“Toxic Beauty”

Hardly a household name, Frank Moore got his start in New York City’s flourishing ‘downtown’ art scene of the late seventies-early eighties after studying both art and psychology at Yale University; he largely designed sets and made dance films, working with an affiliate of Merce Cunningham. Yet his childhood summers spent at his grandfather’s home in the Adirondacks never seemed far away. During those early years he had gained an affinity for the natural environment that would later inform his art. He would go on to make exceedingly detailed paintings often related to ecological issues, man’s destruction of nature. He evoked the political debates in his work, covering everything from wildlife management to water pollution to the use of pesticides. Nevertheless he imbued such themes with a sense of whimsy that made his grim cautionary tales seductive.

In the late eighties both Moore and his partner of eight years were diagnosed HIV-positive. His visual narratives became personal; he alluded to loss in his paintings: empty hospital beds, fading footsteps in the snow, a pair of hands that intimated a non-materialistic afterlife. Vibrant tableaux of toxic waste became metaphors for the disarray in the medical community, for the politics and the economics of scientific research and drug testing vis-à-vis AIDS.

Moore painted Wizard in 1994. We see a doctor in his white jacket walking through an ‘apocalyptic’ landscape full of beakers, bottles and bottles of pills, and burning coffins, bearing the names of those he had already lost to AIDS, including his lover Robert Fulps and the noted artist David Wojnarowicz. Toward the bottom to the right is a naked man, growing a mouse’s tail, and behind the doctor traipse four white lab mice.

The curator Susan Harris notes that Moore “meticulously research[ed]” his themes.[1] So surely he would have applauded the epiphanic article about lab mice and their use in biomedicine that the journalist Daniel Engber recently wrote. In the piece, one neuroscientist—who’s used twenty thousand lab rodents over the span of his twenty-five-year career—suggests that “the inbred, factory-farmed rodents—raised by the millions in germ-free barrier rooms, overfed and under stimulated and in some cases pumped through with antibiotics—may be placing unseen constraints on what we know and learn.”[2] The scientists are stuck in a rut of precedents and funding. “Starting in the early 1990s, and coincident with the rise of the transgenic mouse, a set of historians and philosophers of science began to construct a formal critique of industrial biomedicine.” The upshot was that “mice were never so good at curing disease as they were at making data for its own sake.”[3]

Frank Moore set Wizard in a three-dimensional frame he made with actual pharmaceuticals and their packaging fixed in cast-resin. He died of AIDS in 2002; he was forty-eight years old.

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(“Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore,” a retrospective, runs through December 8, 2012 in New York at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and the Tracey/Barry Gallery at NYU’s Fales Library.)

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[1] Susan Harris, Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore, 2012

[3] Ibid.

Additional sources: Suzanne Anker, Dorothy Nelkin, The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, 2003; Grey Art Gallery, NYU; Sperone Westwater; Roberta Smith, “Where Anxieties Roam,” The New York Times, September 6, 2012.

(Image: Wizard by Frank Moore, 1994, oil on canvas, pharmaceuticals cast in lucite, aluminum frame, 68 x 95 1/2 inches, Private Collection, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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