Frank Moore's Full Impact: Q+A with David Leiber
Frank Moore's rich, allegorical canvases respond to environmental and cultural issues, particularly the ravages of AIDS, to which he succumbed in 2002 at the age of 48 and at the height of his artistic powers. Whether depicting the deathbed of his partner Robert Fulps at the center of an arena populated by journalists, drug users shooting up, ACT UP protesters and the poet John Giorno instructing students in Buddhism, or painting Niagara Falls as a scene of sublime beauty with toxic chemical compounds rising in its mist, Moore always tackled his subjects from multiple angles as he exercised his fears and hopes through the craft of painting.
"Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore" is the first New York retrospective of the artist and activist prominent in the city's downtown scene in the 1980s and '90s, opening Sept. 6 at New York University's Grey Art Gallery and the Tracey/Barry Gallery at NYU's Fales Library, which houses Moore's extensive archives in its Downtown Collection. The show includes some 35 paintings, plus more than 50 gouaches, prints and drawings, as well as sketchbooks, films, maquettes, source materials and ephemera dating back to Moore's student years at Yale in the '70s. It also features his work in experimental film and dance performance in the '80s, before he devoted himself to painting after his diagnosis in 1987. Co-organized by independent curator Susan Harris and Grey director Lynn Gumpert, the show is accompanied by a comprehensive monograph with essays by the curators, Gregg Bordowitz, and Klauss Kertess.
A.i.A. spoke with David Leiber, director of New York's Sperone Westwater Gallery, which represented the artist for the last decade of his life and now handles his estate.
HILARIE SHEETS You had a close professional and personal relationship with Frank Moore, and are now a trustee of his foundation. What is its mission?
DAVID LEIBER A couple years before he passed away, Frank set up the Gesso Foundation to do four things. His estate, which consisted of real estate, some stock and cash, and his art, would be used to give grants to small not-for-profit arts organizations like Artists Space and Printed Matter; organizations connected with health care and in particular AIDS-related medical issues; organizations related to social justice; and then a category that hasn't been much exercised until recently, which is the future advancement of his body of work and the appreciation of his work. This is where the Gesso Foundation stepped up by funding in part the current show and monograph. Frank is represented in institutions like MoMA, the Albright Knox, the Whitney, the New York Public Library and the Grey Art Gallery, but there are a number of other prime venues outside New York that don't have his work. The estate still has a few key paintings, one of our goals is to place his work in very prominent collections.
SHEETS Why was the Grey Art Gallery a good fit for the show?
LEIBER The Foundation made the decision shortly after Frank passed away to leave his papers to the Downtown Collection housed in Fales Library at NYU. The Grey Art Gallery did "The Downtown Show" in 2006, which drew heavily from thes the Fales archives, which is a repository for personal papers left by figures in the arts who were part of the downtown scene in New York in the '70s and '80s. It was an eye-opening show for many people and I think its success, based on collaboration between the library and the Grey, was very interesting for them. Frank was in that survey, and once the Grey discovered that the papers were there, a solo show became a very tenable and attractive idea, because he was such a charismatic and pivotal New York figure. They like to highlight artists who had a significant career but might be a little bit off the radar. The show coincides with the 10-year anniversary of his death.
MOORE To your mind, what were some of his strengths as an artist?
LEIBER Frank painted some unbelievably strong allegories. The paintings deal with very specific issues that reflected scientific research or advances or medical facts related to AIDS and, later, to genetic engineering developments. Somehow what's interesting is the works don't seem in any way dated. Not just because the issues he presented are even more relevant now. But also because the paintings are so strong that they appear to be very much of our time. In his writings, he said something I was struck by: "I do think art can effect change in the society, though it takes a long time to operate—almost to the point that the better the painting, the longer it takes to achieve its full impact. That's what painting does over time. It gets louder and louder and louder as the vibrations travel."
SHEETS Moore's paintings engaged the topics of the day. How did he embrace contemporary technologies and processes?
LEIBER He painted often from medical fact or historical fact and was very interested early on in introducing silkscreen imagery into these larger pictures. It might be a silkscreen of the AIDS virus or a DNA strand. In some cases, you have historical prints or engravings that depict a scene of torture. That he made films in the 1980s, creating storyboards for these films frame by frame, definitely made him a better storytelling painter later. Visiting his studio on Crosby Street, you would see all the evidence of the process involved in making these paintings. He had an enormous library and archive, and he looked at all kinds of sources like scientific magazines, medical journals. He took the best from the past and not always the most obvious past. He was looking at what he called WPA surrealism, American artists between the wars, often figurative, like Paul Cadmus and Eugene Berman. He loved the work of Florine Stettheimer, things like Audubon. He was looking at high and low without really making a distinction. He had studied commercial arts in the 1970s, like scene painting and set decoration, trompe l'oeil painting. He sort of just gathered up all his talents and harnessed them at the service of subject matter and its poetic possibilities.
SHEETS In spite of his difficult subject matter, humor permeates Moore's paintings. So does luminosity. Was painting transformative for him?
LEIBER Totally. He trained as a painter. He was interested in film and dance and all kinds of other things, but when he became sick, painting was more of a solitary act. I think he needed that. He would talk about the brushstroke almost licking the surface of canvas. He had all kinds of very sensual metaphors for painting. You could see, if you visited the studio over the course of making a painting, just how much it changed and how this luminosity came to life. Even if you didn't know him, you can sense from his paintings that he was an incredibly positive and hopeful person, even at his darkest moment. In terms of subject matter, the subtleties of seeing both sides of an issue became even more expressed in these later paintings, which dealt with genetic research. He understood the very clear paradox for him personally. Genetic engineering developed drugs that certainly prolonged his life. But at the same time, the fact that biological engineering had altered the agricultural landscape and genetically altered food was horrifying for him. He did a number of paintings about corn, which was emblematic of the problem. He wasn't just saying genetic research is bad. He saw both sides of the issue.