More Life: Frank Moore
David Zwirner, 525 West 19th Street, New York 14 September – 28 October
This is the first monographic exhibition of the late American artist and social activist in nearly a decade. Featuring 14 large oil paintings in sculptural frames alongside archival material, the show confirms that Moore – who grew up admiring American surrealists Paul Cadmus and Peter Blume – was not only a remarkably skilled painter but also a captivating storyteller. Often mining his autobiography as source material, his hyperdetailed paintings deploy plots out of a fever dream: hybrid creatures and occult phenomena take up residence in mutating environments tainted by the eects of / . (The artist tested positive in 1987 and succumbed to the virus at the age of forty-eight in 2002.)
Replicating the composition of a seventeenth-century Dutch engraving, Arena (1992) depicts an anatomical theatre populated with pompadoured junkies, Castro clones and human skeletons brandishing Latin banners. (One of them quotes Horace: ‘We are dust and shadows’.) In a Boschian fashion, the painting features a myriad of overlapping scenes that illustrate America’s crisis in all its intricacies. At the centre, the artist’s partner – who died the year the painting was made – is lying on a stretcher attended by two medics, his spirit leaving his body in a trail of smoke before a crew’s rolling cameras. In the upper right corner, police o¡cers are barricading the entrance to prevent ¢ £¤ protesters from storming in. Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, a group meditation is conducted by a glowing Tibetan lama, supposedly the poet John Giorno, who instructed Moore in Buddhist practice. The unravelling fable is torn between intimate pain and hopeful reverie: a tableau clinique diagnosing the epidemic’s ills as that of an omnipresent, stigmatising gaze.
On the opposite wall hangs the fabulously titled Birth of Venus (1993), a reclining portrait of Downtown drag icon Lady Bunny as a mermaid. The unlikely poster girl of medicoecological collapse, the platinum-coied performer appears washed ashore surrounded by syringes, used condoms and plastic pillbottles. At once erotic and comedic, her gaze is staring back at the viewer, her exposed penis covered in sea foam while her foot advertises a cartoonlike pink tentacle. (The painting’s gilded frame is rumoured to be one of Henri Matisse’s.) Correlations between the natural and medical worlds are frequent in the work of Moore, who alongside other Visual artists is a creator of the red-ribbon symbol. In Release (1999) a human arm covered in purplish Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions stretches across the elongated landscape format, as if trying to reach outside its frame. Budding weeds, dandelions and mushrooms are growing from the bloody wounds, which have become hospitable microcosms for caterpillars and the resulting butterflies. This is one of only two works from the show made after 1996, the year combination drug therapy rendered a manageable chronic disease – at least for those who could aord the treatment regimen. Here, symptoms of a once deadly virus give way to new forms of life: a mythical return to nature that appears both utopian and dystopian.
Although the show oers a welcome reintroduction to his work, it left this reviewer wanting – excuse the pun – more. His early abstract works and later commissions for Gianni Versace – including his bloody portrait of a decapitated Kate Moss as Medusa – for instance, would have been valuable additions. Then again, the premise of David Zwirner’s More Life – a series of exhibitions marking the 40th anniversary of the epidemic – leaves little room for its guest artists to travel outside their diagnosis. (In fact, one would question whether the virus’s much-debated origin story truly calls for a commemoration.) Most unfortunate, however, is the omission of Moore’s diaristic practice. Aside from a display case quietly exhibiting a dozen letters and preparatory sketches from the 1980s – all relating to the artist’s collaboration with choreographer Jim Self – the contents of his hundreds of prose-filled notebooks are absent. (Surprisingly so, as who better placed than the show’s curator – Pulitzer-winning author Hilton Als – to dissect this rich side of the artist’s multilayered practice?) But for now we remain acquainted with Moore the painter, one who ‘generates images to restore to the imagination a lost equilibrium’, as he once wrote, ‘like a pharmacist dispensing prescriptions to restore health’. Benoît Loiseau
© The estate of the artist. Courtesy the Gesso Foundation, New York