Like many within the Visual AIDS community, Frank Moore was
an artist, activist and organizer. He was a foundational voice in the earliest
years of Visual AIDS, including his significant contributions as part of the
Visual AIDS Artists Caucus’ creation of the Red Ribbon, and The Archive Project
with co-founder David Hirsh. His influence is ever present, and he continues to
inspire, and guide. Toxic Beauty a collection of his paintings and personal
papers is currently on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and the
In honor of the new Visual AIDS Artist Registry, the online digital extension of The Archive Project, we have focused this month’s web gallery on Frank Moore and the creation of the Archive Project in 1994.
On The Archive
The Archive Project, renamed The Frank Moore Archive in 2002 after his death, is the backbone of the new online registry, and will remain a physical archive containing existing slides, and ephemera, such as press clippings, artist statements, printed invites and other materials amassed from artists members over the years.
The Archive Project began as a conversation between Moore and co-founder David Hirsh in the spring of 1994, and later expanding into a larger collective of artists and archivist.
At the time, members of The Archive Project felt that for artists living with HIV two deaths were on the horizon; the second was the physical death; the first was someone’s artistic practice and career. Because of health and financial issues many artists stopped making new work, and often as they were dying and after their death, work was lost, thrown out, or forgotten. The goal of The Archive was to prevent the first death through archiving work, and preserving legacy.
On December 1st, 1994 members of The Archive Project and Visual AIDS stood on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art demanding direct services to artists living with HIV, and offering a direct resource for archiving artists’ work. From there The Archive Project grew, and 1996 the exhibition, and accompanying catalogue, “Arts’ Communities/AIDS’ Communities: Realizing the Archive Project” was exhibited at the Boston Center for the Arts, with work by over 120 artist members, one of the first exhibitions to showcase work created by artists with HIV. Since then Visual AIDS has remained committed to working with galleries, museums and art spaces to feature art from the Archive. In 1999, as part of our goal to increase exposure, Visual AIDS launched the monthly online web gallery. It is a way to welcome curators, artists, writers and cultural workers to explore the archive and become familiar with work by artist members.
The Archive Project, Visual AIDS Artist Registry, and web galleries are ways we use art to remind the world that AIDS is not over, while simultaneously supporting artists living with HIV, and preserving the legacy of artists who were living with HIV.
On Frank Moore's Work
To provide insight into Moore’s art, we draw upon comments
made September 24th at Frank Moore: Together in Art and Activism, a panel
discussion organized by Visual AIDS at the Fales Library, featuring Joy Episalla, Gregg Bordowitz, Loring McAlpin, and Harvey Weiss (For more about
that event, click on the panelist's name).
A reoccurring theme in discussion of Moore’s life and his work is the multiplicity in which he lived and created. He was always working on many levels. For designer Weiss, this comes through in, LICK IT, Moore’s 1992 Day With(out) Art poster, " It demands that the viewer 'LICK IT’ in regard to HIV, defying safe sex jargon with a contradictory command and the HIV glyph posing as a sun symbol radiating not light but fear."
Staying on the image of the glyph, Weiss described Viral Romance this way, "Frank takes the flowers that a partner would bring their beloved and morphs beauty into symbols of illness and death in the form of HIV glyphs which the subject holds stiffly armed away from his unseen body in an ambiguous gesture of either offering or receiving."
This weaving of the natural with Moore’s everyday to create meaning, often composing a surreal scene, is a Moore hallmark such as in Evidence. Similarly this occurs with Aquarium, of which Loring McAlpin said, " I love the way that Frank’s experience of the everyday made its way into his work…his daily pill regime, and how that intersected with the politics of water and waste management – dangerous protozoa seen luminously magnified in his drinking glass."
Layers of meaning in relation to the western world is a major theme of Moore’s work such as in Everything I Own, a painting of two dismembered hands on which a world of objects hang. Implicit is a striving for balance, the hands populated with a house, a car, a ladder and much else, are cut off from the body, bent in a Buddhist pose.
Another side of Everything are works like Incubator and Patient, worlds comprised of nature and objects but missing humans. Pillows as sandbags shore up a pond of water on a bed, water where the patient should be, a coffin carton of eggs lowered into the ground.
But things are not always as they seem in Moore’s work. In discussing Gulliver Awake, McAlpin shares his joy around the little mysteries that populate Moore’s canvases, " This village urging this gay Gulliver to break free of his binds, or are they tying him down? The absence of a clear answer keeps one looking. The big mystery in the middle of the painting, a poem in Arabic, lies on a white cube. Frank was not afraid of tasking his viewer, and I think this is his dare to us - go find that translation, figure it out. With the poem he points to the power of desire to overcome suffering, even in the face of death. Or at least, that’s my reading. But meaning is always up for grabs, so go find the poem for yourselves."
It’s this proactive approach that McAlpin advocates that allowed him to find deeper meaning in Angel, "It took me a long time of looking to fully grasp the cycle it describes, and my reading came from a close look at how the footsteps in it were rendered. Initially, I’d thought it showed a human form walking into the sun, presumably someone leaving this earth, dying - the faint forms of human bones and organs at the margins make this clear, and then its spirit walking back into the sky from that final exit. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the steps in the snow are coming towards the viewer, not away. So rather than describe a human becoming spirit, it traces a spirit returning to the earth."
There is so much depth to Moore’s paintings that meaning is almost endless. Episalla reflects on Debutantes, "A florid brightly colored garden teeming with what we think are flowers but are in fact flowering AIDS virus diagrams. Two young boys, actually portraits of Frank and the writer Hilton Als, (whose heads are too big for their bodies), with their arms around each other, look onto a monument of a statue-like figure impaled on a stake atop a pill pedestal, blood stain grass beneath them. Farther along, two young girls, together, tricycle down the middle ground of the painting staring at another torture image. Other medieval torture devices populate the painting—an anal pear in the foreground and a Judas cradle in the upper left background—both devices designed to torture homosexuals, witches and blasphemers. One notices the park is surrounded with a barbed wire fence festooned with inverted pink triangles. Even the painting itself is framed in barbed wire. The boys and girls are making their debuts, "coming out" into a culture permeated with homophobia. At first glance Debutantes may appear to be about innocence in the cultivated garden, when in fact it is more about the dangers lurking in the culture."
Similarly for Episalla Wizard is, "yet another kind of garden. Or rather an anti-garden. Completed in 1994, at the deepest darkest point of the AIDS crisis, this is both an epic allegory and a history painting. A vast wasteland set against the background of the World Trade Center, the Pyramids and Eiffel Tower, is populated with sprawling HIV drug bottles and pills, coffins of dead friends on a funeral pyre, piles of gold coins, research instruments, people with AIDS lying in hospital beds wasting away, the Grand Canyon, the shadow of a devil figure whose eyeball is a dollar sign, and in the lower left corner, making an exit—a prominent AIDS researcher—the wizard? (Dr. Jean-Claude Chermman), who seems not at all affected by what’s behind him-- could it be that he’ll see something promising from his balloon? He is followed by lab mice up the yellow brick road—where a young man kneels (Frank himself) waiting to interview the doctor. The painting’s frame is a cornucopia of the AIDS drugs Frank was taking at the time--the triple combination drug cocktail not yet within reach."
Whether viewed one at time, or together at Toxic Beauty or in this web gallery, Moore’s work demand a keen eye, imagination, and a sense of humanity and humor. In life as in death, Frank contains multitudes, and we at Visual AIDS to feel fortunate to be reminded of Moore everyday.
Visual AIDS Staff 2012