by Jonathan Griffin
MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles
When Tony Greene made the 20-odd works in this exhibition, all dated between 1987 and 1990, he knew he was dying of AIDS. This very fact makes even his least political paintings almost unbearably poignant. Greene’s art is devastating and immediate because it is his answer to a question that everyone should consider from time to time: What would you make if you knew you only had a few years to live?
I will spare you my histrionics because this is really not my story to tell; Greene was well loved in the Los Angeles gay community and many of those who knew him keep his memory alive today. Among them is the artist Richard Hawkins, who is chiefly responsible for the current resurgence of Greene’s art, and Catherine Opie, who, with Hawkins, curated a selection of his paintings at this year’s Whitney Biennial. Two of Opie’s solemn photographs of Greene’s studio wall, taken in 1990, the year he succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses, are included in Room of Advances.
Judie Bamber, who curated the exhibition with Monica Majoli, knew Greene; Majoli only came to know his work after his death, but the two had friends in common. Bamber and Majoli were planning an exhibition of Greene’s work prior to the interest of the Whitney curators and to that of Connie Butler and Michael Ned Holte, who included a micro-exhibition featuring Greene’s work within Made in L.A. 2014 at the Hammer Museum. (Bamber and Majoli both have work in that installation, too.)
Unlike other art that responds to the AIDS crisis – the poetic conceptualism of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, or the activist art of the collective Gran Fury, for example – Greene’s paintings do not demand the public platform of a museum or a city billboard. The intimate, domestically scaled rooms of the 1922 Schindler House, now the headquarters of the MAK Center, provide a much more sympathetic setting for his art than do the cold, high galleries of most museums. (It is notable that at both the Whitney and the Hammer the curators elected to paint the walls something other than white.) Here, the roughness of bare concrete sets off the unctuous tones of the paintings.
Greene mined several sources for pictorial content: photographs of beautiful young men, which he photocopied, enlarged, and glued onto panels; photographs of taxidermied deer and wintry landscapes, which underwent the same process; and luxuriant floral designs – likely copied from William Morris or Aesthetic Movement illustration – which he overlaid in thick veins of impastoed paint. These panels were then mounted with a recessed and ornamented ‘moat’ (the term he apparently used) and placed within a heavy box frame. The entire object was embalmed in layers of varnish that gave it a sickly yellow sheen.
Arcane lettering on three panels spells out men’s names over pictures of pouting lips: Wes, Matt, Ed. Confronted by beauty that was destined to wither and fade, Greene made objects that were designed – both physically and conceptually – to endure. He gave most to his friends.
AIDS renders bitterly ironic Philip Larkin’s well-known line: “What will survive of us is love.”
First published: Art Review, September 2014