AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
Venice Magazine 1996
The studio is as peaceful and spare as a Zen monastery. Entering from outside, the shift in sensation is both simple and dramatic. Like submerging your head in the ocean and looking through a face mask. Only here it feels more like your head is suddenly in deep space. Three very large two-panel paintings hang on each of the three studio walls. In the center of the room, a single panel lies face up. The space of the studio feels charged, like it is expanding. In the painting facing the entrance, specs of color are caught in astral light, floating against deep gravitational washes. Luminescent discs skip across the plane, some apparently flying free of the surface, others submerged.
What is most unexpected about this new body of work, is that it is significantly different in appearance from another body of "new work", exhibited at L.A. Louver Gallery, only months earlier. Yet to anyone familiar with Ed Moses over the course of his career, these unexpected shifts in direction are not unexpected at all-they have come to be the hallmarks of the artist's work.
Beginning with his association in the mid-nineteen fifties with the now legendary Ferus Gallery, Ed Moses has embarked on an odyssey of artistic exploration and discovery that has paid little attention to the siren songs of the critical theory of the moment. Ironically, it is perhaps because of this independence, that Moses' work epitomizes the iconoclastic individuality which first brought critical recognition for work being done in Los Angeles and began to define the city as a particularly potent breeding ground for important artists.
Moses spent his youth growing up between Hawaii and Long Beach. Learning to surf in Hawaii, the future artist would bring his long board over and was perhaps one of the early influences on Southern California beach culture. In the Navy, the artist received medical training as a surgeon's assistant, which he had planned to pursue in pre-med courses at UCLA, with the idea of getting a professional degree and becoming a doctor . It wasn't until taking an art course that everything changed. Although Moses was convinced that he was struggling, the professor yanked one of his drawings from his easel one day, held it before the class and declared "Now this guy is a real artist". Moses never looked back.
The retrospective exhibition for Ed Moses opening April 20th at the Museum of Contemporary Art in April celebrates this forty some year career as one of Los Angeles' leading figures in contemporary art. Moses has worked in close collaboration with John Yau, the exhibition's curator, in selecting the work. The exhibition includes work dating from 1951 to the present and, as with the retrospective for Robert Irwin at MOCA in 1993, the artist is also creating new work specifically for the exhibition.
As we spoke in the studio about this new work and about Moses' process and thought in general, I was impressed by the artist's unflagging willingness to take risks and break new ground. Ed Moses reminded me of an improvisational jazz musician who has reached that stage of mastery where there is a seamless transition between desire, intention and expression.
Venice: This new series of large paintings have a wonderful sense of spatial depth to them, which would seem to require a certain distance to fully see. Because of the way you work, outside with the canvas stretched flat on the ground, this sense of space would seem particularly difficult to develop.
Ed Moses: Well, the interesting thing about it is, when I work along the ground, I don't look at it them terms of what they're doing spatially. To me it's all flat. First I hose the whole painting down and then paint it black, or with the paint roller, or throw paint, you know, spill paint on it, scrape it off with a big scraper. That becomes like the ground-first markings. Then, on that, I'm floating these disks which sort of skate across the surface. So they don't really have anything to do with, although some of them melt into, what happened previously. But mostly they are sort of isolated and dance across the surface. I wanted to get them to sort of lift off, rather than the conventional way of holding the painting to the plane and making it integral to the picture plane. The picture plane is merely the starting place, the arena, for this other kind of thing.
How would you describe your overall focus in painting ?
I'm not interested in cultural paintings, or paintings of political things, or psychic things, or creating things. I'm looking for space, open space. I want to get out-out of my own skull, out of this physical limitation we are. They don't have to do with me, with you and me, with automobiles, with automobile culture, with ethnic culture, with feminine culture, with homosexual culture...any of these kinds of cultural things that everybody seems interested in now. They have to either be politically relevant or sociologically relevant. Or so called "Art." And none of that is of any interest to me. Any connection I would have, would be to the 19th Century German Romantics, who moved out in space. Man was always this tiny little creature in this giant vast landscape of clouds, sky, trees that towered way above. So that we're not the factor. We are only a factor in a giant equation of existence. It has to do with man. It has to do with Earth. And it has to do with space. A space that has no beginning and no end. . . which is unfathomable.
This new work certainly has a sense of that kind of scale. The paintings appear to have an almost astral, primeval, gravitational force to them.
EM: Yeah, there are all those kinds of associations in them... I don't paint them with that, but those are my interests. So if you're interests are there, obviously what you're going to be painting somewhat coincides. But I don't consider myself integrated or mature, or an adult, or any of these things. I'm just a factor. What my levels of psychological drama are, are irrelevant in terms of the search that I am making. I am trying to find paintings not make paintings. And even better than finding them....discovering them. Discovering possibilities of paintings that are outside of my own psychological, historical, personal history. Unless my personal history had to do with the search.
Let's talk a little about the process of painting. When you are painting, do you try to put yourself in a mental state of being a vehicle for...
EM: Yeah, just paying attention to what I'm doing. So not thinking of lofty things, not thinking of little things, not thinking of ordinary things. But being particularly ordinary in that all I'm doing is putting paint on a canvas. And then I have this other field that goes across after I've finished the first level of the canvas, which would be associated to our own personal history of abstract painting. There's the Romantic, or what is called the Expressive side, or the Formal side. Which would be Mondrian on one side, and Jackson Pollock [on] the other side. So both of those are factors in the equations when they come into collision. What they ignite is what interests me. The magical possibility of ignition.
Which is a very Eastern concept, that harmony between absolute mastery and control, on the one hand and acceptance of the accidental, the spontaneous, on the other....
EM: Yeah, look what you find... But it's also Westerner's involvement with that Eastern thinking. Since I have been a student of Buddhism for a long time, I am inflected with those teachings. And also by my Western roots. . . which is totally aggressive. I used to think, for a long time, the idea was to get in harmony, or get in tune with the nature of existence. Well, that's a wonderful idea but in fact, that's not what I'm doing. I'm in constant collision with my culture, with who I am as a person, and the environment that's around me. From the gangs on the street, to outer space investigations, to what I call the "Holiotropic Mind." MichaelTalbot wrote this fabulous book called The Holographic Universe. We try to solidify it but it's all totally ephemeral. It's just all a bunch of atoms, and chromosomes, and sub-particles banging together, and every once in a while they appear to make forms. The form of us, that we play great importance to, and I find it's a joke. It's [a] total irony that we are so serious and we talk about serious thoughts, and that this is important stuff. It's all a cosmic joke.
EM: Let's look at this one too...this one is a reverse.... That painting is... the right panel was on the other side and I just flipped it over. And both of these paintings were done sort of simultaneously. None of these were made to go together. I just arbitrarily put them together. I like the conjunction of the yim and yam. The two opposing factors.
So these started out as separate pieces?
EM: Yeah. All of these were separate panels and then I put them together.
I was exploring this one here, carrying it so far, and then pulling it off...with big, broad elements I used to pull the paint off and sweep in one direction and then the other. When the canvas is wet, I work on the wet surface so it doesn't fix itself so much. So it's open to the process, the phenomenal process--of drawing, of sun, of one paint congealing into another, dissolving into another. So they set up their kinds of formations. And I like these kinds of formations, they're more like what's going on in my brain all the time. Things are sliding in and out of focus and I'm trying to control them. There they go again, out of control. Working this way is very nebulous, very amorphous, very disquieting. Because I would like to just hammer it down and say "this is what it is." Like what Richard Serra does, he takes these big plates of steel. Just these big plates of steel, you know, just give me the facts, man, the simple facts. There it is in it's physical state. So Serra is dealing with weight and density. These paintings have to do with weightlessness, in a sense. Getting away from the physical location, opening up, letting it fly. I'd like to be able to fly. . .fly off. . . but I'm terrified at the same time.
What I like about this work, and your work in general, is the risk that you need to always take to get into these paintings.
EM: Yeah, that you have to take to get into them, too. People have a hard time with that because it is hard for them to locate. It's hard for them to associate. So they look for a handle and say "Oh, he's an Abstract Expressionist," or "he's a Modernist," or something. And I'm nothing. Just another jackass walking around planet Earth.
But in between the cracks, every once and a while, this phenomena takes place. These big paintings are an example of that phenomena.
I 'm really amazed at how different this body of work is from the work that was in the L.A. Louver show several months ago. This is. . .
EM: Another step. I'm never a professional. See that's the point. I'm never searching for an image that I can put a stamp on and say "That's an Ed Moses." Because that's not what interests me. I'm not a business man. I'm not a professional artist. I don't make images to make a career out of it. And because of that, it is hard for people to be able to view them. . . to be free to be able to throw their baggage away when they come in and look. People want a location. That's why I engage in these interviews. Because it gives people some kind of a handle by which they might be able to look at the paintings. But it might confuse them. And they say "Well that guy is full of shit." He's saying one thing and here's another thing. And that's always bothered me. When I hear some artist talking about what they're doing, and then I look and see what they're doing, and I see that there's bullshit in there somewhere.... So, definitely, that's a possibility here too.
I remember a number of years ago, you had an exhibition of a series of paintings with figurative elements in them. That must have caused a lot of confusion?
EM: Yeah, right. It did. And it all came about because when I talk on the phone, at that counter where you were sitting at, I doodle. And I was just sort of making profiles of heads. And I took the piece of paper one day, while the ink was wet, while I was sitting there, and folded it and opened in up and it made a whole other image. Which was part of my whole thing... You do something with your left hand, something with your right hand (slap!) , you put the two together and they make night. So you get two opposing forces which is very Western in a sense. The idea of collision, direction. The idea of submission, the idea of transmission and. . . .
Anyway, I was doing this and it made this image. So then I started doing a bunch of them. I said "well I think I'll do those on canvas." So I just took one of these big etching things and just drew real fast. A profile of a head. With my left hand I made another profile with the two noses. . . or the tongues would come through. Then I poured paint all over and squeageed. . . pulled all the paint off. It transformed these things. They were outside of the drawings that I initially imposed on the painting. It transfused them, in a sense, and they became irregular. The noses, the mouths, the tongues all became extended in some way, stretched, deformed, pulled apart. So they were sort of remnants of these images. But the painting was the thing. To me the painting is the thing. A painting has a presence, or it doesn't have a presence. People say "well, how do you know when they're finished?" I say, "well, when they light up." There are certain paintings that light up. They have this kind of magnetic field that they invoke into an environment.
That's exactly how I would describe it. And these, in particular, have this magnetic, almost gravitational force that seems to run through them.
EM: Right. So I like paintings in empty spaces. Dealers, you know, know that people who collect art are going to put it in their house for over the couch, or over the mantle. Or they may even be so advanced that they would make a wall for it, free from environmental diversions. I would like the idea that you just sit and look at a painting. Two chairs. You and I sitting here. We have a glass of wine, whatever we would want, and we would view the paintings. Just as if you were listening to music. And it's a kind of experience. It's not just a diversion and it's not entertainment. There are films that are entertainment and there are films that you really get into. People say, "well I don't know how to look at a painting." Well, how do you listen to music? First you've got to listen. Most people don't know how to listen. Their minds are going fifteen different directions. You go to a symphony for the first time when you're a kid and your mind goes this way, and after a while you start listening to the flutes, and you listen to their relationship with that of the percussion and the strings, and it all makes this presence that fills this environment. This space. I like to go to a symphony and imagine that this whole symphony is there, and here I am, so lucky I get to sit and experience, as they build this space with that kind of activity and the space dissipates as it gets around the edges, then dissolves, and you just sort of free float, rotate and spin.
So that's it! You've got to focus, you've got to concentrate. Most people don't know how. I'll have people working for me sometimes, and I'll say let's put this over here, and they trip over something, and they move the other piece. I say you've got to be aware of the whole field that you're in. Your toes, fingertips, what's on the ceiling. Is there a ceiling? Where the walls are. So you become conscious. So you're not in yesterday and tomorrow all the time. You're right here in this spot. Which is a fascinating place to be.