by a horseshoe waterfall in bold blue, a figure at the bottom left shouldering a Panasonic video camera and filming the tourist boat, Maid of the Mist, as it approaches the base of the falls. Moore invokes the naturalist painters of the nineteenth century in his panoramic framing and realist application, but adds an invasive and subtle rejoinder that belies the natural beauty: Simmering just beneath the surface of the water are silkscreened images of toxic chemical compounds, including benzene (C6H6), a carcinogenic petrochemical found in petroleum and tobacco smoke. Moore directly links the invasion of tourism with the invasion of pollutants. In a notebook dated 1996, he writes:
I painted Niagara seeking a kind of transparency—an ability to look through the picture to see the changing historical, environmental, and poetic significance of one of America’s most iconic landscapes. It is an image we measure ourselves and our country against; a target for our projections of pride, of concern, and of hope—for though the wilderness is now a park and the heavily polluted falls can be turned on and off at will, they remain a site of awe and ecstasy. [Grey Art Gallery]
In a final, characteristic flourish, Niagara’s frame is constructed out of copper pipe topped with two real faucets. Even in his dark state of mind, Moore was able to crack a smile—he wanted us all to be in on the joke.
By the late nineties, a time when protease inhibitors were advertised as turning HIV from a death sentence to a manageable condition, Moore’s outlook focused more sharply on the government’s role in the lives of those with the virus. Patient (1997–1998) is a cold painting, featuring an empty hospital bed placed in a frozen winter landscape. An icy lake spills over the edge of the mattress, evoking Moore’s earlier fascination with Niagara and with man’s control over nature; in the center of the lake is an untethered IV dripping blood among snowflakes and fallen leaves.
The emptiness of the image is visceral and double-edged: it’s a reminder of the millions of loved ones lost, often dying alone in hospital beds due to restrictive rules prohibiting non-spousal visitors. The beds also signify the loss of the millions left behind, grieving for the warmth that was their life’s love. The empty space is also a rebuke to government-sponsored medicine and its claims to a cure. Despite advances in treatment, many people were still dying from the effects of AIDS. The IV in Moore’s painting is both ineffectual and yet waiting for its next patient.
Moore’s life was cut short while he was producing some of the most stunning and sophisticated work of his life. Because of his diagnosis, his warm, engaging demeanor was tinged with a keen fatalism: He knew well that his paintings told the story of a destructive dialectic between man, nature, and government. So he built his landscapes carefully, and trusted that his life would always shine through the image. As this exhibition garners national attention and brings renewed interest to his oeuvre, many are commenting on the cleverness of Moore’s prescience, and drawing parallels to contemporary disasters preceded by man’s environmental meddling and sketchy relationship with pharmaceutical giants. Moore’s most potent message, albeit tinged with skepticism, remains one of transformation: an allegory can be re-inscribed, a forest can be re-planted, a virus can become a thing of the past.
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.