Toxic Beauty, Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library, New York

The paintings of Frank Moore perform a brash balancing act. Poised at the unstable juncture of art, kitsch, and propaganda, they sometimes slide into shrill didacticism or shameless bad taste. Mostly, though, Moore remains aloft, hurling bolts of colour and light, surveying a woeful panorama with an eye for teeming detail. From those heights, he spies enough beauty to counterbalance his despair.

A prolific and preternaturally articulate member of New York’s downtown art scene, Moore was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987 and died of Aids in 2002, at 48. He spent that diseased decade and a half painting furiously, fusing realism, allegory and rage into monumentally intricate paintings such as “Wizard.”

That vast and wrathful landscape takes one cue from Hieronymus Bosch and another from Thomas Moran. We gaze over a valley, which at first glance could be the sublime Hudson River’s, except that a moment later it resolves into a hellish vista of brown sludge swelling into mountains of pills and bones. Syringes poke up amidst the clutter of vials, pill bottles, tubes and beakers. The magus of the title, the celebrated Aids doctor Jean-Claude Chermann, wears a white coat and leads a parade of rodents down a reddish brick road. A naked man with mottled skin and a long tail – the patient as lab rat – scurries across the cursed landscape. A glowing pile of coins rests atop a puddle of blood.

“Toxic Beauty”, the first retrospective of Moore’s work, straddles two New York University venues, the Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library. It’s big enough to light up his variable virtuosity and the full range of his concerns. He railed against the dangers of genetically modified food, the spread of environmental poisons, the corruption of the medical establishment, the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, and the venom of homophobia.

Agenda-driven art can get tiresome, but much of Moore’s work inhabits a misty, fertile zone between fantasy and nightmare. In “Lullaby” (1997), he transcribed a dream he had of tiny bison meandering across the snowy tundra of his bed. It’s a hopeful vision, in which the confining sickbed becomes an open prairie and a beast once doomed to extinction has regenerated. In “Lullaby II”, the idyll turns gruesome. A pair of polar bears lolls on mountainous pillow; a third has just murdered a penguin, and the predator’s bloodied mouth and paw streak the bedsheet in gore. The victim’s eyes remain as wide as the gash in its flesh. There is no judgment here: rather than idealise wildlife, Moore simply registers its amorality.

Yet there’s something bleakly hopeful about Moore’s observations. Life is parasitical, feasting on the flesh of the dying; nature is a zombie cannibal – but at least every death nourishes new bursts of vigour. In “Release” (1999), an arm stretches across a horizontal canvas, extending a hand that liberates a kaleidoscope of butterflies. The lone limb bears marks of Kaposi’s sarcoma, but out of these dark blotches sprout mushrooms, grass and flowers.

Moore’s art is all about complexity and contradiction. He depicted nature as the victim of human barbarity, yet he also recognised that his health depended on the toxic chemicals he swallowed. The Aids drugs that kept him alive were the products of genetic engineering – a technology he loathed as environmentally destructive. He also understood that the sale of those remedies lined greedy pockets, fuelling an economy that exploited the ill. “I had the same reaction to taking toxic drugs to suppress opportunistic infections as I had to using chemical sprays in the garden to get rid of aphids or gypsy moths,” he wrote.

Moore nurtured a similar ambivalence to the medical establishment. His “Hospital” (1992) is a heart-shaped bay jammed with ice floes, each one bearing a single bedridden patient. Ruptured arteries rear up, volcano-like, and the surface is strewn with bones. How can the sick get better, severed from the world and from each other? The hospital’s chill environment heals but also destroys, crushing love and leaching poetry from those who need it most.

Moore handled ambivalence with aplomb. It’s when he couldn’t muster enough whimsy to temper his anger that he got himself into trouble. The least successful works in “Toxic Beauty” are the bitterest and least nuanced. “Oz”, for instance, mocks agribusiness, apathy and middle-American greed in garish colours and a cartoonish composition that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1970s Mad magazine spread.

When Moore committed acts of vulgarity, he did so enthusiastically. He grasped the difference between good taste and bad, and often chose the second as the truer mirror of an appalling world. Tastefulness was an indulgence he felt he could not afford, a technique that served to aestheticise – and anaesthetise – suffering. Instead he deployed crudeness the way George Grosz did: to draw attention to brutality. He wasn’t afraid to inspire disgust when necessary, which in his brief and bitter experience, was most of the time.

In the mid 1990s, the New Yorker writer Arlene Croce coined the term “victim art” for work she considered beyond honest judgment. A critic, she felt, could never get enough professional distance from the art that Aids sufferers made about the disease. Moore considered Croce’s position, and decided that he didn’t care whether his paintings transcended his immediate fury. “If a critic felt that he/she could not properly judge the work in this context, so be it,” he wrote. “With time the real value of this work, or its lack of value, would emerge.”

And so it has. What’s left, after the artist is gone and the anger has died down, is not the manipulative yowl that Croce feared, but a maddeningly mixed achievement, by turns horrifying, entertaining, noble, and rude.

‘Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore’ continues until December 8 at two locations at New York University in Greenwich Village: Grey Art Gallery, and the Tracey/Barry Gallery at Fales Library in Bobst Library.

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