This year has been a momentous one for the late Tony Greene: nearly 25 years after his death from AIDS at age 35, and almost 20 since his work was last shown, the painter and assemblagist was the subject of four exhibitions in the span of six months. These included shows-within-shows at the Whitney Biennial and the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A., as well as a presentation of paintings at Iceberg Projects in Chicago. But the largest offering was a solo exhibition this summer at the MAK Center (which coincided with the Hammer showing). Titled after a 1988 photo assemblage of Greene’s that conjoins a male nude with images of a domestic space, “Tony Greene: Room of Advances” was beautifully situated in the intimately scaled, materially spare MAK Center, the former home and studio of architect Rudolph M. Schindler.
The exhibition, organized by artists Judie Bamber and Monica Majoli, focused on Greene’s last works—most of them dating from 1989 or 1990, a frenetic period of output when the artist must have understood that his time was limited. A number of series were included in, or in almost, their entirety. The eight intricate mixed-medium paintings in the “Letters” series display not only Greene’s idiosyncratic relationship to words and the chain of personal associations they evoke, but also the results of his search for an original language for his art. He found this language in ornate, medieval-like lettering; intensely decorative impasto patterning; and repeated photographic imagery, showing subjects including male torsos (often borrowed from proto-pornographic muscle magazines like Physique Pictorial), taxidermied animals and bleak landscapes.
Like much of Greene’s work, the “Letters” present enigmatic constellations of desire and its obfuscation. One of the pieces, titled . . . safe . . . , features a border composed of a duplicated photograph, tinted green, of a man’s chest and painted over with resin in a looping, decorative pattern, which partially conceals and muddies the torsos but also encircles nipples and highlights swells of muscle. Contained by this border is an amber-tinted, board-mounted photograph of a barren landscape, over which a white calligraphic “S” has been painted.
As Mirror, Mirror—a group of eight brass plaques engraved with quotations of well-known gay (or presumed to be gay) authors—suggests, Greene saw himself in the writing and legacy of aesthetes like Marcel Proust and Denton Welch. This identification is also evident in “landscape” paintings such as the defiantly garish His Puerile Gestures, where one senses a decadent’s relationship to nature. The work consists of a yellow-colored photographic image of a stag that is likely dead and stuffed, over which dying flowers painted in thick orange impasto straddle a line between natural form and decorative motif. The piece has a palpable tension—between beauty, decay and artifice—not least in the context of an artist facing his own death. Greene’s use of resin throughout his works seems to articulate this tension as well, offering a form of embalmment or preservation while also serving as gestural expression, a way of declaring the artist’s presence on appropriated imagery—a way of saying, “I was here.”