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Ed Moses: Origins

 

 

Just about every artist in the Southern California region interviewed by Malibu Arts Journal has said they’ve been influenced by Ed Moses. He was a significant figure on the Los Angeles art scene since the late 50’s. His recent loss hurt the art community here.

“With his shock white mane and beard, Ed was a striking presence and familiar face on the LA arts scene he helped create,” said William Turner, owner of the Gallery that represents Moses.  “He was a force of nature, whose loss will be deeply felt by all who knew, loved and revered him. It has been a tremendous honor to have worked with him so closely and actively in his final years.”

In his early years, Ed Moses was identified with what was later known as “the Cool School” of artists, which emergedfrom the Beat aesthetic of the 1950’s. This group primarily consisted of artists known as The Ferus Gang: Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufman, Edward Kienholz, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, John Altoon and Wallace Berman. They were the first generation of post-WWII artists who rose to prominence between the years 1957 – 1966 at the Ferus Gallery under owners Walter Hopps and later Irving Blum. Moses’ path to this group began about 10 years earlier with an unlikely encounter.

“Ed had been with the Medical Corps when he was in the Navy. Afterward, he thought he might want to become a doctor, which led to taking pre-med classes at Long Beach City College. But it wasn’t taking. He was having difficulty doing the math and memorizing,” said Turner in an interview late in March at his gallery. “Someone suggested that he take an art course. They talked about this kind of crazy bohemian guy, Pedro Miller, who ran the art department. Ed said his first impression of the guy was of him arriving in an old beat-up Willy’s jeep. It had a kind of canvas top, with everything flopping around as he sped into the parking lot. They had these telephone poles laid down as dividers, which he used to bump to a stop. The doors flew open, and out stepped this guy like the Grand Marshall – a total character. Ed said he thought, ‘Hmmmm, that guy is interesting.’”

Turner sat back in his chair relaxed in his gallery surrounded by Moses’ huge works of art on the wall. His hands helped tell the story of the flopping canvas and Moses’ reactions to Miller.

“Ed went to his first art class, where Miller began to discuss copies of Cézannes, Van Goghs and Picassos that leaned on a shelf around the room. Ed was intrigued. Then Miller set up a still life and said, “Now we’re all going to make a painting.” Ed really wasn’t sure what to do. As Pedro Miller came around to each of the students, he knew he had to do something. Sort of out of exasperation, he dipped his fingers in the paint and did this whole thing with his fingers,” said Turner, gesturing with his hands. “Pedro took that painting, and he brought it up to the head of the class. He put it on an easel, and said, ‘I want you all to see something. That’s a real artist.’ Afterward, Ed started to get a reputation as the talented artist in the group, who they nicknamed Picasso.”

Ed always spoke of this as a defining, pivotal moment in his life, one that opened the possibility of being an artist.

“After a somewhat circuitous period, Moses enrolled in the graduate art program at UCLA, where he met and became friends with Craig Kaufman. Kaufman introduced Ed to Walter Hopps, who had just opened the Ferus Gallery,” said Turner. “Walter put Ed into the first group show at Ferus in 1957 and then offered Moses a solo show at Ferus, comprised of the work that was also to be in Ed’s graduate show at UCLA.


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This created some small controversy with the faculty, who felt like Ed had crossed some sort of line by showing his work off campus at a commercial gallery. This early recognition led Moses to this group of artists who would become life-long friends and form the core of the emergent contemporary art scene in Los Angeles.”

It’s difficult to imagine today, but there was almost no art scene in the 1950s, except for the burgeoning film industry. There were surfers, Bohemians and beatniks. According to the film The Cool School, by Emmy Award Winning Director Morgan Neville and narrated by Oscar Winner Jeff Bridges, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisor’s even banned Art Fairs as a form of communism. The powerful New York art scene thought we were just a desert wasteland. Little did they know we were soon to become the Wild West of the art world. That’s when Ferus Gallery and the Cool School came along. Ferus is the latin word for wild. This gallery was located behind Streeter Blair’s antique shop at 736 La Cienega in Los Angeles, an area better known today as West Hollywood. It was on what soon became known as Gallery Row.

“The Ferus Gallery was an artist driven gallery,” said Turner. “They were very involved with deciding amongst each other who was to be in the group of artists represented by Ferus, and who might not make the cut. Amazingly, Richard Diebenkorn was one such artist who didn’t make the cut! If you look at their work from that time, they were all doing pretty different types of work. It wasn’t like they were pulled together by a certain style where you could say they were the Abstract Expressionists, or Pop Artists. It was more about an attitude.”


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Although no real market for their work existed, it did have a benefit – It gave them tremendous freedom to explore – to really find their voices as artists. As John Baldessari once said, “Since no one was buying, I decided to make work that appealed to me, without regard for “the market.”

“What drove them more than anything, I think, was the sensibility that anything was possible,” said Turner. “That there were new ways of thinking about art and experience, new materials coming into play that leant themselves to making bold new moves, simultaneously supporting and competing with one another. You try and outdo someone not by besting them at something they were already doing but by taking even more of a leap in your own work, in accordance with your own

 

sensibilities, but in a way that would knock people’s socks off.”

ED MOSES AND THE FERUS GANG

“The Ferus artists all shared a very California sensibility. They weren’t looking over their shoulders to art history, or New York or Europe. There was a real sense of pushing the boundaries, finding new materials and modes of expression. That led to incredible breakthroughs in how the artists approached their work. A lot of the artists became known for somewhat signature styles. Kienholz was an Assemblage artist, with a lot of social commentary,” said Turner. “Kenny Price elevated ceramics from craft to really a fine art that had a tremendous sculptural sensibility and playfulness. Billy Al Bengston was abstracting elements from motorcycles into mind blowing new forms. Craig Kauffman explored this new material resin, and made these unusual shapes, employing color, but in a sculptural sense. And so on down the line.”

These influential men impacted the art world here with an explosion of visionary works that enabled artists to express themselves in radical new ways. Ferus created an art epicenter, a hotbed for free expression. It was a small storefront with a large sign and window. Ferus first came into the spotlight when the Hollywood vice squad raided what was the first and last in his lifetime solo exhibition for Wallace Berman following a complaint about “lewd material.” These men, including Moses, created a persona for themselves with signs like, “Ferus Gallery Presents As A Public Service The Studs: Moses, Irwin, Price, Bengston.”

 

In its nine year lifetime, Ferus held important exhibitions for major east coast art stars as well, namely Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd and Frank Stella. Andy Warhol had his first solo show at Ferus in 1962, exhibiting the famous Campbell’s soup cans for the first time. Then there were others on the scene like John Baldessari, Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Joe Goode, Tony Berlant, and feminists artists like Vija Celmins.

Kienholz ran the store during the day and used it as a studio. According to Peter Goulds, Founding Director of LA Louver in his work Kienhholz Before LACMA, Hopps was an autodidact intellectual, very much into art history and had connections with Cubist and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, contemporary collecting interests and the Arensberg Family Collection, and with the emerging young Los Angeles collectors of that era.

After Hopps and Kienholz parted ways, Ferus Gallery was in the red and changed hands to Irving Blum, who was a smooth personality and groomed Ferus and the LA art scene until the gallery got out of the red.  Blum took the gallery from a loose knit group of beatniks and molded them into a competitive and brilliant group of artists that brought about the commercialization of the LA art scene. History says there was much lost and much gained in that process. Blum ran the gallery until its closure in 1966.

“What Ed did, his unique path, was very different. He was very iconoclastic, as they all were, but early on he explored mark making to an intense and unusual degree,” said Turner. “If you look at his early graphite drawings in the sixties, made at a time when pop art imagery, primary color, large bold eye-catching works were taking hold, you see that Moses was headed in a very different direction.

He was doing these works on paper with graphite, not using huge amounts of color. But they were remarkable. You can feel the intense pressure of the graphite onto, and into the paper, almost like he was trying to push through to the other side! There is one very well-known series of huge graphite drawings of dense rose patterns, inspired by a tablecloth that he and his wife, Avilda, found when they were in Tijuana. That


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pattern interested him. You get this sense of curiosity from these pieces, a sense that he was asking, how far could you push that idea and find something that was magical by doing something to an unusual degree, very intensely and with a laser focus.

“A lot of that early work of his seems counterintuitive to that macho bluster that these guys all had. You had these very intense, very intricate, delicate, monochromatic works on paper that were in some instances somewhat intimate in scale. You can see when you look at the arc of Ed’s career, he was really exploring, and pushing through from the familiar to get to another dimension with the material. That became a hallmark of his work throughout the rest of his career – pushing the


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possibilities of his materials.

“As a Buddhist practitioner since 1978, Moses was very much about being in the moment when he was making artwork. He would make a very spontaneous move, see what happened on the canvas and respond to that. It became this dance, which he described by the phrase “chance and circumstance”. He was incorporating the skill and intention of the artist while embracing the chance and circumstance of the gesture, staying always in the moment and responding without preconception.”

Moses has consistently defied definition over the course of his career. He was intrigued with the metaphysical power of painting and embraced the temporality, process and presses, remarking that “the point is not to be in control, but to be in tune.” He preferred the simple descriptive mark maker, or painter rather than artist.

 

“He referred to himself as a mutator,” said Turner. “He was continually evolving, mutating, as his focus changed from one area of exploration to the next. For Ed, the act of painting wasn’t about self-expression, it was about discovery, to reach a place you haven’t been to before. He hated the term artist, or being the idea of being creative, as though you’ve got this preconceived idea, and you’re going to use your ‘special talent’ to share your ‘creativity’ with the world. For Ed, it was just the opposite. It was about curiosity. Going through this process of painting and mark making to find and share the magic.”

“Ed was a fan of Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer. Both writers played with the notion of altered realities, slipping into other dimensions. Ed often spoke of wanting his work to transport the viewer to the other side of the looking glass, to a different reality and perspective,” said Turner. “Borges had this notion of labyrinths, shifting perspectives and magic realism as well. I spoke to Ed one time about his process, in this context. I said that it often seemed his approach as he began painting, was to dive deep into the heart of the labyrinth, purposely seeking disorientation in search of the unexpected, and that the painting that resulted was the process of finding his way back out of the labyrinth, but somewhere else from where he started. He loved that notion.”

“Ed Moses was more in the moment than anyone I’ve ever met”, Turner said. He would dive into a painting without preconception, without hesitation. Writers will talk about the intimidation of the blank page. Ed would dive into that blank canvas, then respond to what is happening, and the painting would evolve as a dance like that. What’s fascinating is that along with that spontaneity, there is this very sophisticated level of elegant decision making. He’s taking chances but there’s a delicate balance. For me, it’s that same feeling I get watching a figure skater performing with elegance and pure freedom, but you know at any moment they could lose that balance and fall on their ass. That’s what his paintings feel like to me. He’s taking those kinds of risks.”

For over 60 years Moses worked in what others might term Abstract Expressionism. He was a highly productive mark maker. Even into his 90’s, he was still actively painting daily outdoors at his Venice studio and attending numerous exhibitions.

 

Moses’ made decades long friendships in the art world with Gehry, Berlant, Celmins, Alexis Smith, Goode and James Hayward.

“In the LA Times obituary for Ed, Frank Gehry spoke of how Ed inspired him, and others, to take chances in their work. That was his attitude,” said Turner. “Frank spoke about Ed as really inspiring him to think outside the box, to ‘step into the unknown.’ Frank and Ed were very close friends. Ed was the first one of the Ferus group to meet Frank and brought Frank into that group. Gehry talks often about how being amongst that group really had huge impact on his willingness to explore new materials and new approaches, to take chances and risks. If you want to talk about Ed creating a movement that you call stylistic, I would say no. He was too Iconoclastic in that sense. Did he inspire an attitude, and set the bar in terms of willingness to take risks and to always move to new unexplored territories? Yes, he was very influential in that sense.”

FINISH FETISH AND LIGHT & SPACE

Some historical records indicate the Ferus Gallery brought about the Finish Fetish and Light and Space movements for the groundbreaking works the artist were doing, and others contradict these reports. Turner has interviewed and in many cases worked directly with the artists from the Ferus Gang. Malibu Arts Journal asked this question to Turner to set the historical record straight.

“No, I don’t think you can say that Ferus was the catalyst. It sort of evolved. Finish Fetish, where did the term come from? A few LA artists began working with materials similar to those utilized in custom car and surf culture, where the surfaces were highly polished and refined – think custom paint jobs, high gloss, plastic and resin. Artists had an increasing respect for the work being done with these materials and the visual effects they generated, in their work and in the car and surf culture. Artists like Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kaufman, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, John McCraken, De Wain Valentine, Peter Alexander, Fred Eversly picked up on these materials and this sensibility. They were also expanding the notion of what it means to think of someone as an artist.


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There’s a great story about Robert Irwin taking a New York art critic out to the valley to see this car guy who Irwin thought was fantastic and every bit as much an artist as Irwin and his compatriots were. The critic saw it and said ‘I disagree, I don’t think that’s the case.’ Irwin stopped the car, told the critic to get out, and just left the guy by the side of the road in the valley.”

Finish Fetish came about in the 1960’s and was specific to the southern California art scene. It’s an LA look. Light and Space relates in some ways to Finish Fetish and is loosely used to describe work that began being made in LA in the early 70s. The highly polished, reflective and translucent surfaces utilized in works we think of as Finish Fetish, began to be utilized less as objects in themselves, but more as catalytic vehicles to excite and broaden our senses of perception. How light reflected off, or moved through, the art object could enhance our perceptual sense of the space in which it existed. Artists like Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler really extended this notion, such that the idea of “art object” and “art as object” gave way to the directed perception of light and space, where entire rooms became the “art object”, or more correctly, the art object disappeared as a meaningful description of what one was perceiving.

“Ed did a very famous piece early on at Riko Mizuno’s Gallery that illustrates this idea. This is post Ferus. She told him


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he could do anything he wanted. Ed said you mean I could even take the roof off the gallery? She said yeah, we just can’t let my landlord find out. He left the beams of the roof intact but took the rest of the roof off. The light coming through created these shadow lines from the beams in diagonal patterns on the wall which the moved down and across the floor and up the other wall as the sun changed. And who helped Ed build that out? James Turrell! Who knows exactly the degree to which that may have influenced Turrell’s later trajectory. There’s always a lot of cross-pollination.”

 

THE FERUS GANG LATER IN LIFE:

“I did a talk about a year ago with Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.  Robert Irwin was hoping to come but couldn’t in the end.  Seeing them all together on stage, which you can see on YouTube, says it all in terms of the playful competitiveness and support they still give each other,” said Turner. “That kind of support for each other began in those early days when there wasn’t a lot of outside support, so it came from within and between them and has continued to this day. They all make a point to go to each other’s openings and when Ed died, they were all there to say good-bye. I find that an inspiration for me in my life.”

When asked if Ed was a feminist, Turner replied, “He loved women.”
ED MOSES EXHIBITION AND TALK

April 4th there will be an exhibition and talk of Ed Moses’ work at William Turner Gallery’s satellite, LIFT SPACE, in Playa Vista next to the new Hal’s restaurant, from 6-8 PM. Cocktails & Hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Entrance 145 Runway Drive, Playa Vista. The Ed Moses exhibition runs through April 30th.

Gallery hours 12-5 Tue-Sat

RSVP to SAVANNAH:​  TURNERGALLERY@GMAIL.COM 

William Turner Artists Talk with Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston

WILLIAM TURNER ARTISTS TALK

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