For some people who know nothing about artist Fay Moore, discovering one fact about her would be enough to make them want to see her work, if not devour her whole life.
That singular fact: Her second husband, the retired fighter who taught Marlon Brando how to box for his work in On the Waterfront, was introduced to her by Norman Mailer.
In that sentence, there's a world of shorthand about Moore and the enviable 89 years of life she has led.
But it doesn't reveal too awful much about her daring, wide-ranging and successful professional life. For that, you might need a well-versed guide. Or the in-depth retrospective of her work being mounted from March through May in three galleries in Central Kentucky.
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The largest exhibit opens Friday at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park and traces the lifelong career of one of the first women to be nationally recognized for her work as a sports artist. Two smaller exhibits open in mid-April at gallerist Heike Pickett's spaces in Lexington and Versailles.
It's not as if Moore's work hasn't been shown in the Bluegrass before. Some of her most famous work depicts horses muscling one another for position while they thunder down the track, something collectors here, and elsewhere, have long been interested in.
As president of the American Academy of Equine Artists, which presents nationally juried shows to the International Museum of the Horse every year, Moore has tried to make sure that "equine art" is not just anything with horses in it. She holds the position that it can, in the right hands, be fine art, driven not simply by a love for the horse but by all things that make art necessary for the human soul.
Her soul is driven hard.
The length and breadth of her career will confirm that — from the moment at age 3 that she sat for the artists in Province town, Mass., while visiting her grandmother, to the ever-evolving work she is doing, even now, in her studios in New York City and Long Island.
Sifting through a lifetime
The idea for this exhibit began five or six years ago, when Moore was selling a house back East, says Pickett, who represents Moore.
"We found some goodies in drawers and in racks that had been stored for years and years," Pickett says.
Like the gorgeous portrait of a 3-year-old Moore, a red-headed child who, given her age, must have been raised with manners and extraordinary poise. It stands at the beginning of the exhibit at the Museum of the Horse, something to show you that an artist's life is best begun early, even if only for her grandmother's artist friends.
It was inevitable that Moore would think of the world as a palette and color as her playthings.
Then, scattered among the goodies were the elaborate stage sets and finely wrought costume designs from when she was at Yale Drama School; black-and-white magazine advertisements from when she was a window dresser for the Bonwit Teller department store in New York; and botanically inspired fabric swatches that she had designed in the 1940s, when she worked for B.H. Wragge, a company that was among the first to develop rayon and other synthetic fabrics.
Moore was a woman, still in her 20s, looking for her true self. After divorcing her first husband, she left for Europe, painting rather bleak architectural cityscapes, then moving on to still-lifes and busy florals with butterflies.
They're all presented at a rather generous evolutionary clip in the Museum of the Horse exhibit, including, rather incongruously, some large sketches she did of boxers and football players — her first action-sports figures, in sepia, on craft paper — after her second husband introduced her to his world.
That world brought her to Saratoga, N.Y.
"I experienced it as a fabulous landscape of horses," Moore wrote by e-mail, "with brilliant colors provided by the jockey silks. A horse is like a wonderful nude, but with a horse, you see how the muscles work so much more than with a human nude."
It also reminded her, she has said, of going to Saturday classes at a museum in Boston and laboring over the anatomical studies of the Elgin marbles of horses and men.
"The thing that sets the horse and racing apart is the motion," she wrote, "I try to capture that motion through my art."
She had found a milieu that would keep her interest. Even as she tried other things, it was what she would keep coming back to.
A love of Kentucky
Moore's second husband, Roger Donoghue, had been a fairly good boxer who had the misfortune of killing another boxer in the ring. He became a successful businessman in the mid-20th century and seemed to have a knack for knowing all kinds of interesting people, counting among his friends not only novelist Mailer but musicians Guy Lombardo and Louis Armstrong, and actors Brando and James Dean.
Moore and Donoghue traveled widely through the United States and Europe, but Moore particularly became struck with the landscapes of Central Kentucky.
"She used to like to go on drives when she was here," says Pickett, explaining how much Moore loves the trees here. "She thought they stood singularly in the landscape and didn't bunch up like in other places. She told me they looked like they had arms and like they were powerful and were enveloping."
Moore especially, even oddly, was attracted to the trees that stood near telephone poles, as if the two had some special relationship with each other that she needed to explore.
The series of paintings that came out of her love of the Kentucky arboreal landscape is yet another phase of Moore's work. In it, horses are figured in but are almost second thoughts, small figures dwarfed by gargantuan spreading limbs, or the barest glimpse of a horse's rear end leaving a barn.
She says she has tried all sorts of styles of painting, except minimalism, which she simply is not suited for. Her work is, in fact, layer upon layer of inks, watercolor, gouaches and pastels.
Just as she is intent in investing paintings of racing horses with palpable fury using varying shades of light and shadow, she is as skillful in investing landscapes with a hushed calm by employing the same tools.
Her local collectors have generously lent some of her works to the shows. Her worldwide collectors have included Mailer, sports giants George Steinbrenner and Roone Arledge, actress Patricia Neal and businessman Bertram Firestone.
Her work has earned her many honors and awards, including being a trustee of the National Art Museum of Sport.
A few years ago, when Moore was 85, her art took another turn. This time, it looked forward and back. Moore started as she always does. She writes, "The subject matter comes to me; I respond to the visual world around me."
The work is equine but is more like painted statuary. It is archeological in feel. It is overrun with botanical growth, like a Grecian horse god found in the rain forest.
It's a throwback to her botanical work when she was 25 and a fabric designer. An homage to her studies of the Elgin horses in the Boston museum of her childhood. A toast to the colors of horses in furious motion, without flame, without fury, without motion.
She is 89. She is not nearly ready to put down her tools.