"I can’t look at that painting anymore,” said Forrest Moses, fiddling with the brake on his wheelchair. “Let’s turn around.” Then he shifted his position away from Nathan Oliveira’s disturbing portrait of a woman, hanging in the director’s office of LewAllen Galleries. “This is better. I’m looking at nothing.”
The wheelchair was a temporary convenience provided to Moses by the gallery where Forrest Moses: 50 Year Survey is on view through June 15. At 85, Moses doesn’t get around as easily as he used to. He walks with a cane and tires easily. An accomplished landscape painter and, once, an avid hiker, Moses can no longer spend long hours on and off the trails in nature, seeking inspiration. And, because of his poor eyesight, he no longer paints.
“Some artists paint until they die,” he said. “But they must have good eyes.”
The exhibit covers the period when Moses was in Santa Fe, where he lived from 1969 until 2010 when severe seasonal allergies necessitated a move to a different climate. He’s spent the last nine years living in Palm Springs, California.
“It’s a good place for me because of the lack of allergies. It’s not as severe as here.”
Moses nurtured a love of the woods from a young age, growing up in Danville, Virginia. He started painting at the age of nine.
“Nobody knew I was going to be a professional painter,” he said. “I was just painting.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in 1956, he joined the Navy. Afterward, he spent a year traveling in Europe, taking in all the great works of art and architecture that he’d learned about in his college days. In 1959, he attended New York’s Pratt Institute. Becoming an artist wasn’t a given. When asked about when he decided that he wanted to be an artist, he replied, “It’s not a decision that you make. It does it for you. It just happens.”
The retrospective includes some monotypes — simple floral compositions depicting irises against off-white backgrounds, and some landscapes — but it is dominated by Moses’ oil paintings.
These are not lush, detailed renderings but gestural, expressionistic works, some of which, like October Stream from 2003, border on the purely abstract. Although they range in size, most of the paintings are on a large scale. For instance, Morning Light, from 1990, is eight feet long by four feet wide. The painting depicts a wooded glen, perhaps in autumn or early spring, before the seasonal foliage has returned to the trees. The scale is enveloping, giving you the sense of being there, in the stillness of the forest on a cool and pleasant day, away from the hustle and bustle of civilization.
“It’s so important to be alone when you’re out on the land,” he said. “That’s where you become part of it. You can’t be distracted by somebody else’s presence.”
Moses was never a plein air painter. “When I’m out on the land, it’s about being present,” he said. When he was hiking, he shot photographs of the landscapes he encountered and painted in the studio. But he rarely strove to reinterpret what was in a single photograph. Rather, he took elements from several photographs and worked them into his compositions, never rendering them exactly but using them more as inspiration. Essentially, his paintings and monotypes are imagined landscapes not tied to any specific location. They are about mood and tone. But they conjure a feeling of place, often with a lightness of being.
“If I were to point to one particular aspect of Forrest’s artistic vision that has been cited by younger artists in an admiring way, it is this resolute commitment to the idea that truth is beauty and beauty is truth,” said gallery co-owner Kenneth Marvel. “By that, I think what he means is this deep resolute sense that he will paint nature from the standpoint of its insides. His work has a deep sense of the beauty of the experience of being in nature and the experience of place as opposed to just being a description of it.”
Marvel points to Moses’ commitment to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, or the notion of seeing beauty in imperfection. “In Japanese, these words refer to poverty and loneliness,” Marvel said. “The way he brings that to his work is simply to celebrate the idea that things become more beautiful as they get older, as they decay.”
Moses’ paintings can be enigmatic. They can be dark in that deep and murky way the woodland has when it’s closing in on you, enfolding you in its stygian embrace.
“His works have that combination of being lyrical and, yet, being very dramatic, at times,” said Charles MacKay, the former general director of the Santa Fe Opera and a longtime friend of Moses. “The images speak from a very deep place with Forrest. His work resonated with me from the very beginning.”
MacKay, who just turned 69, first met Moses 45 years ago through a mutual friend. The artist was about to turn 40, and MacKay — a French horn player who was working as an orchestra pit boy and in various administrative capacities at the Santa Fe Opera — discovered they shared the same May 14 birthday.
“He was a strong influence in my life and in my career,” MacKay said. “I’m not sure I would have gone on to become the general director of the Santa Fe Opera if it hadn’t been for Forrest, who was very clear in guiding me to follow my heart’s intent.”
Over the course of their friendship, MacKay saw that influence go both ways. He often encountered Moses in the studio, listening to opera as he painted. “In some ways, I think of Forrest’s paintings as being operatic,” he said.
Although Moses’ older paintings on view — those from the 1980s and ’90s — read as more direct representations of landscapes than the more recent compositions, abstraction has always been there. Moses said their simplicity depends upon their abstraction. That way, they evoke a sense of nature in a particular season without being bogged down by too much realism. It leaves them open to broader interpretations and the possibility of summoning a range of feelings and emotions.
Still, Moses refers to himself as a landscape painter more than as an abstractionist. The land is more than mere inspiration. He talks about it as something that comes from the very core of his being, as though, when he’s out there by a forest stream, deep in the woods, he’s at one with it. The process of painting attempts to recapture that essential aspect of a landscape’s impact and his love of nature. In the studio, he can’t overthink it, which would be death to his impromptu painting style.
“It’s a question of being quiet and letting it come to you,” he said of working in the studio. “And it does, but you can’t go looking for it. You just have to let things be. The silence of that is what makes the difference.” ◀
▼ Forrest Moses: 50 Year Survey; through June 15
▼ LewAllen Galleries, 1613 Paseo de Peralta, 505-988-3250, lewallengalleries.com