Frank Moore: Dreamscapes in Danger 

Frank Moore / Gesso Foundation

A closer look at some of Frank Moore's intricate oil paintings with the artist's commentary from his lecture at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (July 31, 1998) and from his essay "Painting from Life" published in a 1995 catalogue under his name by his gallery Sperone Westwater. 

Frank Moore (1953-2002) was a visual artist, naturalist, and AIDS activist known for his imaginative detailed paintings on environmental destruction, consumerism, biogenetics, homosexuality, and the impact of HIV.

Roberta Smith of the New York Times credits Moore’s painterly influences to “social and magic realism, Surrealism, the Victorian fairy painters and the Hudson River School, as well as commercial art and Works Progress Administration murals.”

Arena was the first highly intricate painting of Moore's career. Before it, he found such detailed work tedious. Soon he would come to love it.

Arena is based on a wood engraving of a 17th century Dutch dissection anatomy theater. The artist replicated the theater, the skeletons and the latin signs.

The artist’s partner of eight years, Robert Fulps, who had recently died from AIDS, is depicted on the operating table while his soul, or essence, leaves his body.

Moore said this painting 'catalogues various responses to AIDS.' Two guys shoot up. A woman holds the deflated body of her son or grandson. Bodybuilders, "these symbols of immunity," strut. The skeletons pull a beating heart from the tree of life.

The Leiden skeletons watch the spectacle, carrying banners of Latin verses, such as: 'we are dust and shadows,' and 'birth is the beginning of dying.'

"There's Act Up or some activist group coming in."

"There's a Tibetan lama sitting with a buddha over his head" and people practicing meditation. Moore studied the Tibetan Book of the Dead and became a practicing Buddhist after his HIV diagnosis.

The artist identifies this as a self-portrait of sorts when he felt obsessed by AIDS. "When you put on your glasses all you can see is the virus," he explained, "it’s the only way you can see the world."

This was when Moore began to play with silkscreening scientific information onto his oil canvases, merging evidence with invention.

One of the questions at the crux of Frank Moore's artistic inquiry was: “Can you have a healthy person in a polluted or degraded environment? And, can you have a health pristine environment when the people and their mentalities are degraded and polluted?"

Moore states that the razed landscape here, formerly one of grandeur, speaks to the enormity of the loss we've experienced from AIDS.

He marks this painting as an early challenge to paint figuratively in miniature. It was the start of the more Boschian scenes to come.

Around this time (1992), Moore began to depict surrealist landscape as metaphor. In Hospital, we see an ice covered body of water and also a (broken) heart.

Moore's playful reinvention of Norman Rockwell's 1943 painting "Freedom from Want" showed in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. The guests are diverse unlike the white homogeneity of Rockwell's scene.

Moore replicated the place settings and food on the table precisely, with a few added details like changing the water glasses to beakers.

Here, in lieu of the Thanksgiving turkey, we have a platter of AIDS medications, which at that time were not served equally worldwide and across economic status.

Atop the surface of the painting is a layer of splotches suggestive of a gram stain.

Based on the mudra 'mandala offering,' Moore painted several works like this of his itemized possessions. Here, he references the Buddhist practice of letting go of attachments.

After a Titian exhibit in Paris, Moore was inspired to depict his own Birth of Venus. "I thought of The Lady Bunny, an increasingly renowned drag diva and gender illusionist whom I had long admired for her beauty, generosity, wit, and general tackiness."

In Gulliver Awake we see a young gay man trying to pull himself free of the constraints of society and illness.

Moore considered Wizard the pinnacle of his paintings on AIDS. "It's a portrait of a doctor I was seeing for a while in France named Jean-Claude Chermann, and it's sort of an apocalyptic landscape and I crammed into it everything I knew. Some of it's funny, some of it's sad, some of it's really scary."

The artist began making coffins of each person he knew who had died of AIDS, his own included, and set them on fire. As he worked on the painting, the pile just kept growing.

"The sun is a dividing cell, the sun is the source of life, it keeps beating down on everything—even the dying, and you see piles of money here. Money is falling from heaven so it doesn't fall necessarily where it's needed, it just falls in odd places, and that's the way it often is for money for AIDS."

The thousands of tiny pills Moore painted in the background he likened to musical notes. Again, we see an innovative use of silkscreen, this time, to create a more collage-like effect.

The frame is an intricate assemblage of the medications used to treat HIV and AIDS at the time.

“Sometimes serendipity strikes. I was working on Wizard in the summer of 1993 and needed to paint the lab mice. I was up in [the country] and couldn't for the life of me find a picture of a mouse--not in the library, the one bookstore, or the magazine stand. I gave up.

The following day I was on my knees weeding in the garden and Henry, my cat, strolled up and dropped something by my knee. You guessed it. I picked it up by the tail and noticed that it didn't seem at all hurt - just in shock. I put it in an empty bottle of cranberry juice and took it to the studio. By the time I had painted four versions of the mouse directly onto the painting, it had fully recovered. I let it loose in the woodshed and watched it scamper straight up the wall into the hay loft.”

This painting, Faith (2000), speaks, perhaps, to some sense of hope and willpower.

In the mid-90s, fashion designer Gianni Versace commissioned Moore to create a series of paintings.

In The Client, we see the fashion icon gingerly dressing a couture praying mantis. After mating, the female mantis is known to bite the head off her mate. The designer appears to be nervously placating a demanding customer.

All of the patterns on the insects were pulled from his men's collection that year.

In 1993, Moore travelled to Yosemite National Park. The painting, Yosemite, is 10 feet wide with an elaborate constructed frame. It was featured in the 1995 Whitney biennial. "I made this giant picture, and on a very thin strip at the bottom is the entire history of the park."

The artist references the early American style of painting in which the figures are minuscule against the great backdrop of nature. The mountains appear inlaid with coins and dollar bills. In the background we see a red ribbon. Moore was instrumental in the creation of the red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS awareness and support.

The founder of the park, naturalist John Muir, sits at the campfire looking defeated. Cartoon characters commingle with tourists and bears.

The trees are coiled hissing rattlesnakes. Smoke signals waft unlikely symbols and insignia.

Nature appears ready to strike.

In 1994-1995, Moore painted a series of three large-scale canvases on Niagara Falls. Curious what he was breathing in along with the mist, the artist discovered that, while stunning to look at, Niagara Falls is one of the most polluted bodies of water in America.

"On the shoreline here are gold representations of chemical symbols for many of the chemicals that are depicted in the stream there."

Moore identified the chemical structures of the most toxic pollutants known to cause genetic defects, wove them into a helix, and silkscreened them in the mist.

“There are little billboards that spell out the names of all the major polluters of the Niagara River.”

In Patient (1997-1998) Moore pairs what he considers two opposites: nature and the hospital bed. Spending long amounts of time in the hospital removed the naturalist from the restorative environment of the outdoors.

"Since we're ninety-nine percent water, I figured that we got all these beds full of water, and it's kind of like Heraclitean flow."

In Lullaby, "the feeling was getting back to a simpler kind of childlike state." Moore refers to 'Home on the Range,' and the sweetness of the song his mother used to sing.

“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

The quiet snow scene of the bed sheets evokes a nostalgia for the innocence of childhood.

Frank Moore
June 22, 1953 - April 21, 2002

Credits: Story

"Painting from Life," Frank Moore, Sperone Westwater, New York, gallery catalogue “FRANK MOORE”, 1995

Frank Moore Lecture: Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1998 (video)

A Tribute to Frank Moore (video), Rebecca Moore and Denise Zmekhol

Images courtesy of Sperone Westwater and Gesso Foundation

The Anatomy Theatre, Leiden, c.1610 (engraving), Swanenburgh, Willem van (17th Century), Wikimedia public domain

Project by Rebecca Moore
Text by Rebecca Moore and Liz Fischer Greenhill

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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