There's a "secret sauce" on the paintings of Ed Moses. He says as much. He'll tell you all about the unconventional processes and the creation of a painting, espousing k?ans about what it means to be an artist. But what makes his paintings unique is that sense that even though they're so varied, you can always tell a Ed Moses piece, there's an underlying umami to his visual flavors.
On a warm May morning, and Moses is sitting in a wheelchair in the garden of his home. His house is a chaotic collage, weathered as much as Moses himself, and it has a painterly quality. The home is a 1920s Craftsman that he bought from a group of hippies that had let it fall into disarray. Now it's his own blank canvas. Moses built on a few stories of his own artsy architecture for his "book room" -- Moses likes to use practical terms instead of pretentious nouns like "library." He has two studios filled with work, and a large open space in the middle of everything where he does most of his paintings en plein air.
"I always wanted to paint outside; that's one of the reasons I got this place," he says. "I moved to New York a couple times, but I was always uncomfortable there, because I wanted to paint with a hose and buckets of water, and they would leak into the studios that I rented in New York. That didn't work out very well. So when I came out here, I could just take a canvas outside. I had a hose, and I could saturate the canvases with water, and then introduce paint to them, and then the paint moved along, and made its own kind of event or imagery. Sometimes I used a mop, sometimes I'd strap three or four paint brushes together. I'm doing these watercolors that are based on that same idea. I do them outside every day in the morning, in the afternoon, and again in the evening."
But the garden is tranquil with two gentle dogs, Cat and Dasher, and a burbling zen fountain. Despite his biblical surname, Moses has been practicing Buddhism since 1971.
The secret sauce, I've always thought, meant "the ineffable," a quality that makes one of Moses's famous paintings reverberate from the canvas and cause a visceral reaction in whoever stands in front of it.
"Oh no," Moses says. "I got it from Jack. Jack in the Box."
Moses smirks. He's 89, but he's still got it.
He also has a busy slate. He has two new shows, "Ed Moses: Drawings from the 1960s and 1970s," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and "Ed Moses: Now and Then" at William Turner Gallery. And he's doing a media blitz, welcoming The Guardian, KPCC, and Los Angeles Magazine (and me) into his home for studio visits, to tell the many sordid tales of the mythical crew that hung around Ferus Gallery in the 1960s. He's like a sailor, telling the tales of the sea, the women he dated (he briefly courted Marilyn Monroe), and, yes, the marijuana he has smoked.
I ask him if he's ever going to slow down, if he ever feels like its time to take a break, if Buddhism has allowed him to find a level of comfort within himself.
"Never comfortable," he says. "Always agitated. I'm a compulsive worker. Every day, I have four or five projects going on at the same time, so I have a curious nervous tic, a psychological tic where it activates me all the time. A few months ago, I almost died, and I had to keep working even though I'd been semi-paralyzed from having a new aortic valve and a pacemaker, and I died sitting in my chair, and the paramedics came and picked me up and got me going again, but lying in bed for two weeks, all of my muscles atrophied in my legs, and it's very frustrating for me trying to get around from one place to another, but I still have to do it."
Moses has been painting for over 60 years now, but he took a circuitous route to get into the art world, since he's always had a bit of an outsider view of the world. Moses was born on a boat in 1926 on the way from Hawaii to Long Beach.
"I was conceived in Hawaii, and then my dad came over here to import Kona coffee, but he didn't have any success, so we all went back, and then my mother made an excuse that she had to come back to close the house, and then she wrote him a 'Dear John' after that," he says, pointing out the skag-less surfboards that he's hung up on the side of his house, a reminder of the summers he'd spent visiting his father in Hawaii.
He joined the Navy at 17, working in the San Diego Naval Hospital, and deigned to become a doctor, enrolling as a pre-med at Long Beach City College after his discharge. But he didn't take to the rote memorization required of the doctoral path, and his friends suggested he take an art class, where he says his first art teacher, the "bohemian" Pedro Miller -- who had studied Maholy-Nagy at Art Institute of Chicago -- assigned the class to paint a still life.
Moses watched in terror as Miller walked around to each of the students easels, critiquing each one. Finally, he just dipped his fingers in the inkwell and made a finger painting. His expressionistic tendencies took root.
Moses bounced around for a while, before landing in an MFA program at UCLA, where he met artist Craig Kauffman, who would become his best friend, and his entrance in the Ferus Gallery world. Kauffman introduced Moses to Walter Hopps, who promptly gave Moses the second show at Ferus -- after Wallace Berman's infamously censored show -- and the first opening the gallery ever had.
"I was confident about the work," he says. "This group of artists that hung out at Ferus Gallery, we all had an arrogance that we were the best, and all of the other artists in this town were on an old boat, and they had better get on a fast plane with us. We outshone them all; we out grew them all. I remember [Billy Al] Bengston and [Robert] Irwin and Kenny Price and Craig Kauffman -- who was sort of the genius of the group. We were the people and the rest of them were squares. It was also my graduate thesis, which the faculty [at UCLA] did not like at all. They were jealous, because none of them were in such an outrageous gallery that was already celebrated."
But Moses was an anomaly among the Ferus Gallery coterie. While Kauffman, Bengston, and Larry Bell were using plastics and glass to make perfect objects for their "Finish Fetish" movement, and Irwin and James Turrell were changing perceptions of Light and Space, Moses was creating paintings that looked closer to Abstract Expressionism than anything else. Moses was making drawings where he would try and press so hard on his drawings that supernatural light would come out of them, and when they didn't he would be disappointed. He was also strict about moving incrementally and sequentially with his work -- only making small changes, editing and adding as things struck his fancy -- a "pathway" that stuck with him throughout his life.
"They didn't understand what I was doing," he says. "They thought it was just goofy. 'There goes Moses again, off on some track.' They would suggest ways that I could get out of that obsessive situation. But we were all friends, we all hung out together, we drank together, we chased the same women. And we all hung out at a place that Ed Keinholz discovered called Barney's Beanery. We used to all go there together to drink and tell lies."
The obsessive situation Moses refers to was the way he went about making his drawings and paintings. For years, he was infatuated with the floral pattern on an oilcloth he had found in Tijuana, Mexico on one of the gang's escapades.
"I got the idea of working with a pre-designed element from Jasper Johns," says Moses. "He said that if you start with something, and you don't get into the design and the art part, you just get into the touch and the invention within the parameters of a pre-designed thing like an American flag and targets, in his case, which is a unique idea. He played within the parameters of that something."
I asked Moses if he'd ever spoken to Johns about this idea of working with a pre-designed element.
"I did talk to him once about it, briefly," says Moses. "He was a difficult guy to talk to. He didn't like people complimenting him. He'd say, 'What do you know about it?' He said that to a friend of mine, Ken Price, who had complimented him on his work. He put Kenny down. Bob Irwin was there at this particular thing, and Irwin let him know real fast that that was not the appropriate thing to do, that Kenny was twice the artist that he'd ever be. Johns sort of backed off, because Irwin is so forceful. He's such a physical powerful guy."
Moses has a million stories like this -- tales of an art world of yore, when machismo reigned supreme. Except Moses's interest in Eastern philosophy also gave him a contradictory calmness. He began to recognize inner dialogues within himself, ones that he'd been having forever, but only were revealing themselves to him now.
"I asked myself one day, 'What are you doing, Ed? Are you making pretty pictures? Are you making art?' I said, 'No, I'm not interested in art, and I'm not interested in making pretty pictures,' but I am interested in discovering pictorial images that I hadn't thought of before, so I invent ideas as I proceed that allows discoveries with the paint in whatever the situation is. One day, I noticed caterpillars, and as they traversed along the concrete, they would leave tracks where they'd been, so I like the idea that a brush could leave a track where it was, and therefore it would be like me tracking where I've been and where I'm going."
Once Moses visited the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux in the early-'90s -- and invigorated by an anxiety over the L.A. Riots of 1992 -- everything fell into place. He began to treat his work as philosophical ruminations.
"Why did I respond that way?" he wonders aloud. "Early man discovered his footprint in the mud, and a bloodstain on a wall or a cave, and it left evidence that he existed. He saw that footprint in the mud: 'Who did that? I did that.' [The people that recognized this] in the tribe were called the shaman. [The shaman] were excited by these discoveries and leaving tracks of evidence, but he left them not necessarily for himself, but for the tribe that he functioned in. I function in a tribe among artists and museums and that whole construct. So I'm leaving evidence that I exist, and leaving tracks that would have shamanistic possibilities. In other words, magical possibilities that were informing to the rest of the tribe about life and death, fertility, et cetera."
Abruptly, Moses decides he wants to get up. I help him into his wheelchair. He points out that the brand of wheelchair is called a Turbo, and laughs, and starts to move towards his open-air studio, wanting to take a look at the new paintings he's been working on. "Let's go take a look at how these watercolors came out," he says, shuffling away slowly, but as excitedly as ever.
Even at his age, the octogenarian can't stop moving, or making. And like he says, he's a compulsive creator. His own works are like those cave paintings in Lascaux, shamanistic artifacts that help us contemplate magical possibilities.