New York

Frank Moore

In “Days of 1964” the poet James Merrill wrote: “I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights/Even of degradation, as I for one/Seemed, those days, to be always climbing/Into a world of wild/Flowers, feasting, tears—or was I falling, legs/Buckling, heights, depths/Into a pool of each night’s rain?” Like Merrill, Frank Moore seems to be unsure of when he is rising and when he is falling; hovering tentatively in the same electric, soul-wrenching, longed-for space of pending despair. Moore’s recent work shares the passionate engagement, richness of experience, and technical self-assurance of Merrill’s poetry. Though Moore’s subject is not exactly love (as Merrill’s is), his narration of loss and hope—whether his subject is environmental decay or illness or some other desecration where there should be only beauty—has the dignity that lovers earn, and they only by holding to each other.

In Easter, 1994, Moore shows a loaf of bread bleeding into a cumlike pool of cream that spills from a Sunnydale Farms container. The cream has thinned to milk in Evidence, 1994, in which a broken egg with an eye for a yolk looks up and away from the pool of mingled fluids. In Wizard, 1994, a particularly powerful piece, Moore shows a doctor fleeing through a landscape of lab mice and hills of useless medication, severed body parts, and microscopes, while sunlight selectively lights up a few piles of gold through which sarcoma-covered emaciated shadows dart fearfully. Equally impressive (and really not so different) are the environmentalist works, including several that show Niagara Falls with a spume of pollutants (indicated by diagrams of their molecular structure) rising from them. In one study, Conspicuous Consumption, 1990, a hilarious trout that looks curiously like Donald Trump steers through a sea of rubbish to get at a colorful lure.

The pieces that synthesize both elements of Moore’s vision are the most powerful. In Nursery, 1994, the prettiest piece and the one that’s generated the most fuss, crocuses shoot rays of hopeful light up from a landscape of painted eggs, a wishbone, a used condom, and some cigarette butts: the scene is (like most popular versions of gay sexuality) childlike and romantic, sordid, tantalizing, and dangerous-both regressive and decadent. Maid of the Mist, 1995, the strongest canvas of all, shows a group of shrouded figures standing on a badly built viewing platform and looking at aNiagara Falls that suffuses them with alarming chemicals (all of which are in fact now in those pure, romantic waters ). The figures derive equally from late-Renaissance painting and action-hero comic books, and the effect they create has the dignity of one influence and the theater of the other.

In a country that does not much like art or homosexuality but that exalts victimization, it would be easy for an artist such as Moore to lapse into self-indulgence, especially because he is now enjoying Boy George-like celebritydom. (Witness his prominent place in the Whitney Biennial, Holland Cotter’s tribute in the Times, and enthusiastic mini-profiles in both New York and Newsweek, all in the last three months.) Though some of the work is maudlin, Moore is in most instances saved by his own austerity and wit. Moore has AIDS; the appalling discipline of his own illness and his lover’s death a few years ago has doubtless contributed to the sophistication of his practice, which cries out for another twenty-five years to develop. It won’t get them, and knows it, and this fact burns rage and sadness into the viewer. In his brief catalogue essay, Moore puts into prose the transgressively sensual experience that is both his subject and the act of painting itself. (“The brush is licking, licking, licking—leaving trails of wet oil in constantly shifting values and colors.”) Taken one at a time, the pictures can be hard-edged and didactic and sometimes even self-important, but a roomful of them is wistful and lyrical and quite astonishing.

Andrew Solomon