When painter Tony Greene died of an AIDS-related illness in 1990, it was far from certain that anyone beyond his circle of friends and colleagues would remember him or his work.
At the time of his death, Greene was 35 years old — an artist on the cusp of something greater, but not quite there yet. He had produced an intriguing, enigmatic body of work: a series of photographic images — of animals, landscapes and male physiques — that he obscured under calligraphic letters, patterns and symbols made out of goopy layers of paint.
But his career had been a short one. He had been in some important exhibitions, including a group show at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, where he shared wall space with now-famous artists like Rudolf Stingel and John Currin. He'd also been in groundbreaking shows like "Against Nature: A Show by Homosexual Men" at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE).
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this story said that Tony Greene's "Against Nature: A Show by Homosexual Men" was at the Hollywood location of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). The 1988 show was held at LACE's old location in downtown Los Angeles.
But Greene didn't have a long track record or commercial gallery representation. When he died, he was just three years out of art school, having completed his MFA at Cal Arts in the spring of 1987. A few posthumous shows were held, including a solo exhibition at LACE and at Feature Gallery in New York. But after 1995, Greene's work fell out of public view.
An unlikely series of events, however, has put the spotlight on Greene and his paintings. This spring, the Whitney Museum included a small show-within-a-show of his work in the 2014 edition of the Whitney Biennial (organized by fellow artists Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie). In April, a small show of his work appeared at Iceberg Projects in Chicago. And this month, two exhibitions in Los Angeles — one at the Hammer Museum's "Made in L.A." biennial and another at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture — are also bringing his paintings to light.
This wave of exhibitions can be attributed to the behind-the-scenes work of Greene's circle of friends and colleagues: people like Hawkins, an L.A.-based painter who once collaborated with Greene on a mural for LACE and other projects; Opie, who photographed his studio; painter Judie Bamber, a close friend; and painter Monica Majoli, who didn't know the artist personally, but who ran with his circle, and had always been entranced by the unusually sensuous nature of his work.
"It's incredibly emotional," says Bamber, who served as co-curator, with Majoli, for the exhibition at the MAK. "He was an exceptional person. But more importantly, we all feel very strongly that younger artists should get to see his work."
"His work is so important because it comes at a time when artists were responding to the AIDS epidemic," she adds. This included Greene himself, who was fighting the disease throughout the late 1980s. "But he does it in a way that is so different from much of what was being produced, which tended to have more of an activist bent. He acknowledges the issue of mortality and crisis, this horrible reality that he's facing. But he also acknowledges his sexuality and his desire. He doesn't cover it up."
Ultimately, it was a confluence of factors that led to Greene's work being revived. "Judie and Monica had been kicking the idea for a show around, but we weren't exactly sure where a lot of the work was," recalls Hawkins, the L.A.-based painter who co-curated the Whitney installation. "Fortuitously, in January of 2013, I get an email from a guy named Ray Morales and he says, 'I think you're the guy I need to talk to. I have Tony Greene's estate.'"
Hawkins started studying Greene's possessions and papers and launched a Tumblr account called "The Grain of His Skin" (after one of Greene's paintings) devoted to documenting work and ephemera from the artist's life. He also began to gather some of Greene's key pieces to show them to artists and others who might be interested in the work.
"Friends of Tony's would come over and I'd show them the work," he says. "And they would share stories with me and I would share stories with them and sometimes we'd have a good cry."
During this time, Stuart Comer, one of the three curators charged with organizing the 2014 Whitney Biennial, popped in for a visit. By the time all was said and done, Tony Greene was in the Biennial. This was followed by a visit from Connie Butler and Michael Ned Holte, who organized the Hammer's biennial. Soon, Greene was in that show too.
While all of this was happening, Bamber and Majoli were preparing their own exhibition, the one that ultimately landed at the MAK, which gathers more than two dozen of Greene's works, made in the three years before his death. If the two biennials succeeded in reintroducing Greene, the MAK show offers a wider range of work for viewers to consider.
This includes an installation comprised of terra cotta tiles containing the obituaries of young men claimed by AIDS in the days before antiretroviral drugs became available. There are his letter paintings, with their elaborate oil-paint decoration layered onto images of bucks and stags or handsome young men torn from the pages of vintage pin-up magazines like Physique Pictorial. Works produced in the last year of his life show a man's mouth surrounded by a pool of white paint. They are full of yearning and seduction.
"There is an immediate sort of sexual pulse to the work," says co-curator Majoli. "The men's mouths in some of those paintings are very sexual. It's as if the work approaches you in a bodily way, in a sexual way."
And the MAK Center's Rudolf Schindler house, from the 1920s, could not be a better setting for it. The earthy concrete walls serve as the perfect backdrop to Greene's rich reds and deep greens. The low ceilings keep everything on a human scale, and don't overwhelm the small scale of the paintings. This makes the show feel intimate and alive — a world away from the glaring hospital whites of the average gallery or museum space.
"It's like the Schindler House was built for Tony Greene," chuckles Majoli. "The house is kind of a sensuous experience: the materials, that sense of the indoor and outdoor. It all works."
All of the players involved say this has been a joyous labor of love for an artist they adored and respected. "When Tony was around, he was the emotional glue for so many people," says Hawkins. "He talked to people everyday on the phone. He was supportive and excitable. I was a wild, slightly heavy-metal drug user at the time and he was always without judgment. He was supportive of me as a person and an artist."
"He was so gracious while he was dying," recalls Bamber. "But he was also ambitious and wanted the work to be seen. I know that all of this would make him so happy."
"It's kind of amazing the ease with which these shows just blossomed," says Hawkins. "I'm not a spiritual person. I'm not going to say that Tony did it. But Tony did it."