Ed Moses insists he’s a painter who experiments with pigments and other materials on canvases rather than an artist who creates things. In any case, he is a renowned artmaker. He was one of a group of painters, which included Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin, whose careers were launched with exhibitions at Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Except for a few years when he lived in New York and Europe, he is a lifelong resident of Southern California. His portfolio — beginning with architecture-referencing drawings in the early 1950s and progressing through grids, smeared-color abstractions, and monochromes — is incredibly diverse. Descriptions of his work might include the words jazzy, peaceful, scary, elegant, densely busy, and simply unexplainable.
Now 87, he paints every day at his home in Venice. The exhibition Ed Moses: Green/Bronze, at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art through Sept. 23, features his latest series of layered “crackle” paintings. The surfaces vary from high-contrast, as in B/W (2013), to pale-on-pale examples like Gold Over Green (2013).
Pasatiempo: The crackled-surface patterns and circular complexes in these new works are so involving, and quite different from one piece to the next.
Ed Moses: They’re unpredictable. First I paint black, white, or whatever, and then I put this material — I call it secret sauce because I don’t want to tell people what it is — and after that dries I punch it. The reason I do that is that it makes circular tracks.
I do all my paintings outside. I have two large studios, and I’ll pull them in at the end of the day kicking and screaming and then I can see what I like and what I don’t like or what I respond to and what I don’t respond to.
Pasa: Look at what you’ve done over the last six decades — even in the last 10 years — and it’s hard to believe it’s the same artist.
Moses: That’s one of the problems. I don’t consider myself a professional artist. In other words, I’m not an artist who works for money. I work because I love to paint, and then if they sell, so much the better, because I have my maintenance pay. That isn’t completely true, but I say it because I sort of half-believe it.
I’m an explorer as a painter. I try different things. I’ll work on a series of paintings maybe a year or two, maybe three. While I’m working on these paintings, little things happen off on the side, through the process, or through an edge, and I say, Gee, that would make a nice painting. And I say I’ll get back to that after I finish this body of work, but sometimes it barks so loud I have to pursue it. I call the process mutations, because they mutate from one series to another.
I like that word a lot because it sort of explains the next step in terms of the idea or attitude. Actually I don’t have ideas. One things leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. My life has been a progression of mutations and some expectations and a lot of disappointment. If they don’t pass the test, I don’t let them out. I must destroy a couple hundred paintings a year.
I’m a painter. I’m not an artist, and I don’t create things. I discover things. Discovery is based on my eye, my experience. So I’m not pure by any stretch of the imagination. There’s always contradictions. I consider what I do as explorations and inventions on the spot, not creations on the spot.
Pasa: What kinds of conversations did you have with Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Larry Bell, and other innovators back in the day, or do you remember more about the spirit of what you all were doing?
Moses: I would say the spirit, or something to do with the attitude at the time. And of course those change. Things you were interested in 20 years ago are not necessarily what you care about now. I’m a big film buff, and I’ll see films I saw 30 or 40 years ago and I didn’t like, or that I don’t like at all that I used to like.
I did meet de Kooning — never knew him. Ad Reinhardt I knew the best. I met Philip Guston, but I never knew him. When he changed to figurative, all his abstract cronies criticized him for it, but I thought it was a great thing that he did. And I never had the chance to meet Jackson Pollock, because he had died a year or two before I went to New York in 1958. He was certainly one of the painters that I had great admiration for.
Pasa: In a 1996 Los Angeles Times review, you said fear of public humiliation was a motive for your artmaking.
Moses: That’s always one of the factors, of course. When you have an exhibit there’s always a fear you’re going to be humiliated. I don’t want to be embarrassed. I don’t want to expose myself. I still have an ego, although I’ve been a student of Buddhism for a few years.
Pasa: Tell us that cool story about your first art teacher, Pedro Miller, at Long Beach City College.
Moses: I was a pre-med major, and I couldn’t get the grades to get into medical school. I didn’t know what to do, but these friends of mine were going to be commercial artists and they told me, You’ve got to see this eccentric art teacher. In that day they were called bohemians. He was definitely an eccentric guy. He went in and turned the trash can upside down and started lecturing. He gave these wonderful lectures based on reproductions that were mounted on these large cardboards — it was Cézanne, Picasso, all the people of that period. This was 1948. I’d gotten out of the service in 1946.
Anyway, he set up a sort of Cézanne-esque still life, and everyone had their materials. He showed us how to mix these tempera colors. Casein followed after that, and the acrylic paints. But these were just water-based, powdered pigments. We sat on benches and had our board on the bench at an angle and with a couple clips we had paper or imitation canvas panels.
I’d never taken any art classes. I didn’t know what the hell to do, but I was fascinated by him. I got all these art materials because of the GI Bill. He started to walk around shooting everybody down and as he got closer and closer to me, I thought, I’ve got to get out of here. For some reason, I don’t know why, I decided to stay, and at the last minute as he got there I stuck my fingers in the wells and did these finger-paintings all over the paper. He looked down at that and looked at me, and he took it and put it up on the wall and said, Now here’s a real artist.
Everybody looked at me and looked at what I did and didn’t get it, but they all followed me around like I was a genius. That was the beginning. ◀
▼ Ed Moses: Green/Bronze
▼ Exhibit through Sept. 23
▼ Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, 554 S. Guadalupe St., 989-8688