Two New Shows Highlight Legendary L.A. Artist Ed Moses

Jordan Riefe
Ed Moses

Early drawings at LACMA and current works at William Turner Gallery get the 89-year-old painter recalling Ferus Gallery and dating Marilyn Monroe.

In 1964, L.A.’s legendary Ferus Gallery exhibited the works of artists Robert IrwinKen PriceBilly Al Bengston and Ed Moses in a show called “The Studs.” These four, along with Ed KienholzEd RuschaCraig Kaufman and others, were the core of a burgeoning scene that has grown from the 1960s into one of the world’s leading centers for contemporary art. Free of the entrenched structure of the New York art world, as well as overwhelming European influences, West Coast artists pursued unique new avenues like Light and Space, (minimalist sculpting with shadow), and Finish Fetish, (using new plastic resins developed by the aerospace industry).

At the age of 89, Ed Moses recalls bemusedly watching the work of his fellow artists, and instead turning to graphite scribbling on paper. Like the L.A. art scene that pursued a path different than New York and European counterparts, Moses went his own way, emerging as one of the era’s most distinctive voices. He still paints every day, despite a new aortic valve and a walker that makes getting around difficult, and has not one but two concurrent shows — Ed Moses: Drawings from the 1960s and 70s at LACMA through August 2, and Ed Moses Now and Then at William Turner Gallery at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station through August 15.

“I was doing the graphite when the young studs happened,” Moses tells The Hollywood Reporter on a sunny spring morning in the garden of his Venice studio. “Light and Shadow was supposed to be it. I never understood that idea about California light. I loved to draw lines, dimensional lines, laying the pencil down with the right amount of hardness.”

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Moses had his first show at Ferus Gallery in 1958, just as he was graduating from UCLA. Back then, he and the other artists used to hang out at Barney’s Beanery, where Marilyn Monroe used to go before she became famous.

“I took her to the Apple Pan,” he remembers his first date with the movie legend at the famous Westside burger joint. “She wanted to be a movie star, and she got to be it. That way of talking was something she developed. It worked for her, that sort of baby talk.”

The LACMA show is the first exhibit of his drawings in 40 years. Included are the Rose drawings based on a pattern of flowers taken from a Mexican oil cloth Moses found in Tijuana. They are large-scale works with graphite scribbled in a mosaic-like pattern, crowding the spaces between roses. His pop-up series, from the same era, was inspired by a Swedish holiday card with a pop-up flower inside. Moses seemed concerned with tracing each element and determining the mechanics of the flower, while leaving the amorphic pieces devoid of color.

“I asked myself in the sixties, what is it you’re doing?” he confesses, referring to his drawings as “goddamned valentines.” He finally determined that his compulsion to mark was as primal as the first apes to ever stand upright and put a handprint on a cave wall.

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Subsequent galleries include a signature style he became known for in the 70s, variations on diagonal grids painted in acrylic, charcoal, India ink and masking tape. Later canvases at William Turner Gallery are radically different than his early works, although pieces like Found and Puzzle retain vestiges of the grids some 40 years later.

“What I do is often stimulated by what I did previous to that,” he says of his current work. “One thing leads to another to another. It becomes variegated and aberrant. And I like that.”

With prices topping out at $133,000, gallery owner William Turner likes it, too. “What excites me about this show is, if you think you know Ed Moses and you come to the show, you realize you don’t. He follows his path in the moment, and that always is leading somewhere.”

While Moses self-identifies as “a rebel without a cause,” he maintains that he always works within the aesthetic of painting and marking. “Marking led to painting. Painting is a way of marking,” he explains. “I do what I do in reference to discovering that I exist. In response to my awareness of living, I do these things.”