The Lives of the Dead: James Joyce and Frank Moore (or, Hand-jobs and Heartaches)

I. The World’s Most Celebrated Hand-Job

Since 1954, thousands have gather to celebrate Bloomsday, the epic tribute to Joyce’s Ulysses. The devout make the pilgrimage to Dublin – no bargain vacation, these days – to retrace the crisscrossing paths of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in real-time, over the course of an entire day. Even the more moderate, who travel only to their local pub, still submit to the ecstatic ordeal – the marathon readings, the encyclopedias of reference and trivia, the frantic debates over explication and interpretation. One factoid surfaces more than others: June 16th, 1904, the date commemorated by Bloomsday – as sentimental acolytes will leap at the chance to inform you – is the date of Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife. This, of course, sounds simply adorable, unless you know that their “first date” was Joyce, meeting a near total stranger, who stuck her hand down his trousers and masturbated him.

Bloomsday is the mostly widely and thoroughly celebrated hand-job of all times.

Now, it’s tempting to be snide about this, especially if you’re not much enamored of Joyce’s self-indulgence (“celebrated hand-job indeed,” you may quip, archly). But I admire that Joyce wants you to know that this – his lurid sexual encounter – is lurking behind his massive novel, powering the obscenity and sexual anarchy that he eventually worked up the courage to unleash. And, in a sadistic way, it is satisfying to see milquetoast readers disabused of their belief that Joyce, deep down, was a cuddly sweet-heart.

All artists translate something of their private lives into their fictions, and many artists – Dante, Shakespeare, Hardy – left sly referential clues. But Joyce inserted himself into his novel in every conceivable way. He did it with a confidence that he himself – his life, his relationship with family and his wife, the Dublin of his day (literally) – would be dragged into the future, into immortality, by the success of Ulysses. That’s the thinking of a delusional narcissist, even if it turns out – as it did for Joyce – to be right.

But it changed the way artists thought about their work – and about the way artists imagined that their audience would think about their work. After all, a powerful strand of postmodernism was born when Molly Bloom, looking up from the pointless turmoil of her emotional life, cries up at the heavens, “Oh Jamesy let me up out of this.” Playing God, Joyce is both the master and the subject of Ulysses, and – in the century since – it has been difficult, for many artists, to settle for less in their own work.

II. Portrait of the Artist as a Broken Heart

            Joyce was on my mind as I walked to Washington Square Park, surrounded by the NYU campus. The park benches were crowded with students, and you could practically feel them falling into the feverish cult of the Author – Hemingway’s safaris, Wilde’s bon mots, Thompson’s back-yard ergot farm – perhaps as a tonic against the cold academic analysis they were being forced to imitate and would – eventually – internalize. Naïve little peacocks, that they could be, but at least they could still feel: that’s worth something, and I miss that.

Frank Moore’s work – presented in retrospective entitled “Toxic Beauty” at NYU’s Grey Gallery – is ideal for cold academic analysis. His paintings are heavily, sometimes methodically, allegorical and rigorously thematic. Moore, who started life in the playful melee of the SoHo art scene, contracted HIV along with his partner and had his eyes opened to a political consciousness absent from his early work, which was clever but somewhat goofy. It was – to be frosty – the best thing that ever happened to him. Moore was a technical savant and keen student of artistic philosophy but with a healthy life – in the bucolic peace of the Long Island woods where he lived, or in an alternate New York art scene, undecimated by AIDS – he might never have done anything with his gifts. File it under “fucked up but true.” Imagine Joyce without the loss of Ireland, Tim O’Brien without the horror of Vietnam, Jim Carroll without the heroin.

The politics of AIDS opened Moore’s eyes to the systemic problems of race, class, and sexuality in the United States. The disease was a crash-course in the personal is the political. Moore was led from the heartless logic of insurance policies to the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies, to the hubris of genetic modification in the agricultural world and finally to the apocalyptic endgames of corporate pollution and deforestation. The “Toxic Beauty” of the retrospective’s title was Moore’s take on American natural spaces. For example, Moore’s vigorously researched “Niagara” – a study of the pollution of Niagara Falls – features silk-screened hydrocarbons that, at a distance, disappear into the photorealistic texture of the water. But it might also stand for Moore’s general approach: gorgeously rendered images playfully vacillating between surreal and naturalistic that veiled dark realities, both social and personal. Many of these social themes had been worked over, although rarely with as much technical skill, but what’s distinct and powerful about Moore’s work is that the tragic personal scene of his enlightenment remains the lens through which he saw larger political issues.

Take “Arena” – an appropriation of the Enlightenment-era surgery in the round – which features Moore’s partner on the surgical stage, expelling the white cloud of his soul at the moment of death, surrounded by allegorical incriminations of institutional racism, media exploitation, and corporate avarice. Or Moore’s hellish landscape in “the Wizard,” the painting that earned Moore laudatory comparisons to Bosch. The horizon is filled with pills, syringes, and a bloodied pile of golden, silk-screened coins. In the foreground, Moore himself attempts to interview his doctor – a French specialist who made early advances in identifying HIV – and is ignored. A giant pyre of coffins is at the center with the names of Moore’s friends, his partner, and himself.

The casual viewer can still enjoy Moore’s work, the broader ecological critiques, and the more abstractly surrealistic experiments, but his denser symbolism, his more eclectic signs – disembodied eyes and hands, weeds and flowers, his darkly camp appropriation of The Wizard of Oz, and the imagery from his private struggle with AIDS – make better sense with the parallel text of Moore’s biography. The gallery meets Moore half-way, providing many keys to Moore’s reference, but in the end, unless you’ve done your homework, you’re bound to be at least partially alienated and overwhelmed by the canvases. Or, to put it another, distinctly harsher way, without Moore’s biography to prop it up, much of the work falls flat. I was lucky to visit Grey Gallery with Margaret Berenson, an independent curator and a preposterously knowledgeable guide, who knew many of the artists and galleries associated with Moore and lent some transparency to several of his more obscure pieces.

One thing that’s revealed by visiting a retrospective is that while the artist can install themselves as the matrix of their own work’s meaning, what gets imagined as the artist is a highly subjective thing. For Moore, that’s most apparent in the dichotomy between two distinct ideas of the artist as a gay man. One is the tragic gay man dying of AIDS, like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. A self-portrait of Moore hairless, pale and thin as a Birkenau survivor breathes butterflies into existence (the piece that could be Hallmark schmaltz were it not for Moore’s technical skill in rendering the butterflies with lepidopterological accuracy). The elegiac sentimentality of the piece is emptied of sexuality and calls up the image of Moore dying in his SoHo loft while a younger generation of artists came to his bedside to appreciate his grace and absorb his wisdom. Similar pieces, mournful but asexual tributes to Moore’s partner, are also popular among visitors. I watched as these same visitors skipped over Moore’s more overtly hostile pieces – explicitly homoerotic images, critiques of religion and straight marriage – less willing to confront a painting like “The Birth of Venus,” a different idea of the artist, as a sexual being and as someone who might have inherently hostile to their patronage.

And, of course, the opposite was also true: some visitors clearly preferred Moore the confrontational punk to Moore the neutered saint.

Moore died in 2002 and – already – his life is compartmentalized; it’s hard not to consider his work as a celebration of and a cautionary tale about the cult of the artist. Of course, all of this plays out on a humble scale. Moore does not possess Joyce’s megalomania or his shadow-casting influence and it is unlikely that any of his sexual exploits will be turned by fans into a pseudo-intellectual pub-crawl. But the Grey Gallery felt like less like an exhibit and more like a wake: friends and admirers gathered to tell stories about the dead. Even the most surreal canvas seemed like a portrait of the artist.

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