John L. Moore, Painter


As a boy, John Moore was drawn to water. He played for hours on the banks of Doan Creek near the place where it flowed into Lake Erie. Years later, when he began to paint, he found himself trying to bring together the quicksilver texture or nervous turbulence of flowing water and the stark architectural shapes of his innercity neighborhood. It was not what he saw that he found himself trying to get on canvas, but what he experienced when confronted with these mysterious presences. For Moore (who was born in 1939) is interested in the relationship of humankind to its surroundings, especially the urban landscape, and the interior, psychic spaces our experience of the physical world helps to shape.

His spare style, the subdued, deliberately limited palette of colors and the simple shapes with which he works contribute to the intensity of his vision. “I work intuitively,” the artist has said. “I lay down a shape that’s been bugging me; I push it along.” Pulsating with energy and incipient meaning, Moore’s paintings, at once abstract and deeply personal, demonstrate the power of the creative act and the endless ability of art to find fresh things to tell us about the experience of being alive.

His work has been shown in more than two dozen solo exhibitions and more than a score of group shows and is included in numerous private, public and corporate collections throughout the U.S. and Canadaamong them the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum, the Hahn Loeser & Parks corporate collection in Cleveland, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art in Alabama. In 1996, the year after he received the Cleveland Arts Prize in Visual Arts, Moore was commissioned to do a ceiling mural for the new Louis Stokes addition to the Cleveland Public Library.

Moore’s professional career began after he served three years in the Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division. During the early 1970s Moore taught painting and drawing at Cuyahoga Community College, while pursuing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts at Kent State University. From 1974 to 1885 Moore worked as an assistant curator and instructor in the education department of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Moving to New York, he held positions as adjunct professor at Queens College, City University of New York, and Parsons School of Design. From 1994 to 2004 he was senior visiting artist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, and was also an artist in residence at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design.

A trip to Italy in 1990 sent his work in a new direction. Awed by the soaring spirituality of the architecture, monumental altarpieces and Renaissance frescos, Moore began to move away from the horizontality of the “landscape” to a vertical format, with a new feeling of movement. “Eyes” and other figurative shapes began turning up in his work, and his ubiquitous black ovoid shapes were joined by opalescent white ovals suggestive of mirrors, a favorite device of European vanitas paintings. They signified something very different in African culture, where mirrors “were frequently used to seal cavities hollowed out of wooden sculptures,” as Charlotte Kotik, curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, noted propos of her 1996 show of Moore’s new work. These cavities, Kotik pointed out, held magical substances believed to have the power to protect or heal.

In Moore’s paintings, the mirrors were blind and empty, or sometimes barely there, perhaps signaling the deprivation of his African and African-American heritage that had marked his early education. And the smaller ovals, he has said, refer to an African custom passed down by African Americans, in which an egg was placed over the door to alleviate the pain of a child who is cutting teeth. “Only after learning about this tradition in 1991,” Marianne Doezema, curator of the 1996 traveling exhibition, Painting Abstract, noted in the show’s catalogue, “did Moore remember that his own grandmother had placed an egg in a sock and nailed it over the doorway of teething children in the family.”

Interestingly, black has long been Moore’s favorite color, and in his hands, it becomes something subtle and interesting. His hard-edged black ovals, often floating in or over a fluid sea of blues and grays, are “beautiful and compelling” presences (Kotik) that usually dominate the composition. They convey a wide range of moods and meanings. In the enigmatic Two Blacks (1990), where two clusters of black ovoid shapes seem to be huddling in the foreground, two small black ovals adrift in a gray stormy sea seem farther away, perhaps meant to evoke the bodies of countless African slaves buried at sea during the crossing to America. Does the title of the painting refer to poignant human experience or to a purely formal concern (a close examination, Doezema notes, reveals two distinctly different black pigments, one glossy and one matte)? Or both? It is part of the richness of John Moore’s work that it yields to no pat interpretations.

—Dennis Dooley

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