This painting depicts what in some respects mimics an anatomy amphitheater, but the title, "Arena," tells us that what is going on here is more spectacle than instruction. Painted in 1992, early in the AIDS epidemic, when rapid decline and death from the disease was almost unavoidable, this complex artwork catalogs some of what was taking place in society at the time. A shaft of window light illuminates the center where a masked doctor is examining a Caucasian patient while a nurse, similarly masked, stands nearby. A large white plume of smoke or steam is emanating from the patient's head. The examination is being filmed and narrated.
In the lower right-hand corner a dark skinned patient attached to an IV is lying on a gurney. An attendant has his back toward the patient, whom he seems to be ignoring as he speaks with another white clad hospital worker. If one follows a diagonal from the ignored patient through to the central figures, toward the upper left, another patient, covered completely by a sheet and apparently dead, is being wheeled out of the arena. Adjacent to this scene are people seated cross-legged on the floor, listening to a speaker reading from a book while a Buddha floats above him. [According to art critic Klaus Kertess, the reader is poet John Giorno, "who instructed Moore in Buddhist practice" (Toxic Beauty, p. 11)]. In the lower left, a vendor wheels his cart, selling soda and sausages, adding to the carnival atmosphere. Just ahead of him an elderly woman holds a flattened out body in her arms.
To the upper right, police barricades and struggling policeman attempt to hold back a group of protesters carrying a sign saying "Who's in Charge?". In the upper center, two skeletons stand in front of a screen and hold banners bearing Latin inscriptions. An instructor is pointing to drawings on the screen - molecules and cell membranes. Other skeletons are positioned at the edges of the painting, also bearing banners, and in the lower center two skeletons stand in front of a fruit tree. One of these skeletons holds what seems to be a heart dripping blood. Several figures dressed in costume are posing or dancing. The curved rows of the arena are sparsely populated and include skeletons of various animals as well as two men who are injecting themselves in the arm. Robotic figures appear here and there in the painting.


Frank Moore studied art and psychology at Yale University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1975. His approach toward painting involved extensive research on subjects of interest, including ecology, biology, and environmental issues. In 1987 he and his partner were diagnosed as HIV-positive; his partner, Robert Fulps, died in 1991. AIDS, sexuality, death, nature, and environmental pollution became interwoven in Moore's work. Moore helped to create the internationally recognized red ribbon symbol of AIDS awareness.

Moore said that in "Arena" he "deliberately set out to construct an image in which every detail corresponded directly to something that was happening in my own life at that time . . . the central event of that painting, the loss of my partner of eight years to AIDS, could ultimately be seen as emblematic of so many similar losses that were occurring all around me, attaining a level of universality" (p. 189, Toxic Beauty). Hence the central patient in the painting represents Moore's partner (p. 11, Toxic Beauty).

Moore often designed elaborate frames that reflect the subject matter of his paintings. "Arena" is mounted on wood, in an antique gilded frame, perhaps alluding to classic paintings of medical relevance such as Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp. In "Arena" death is prominent, as skeletons and bodies people the picture. Here there are no attentive students listening captively to an informed professional, as depicted for example, in The Agnew Clinic. There is no organization governing the individuals scattered in the arena. Whatever organization exists is contained within the group of protesters, who are AIDS activists, and within the group of Buddhist adherents. The overall impression is one of incoherence and isolation, paralleling the confusion, stigma, and ignorance that surrounded AIDS in the 1980s and early 90s.

Primary Source

Toxic Beauty: The Art of Frank Moore. Editors Klaus Kertess, Susan Harris, and Greg Bordowitz. New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2012 (Plate 13)