Who Is Ed Moses?
by Peter Frank
Since the 1960s, Ed Moses has been one of the central figures in the Los Angeles art scene. Moses' position results not from the originality of his art but precisely from its unoriginality--that is, its fully
developed synthesis of already-existing ideas and approaches.
Moses, after all, is a direct inheritor of abstract expressionism
and minimalism; he fairly parades his membership in the "extended
family" of abstract painting. Furthermore, he has worked his way
through several styles, as the MOCA shows in a retrospective, covering
nearly a half-century of his work.
In his thinking, Moses has embraced a wealth of ideas, the bulk of them borrowed. Part of his importance to Los Angeles art specifically, and American contemporary art in general, is his ability to turn ideas into formulas that are distinctive, even inimitable, and exemplary, almost didactic. Unlike other artists central to Los Angeles discourse, such as Ruscha and John Baldessari, Moses has not created a personal variant on an ism. Rather, he has exercised his sensibility on a surprisingly wide range of given isms, demonstrating the multitude of possibilities to whole generations of local, abstract painters.
|The "real world" is not necessarily included in that range of possibilities, though imagery does prevail in Moses' earliest
The post-juvenilia with
which the retrospective begins, for instance, depict shallow,
schematized vistas filled with highly stylized
structures, all rendered in a light, precise draughtsperson's line.
The subsequent abstract expressionist canvases brim
with bulbous, and rather lascivious shapes. Then flower images, exactingly rendered, are repeated obsessively throughout the 1960s. But references to the real world haven't made an appearance in Moses' work in almost thirty years, except for the relatively recent "Ror Shock and Wagu" series, in which tenebrous cartoon heads, tongues extended,
pop up amid characteristic blots and smears.
The real-world influences Moses' art in other ways, however. Real material often has been part and parcel of his painting
technique. The "Ill. Hegemann" series, for instance, whose zigzag formations are based on the patterns found on Navajo blankets and in the desert landscape, seem suspended in resin and hang unstretched but stiff on the wall. Many of the paintings that followed the "Hegemann"
provide the same sense of brittle immediacy, fabricated as
they are fabricated from Rhoplex and laminated tissue. Even when Moses
returned to paint -- notably, acrylic paint, often heavily
gessoed -- on canvas, he built up a surface so slick and so
subtle that it comes across as industrial: blank, and durable as Linoleum.
||What Moses achieved in this early 1970s work was the conflation of gestural painting with the perceptualism of Robert
Irwin and other California artists associated with "light and space"
and "finish-fetish" tendencies--tendencies which, like minimalism
on the East Coast, had been regarded as essentially sculptural. Many of the
perceptualists themselves began as painters; but they abandoned painting, or at least modified
it and suppressed its gesturality, in favor of objects
whose surfaces were uninflected, almost effaced. These objects were made of materials associated more with industrial
fabrication--Fiberglass, Lucite, Rhoplex, cast acrylic--than with artistic creation. Such objects capitalized on the
peculiar sensuosity that the unorthodox substances imparted to them.
It was Moses' inspiration to reintroduce this industrial sheen to painting--and to do so without compromising the very
different haptic allure of painterly gesture.
The 1980s saw a universal return to traditional painting, once again encouraging Moses to wield a
"loaded brush". The brush--that is, one of the brushes--he
wielded to create the multipanel acrylics of1982 brought back the brush of the1970s: firm, emphatic, basically linear, leaving behind
multiple striations on diagonal biases. But while the works of
the 1970s rely almost entirely on this schema, Moses modified the schema when he created the 1982 panels. In these panels a welter of brush strokes imply increasingly forlorn remnants of a once-formidable pattern.
||The retrospective is balanced and nearly thorough. However it leaves out works from 1977 to 1981, which does a disservice to
our sense of Moses as a formal thinker who is also adventurous. It would be at least fascinating and probably
revealing, to see how the painter transited between the two strongest groups of work in the whole show. The diagonal crosshatches of the mid-1970s and the painterly multipanel works of 1982, the high points in an exhibition full of
oomph, are peculiarly powerful in their focus and their fusion of
Moses' mental and manual energies.
|Moses continued to marshal his energies. The paintings of the last decade, however, turn
inward to some extent. The previous work, spontaneous as it is,
was the result of intensive, self-conscious discipline. The
exacting sense of balance and precision seen so clearly in the
early images and the smaller drawings of the 1960s informed all
of Moses' work up to the last ten years. The more recent
paintings take this sense of balance for granted. In these works,
some of the most gestural Moses has ever created, large strokes
and blots flow and float with disconcerting randomness. That
randomness is misleading--Moses calculates his marks--but the extravagance of
the painterly incident maintains the fiction that the
painter has impulsively set chaotic forces in motion.
|What Moses has done in the work of the last decade is follow,
not lead. His art of the 1960s, 1970s and early-1980s argued for
Moses' maturity as a painter: It also testified to his impact on
younger, West Coast artists, including a small group of painters
devoted to repetitive linear patterns and/or monochromatic
surfaces and a larger group that exploited industrial and
technological processes to create work with a sense of amplified materiality.
The work since seems more a response to new indulgence in painting all over the world in the1980s. Again,
though, Moses did not paint simple responses to neo-expressionist
concepts. He responded to the new painterliness by
indulging himself, for the first time since the bumptious abstract-expressionist works of the later-1950s, by going with
the flow. By clearly not
taking the lead in the new painting, Moses has lost some eminence as a pedagogical presence.
But it's a trade that allows him to
maintain a thoroughgoing and sustained level of experimentation.
Ed Moses is always experimenting, with forms, with objects,
with ideas. This sometimes explosive, more-often-measured, but
continuous restlessness gives Moses' work its pizzazz, and
helps attract many artists to his work. We see this to
an eye-popping extent in the retrospective, which, despite its
possibly grievous gaps and the often-eruptive energy of the
work itself, presents Moses' oeuvre as a coherent evolution.