New York

Donald Moffett

Queer variations on a theme, the fourteen coquettish canvases in “Easy Clean,” Donald Moffett’s most recent exhibition at Marianne Boesky, all service the same end. In the front gallery, Moffett showed three monochromes, bristly sculptural paintings resembling patches of Astroturf or dense clusters of flagella (each a sliver of oil paint squeezed directly from the tube). Cut with holes, the canvases reveal the walls in simple shapes—an exclamation mark, a matrix of dots, and an array of overlapping circles.

The main gallery featured work no less corporeal for being less hirsute: eleven canvases, muted and tawny, that hung on the back wall as if lined up for a firing squad. Pieces of stretched material, either linen or cotton duck, peppered with zippers and tidy, thumb-size holes, these works are tight in their execution, and suggest bondage hoods and snug pairs of jeans. They also recall (and riff on) Arte Povera works, particularly Lucio Fontana’s canvases with yonic slashes.

Lot 011707 (loo), 2007, in which a short zipper is stitched above two painted black dots, lewdly, cartoonishly, conjures a penis. Another, Lot 081907 (IOo), 2007, simultaneously resembles a bomb, a bowling ball, and a boob. One of the more salaciously sophisticated, Lot 010907 (7wl), 2007, features seven white zippers arranged to form an asterisk in the center of the canvas. The zippers come together at an opening, a sort of generic orifice that could be read equally as an asshole or a glory hole.

Moffett was one of the founders of Gran Fury, a critical agitprop collective that, during the late 1980s and early ’90s, helped bring attention to the AIDS crisis. In those days, and for some time thereafter, his solo work employed Krugeresque strategies, juxtaposing curt, gnomic text with often-lubricious imagery; even as his work grew more abstract in the late ’90s and the first years of the 2000s, it often retained a dimension of topicality. His 2002 exhibition “What Barbara Jordan Wore” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, for example, paired gridded abstractions with gridded photographic layouts of Texas legislative bodies to explore, as he termed it, the civil rights advocate’s “aesthetics of political progress.” In a 2003 exhibition at Marianne Boesky, he projected videos from the Ramble, a gay cruising ground in Central Park, onto monochromes. In his latest work, however, rather than force juxtapositions or impose a projection, Moffett slyly invites penetration. If there was a specific “topic” for “Easy Clean,” it remained abstruse. The shift is compelling, almost startling, and some might argue that it betrays apostasy, that Moffett has clearly lost faith in the efficacy (or virtue) of “political art.”

But even a policy wonk would know that politics transcend the specific. And with gay rights movements increasingly choosing sexual normalization over subversion, locating the perverse within formal traditions certainly has political resonance. Moffett’s canvas-based work cleverly teases out the tension between figuration and abstraction, raising the question of how a painting could be coded as pornographic if it does not, in fact, “depict” anything. Rather than heroically gesticulating in the manner of AbEx, these works cagily insinuate; the love dares not speak its name. The two series dovetail in an effort to fetishize the canvas, to make it a field of pleasures not only visual but also potentially tactile—even if to touch is still taboo.

David Velasco