New York

Anthony Viti

In its repeated use of the cross, Anthony Viti’s series of paintings entitled “Elegies,” 1993, becomes like a field of tombstones for those who have died of AIDS. But Viti’s crosses are poignant less by reason of this association than because of the exquisite, sensual—indeed, sublimely erotic—way they are painted. Using his own blood as well as paint, Viti bathes the cross in a rich, infinitely varied atmosphere, evocative of the emotional complexity of love, as well as of the inevitability of its martyrdom by society. By using a traditional symbol of hope and suffering—even if it is Marsden Hartley’s German Iron Cross—Viti gives his painting universal meaning. It becomes shrewdly emblematic of a double, equally heroic advocacy: honor and courage in facing death, and abstraction in a world of figuration (both tinged with mournfulness). Hypnotically repeated, the cross represents the authority of a fate no one can escape.

Viti’s surface sometimes seems to have been made by the imprint of a body in paint, as though registering its pain. At other times it seems like the charred remains of an explosion. Always, there is a sense of seductive but spent instinct and rage, but also of control provided by the organizing principle of the cross, which does double duty as the symbol of Viti’s ego and of his consciousness. For in the end these paintings are about his own extraordinary sensibility, which can turn agony into contemplation. The cross represents his heroic mastery of his situation as a homosexual, as well as his sense of loss—and perhaps of guilt as a survivor—and as such becomes, perhaps unintentionally, a symbol of resurrection. This seems confirmed by the fact that in many of the paintings the cross dissolves into the halo that surrounds it, dematerializing into a kind of afterimage. Esthetically, Viti’s paintings assert aura and religiosity in defiance of those who think those qualities are passé and regressive, offering consolation, and signs of self-repair.

Dare one speak of the beauty of these “elegies”—the beauty of the elegiac mood itself? If, as Rilke suggested, beauty is a disguise of terror, then Viti, in turning the ugliness of death into the beauty of art—and in announcing that ideological art need not be ashamed of being beautiful, nor of the empathy and transcendence of beauty—reveals his terror, generated by a sense of transience and mortality, without shame. Indeed, his paintings, which have been associated with outrage and torment, seem to show time imploding into a single ecstatic, “higher” moment. The cross confirms that death will not be in vain, but the painterly excitement suggests that its meaning may be absorbed in a beautiful, passing moment. As such Viti’s works are tragic for, as Aristotle said, tragedy shows both the reversal of fortune and the recognition of this reversal. Recognition leads one to identify spontaneously with the victim, but it also gives one a self-containment—the cross represents it—that the victim cannot have, because his self-recognition comes too late to save him from suffering.

Donald Kuspit