In 2016, on the occasion of his first East Coast retrospective, at Albertz Benda gallery in New York, the Los Angeles-based artist Ed Moses told ARTnews, “When I catch onto something, I push it a little bit, and sometimes I get lucky. I say, ‘Wow, how did you make that?’ If it has the wow factor, I’m OK.” Judging by the critical reception of his work over the course of a long career, many of Moses’s paintings did, indeed, have that wow factor.
Moses, whose prolific body of work expanded the possibilities of abstraction while synthesizing American and Asian aesthetics and radically experimenting with chance, has died at 91, according to Albertz Benda, which represents the artist in New York. The gallery said he died of natural causes.
A member of a close-knit group of Los Angeles artists that formed during the late 1950s, Moses was one of the most important painters to come out of the West Coast in the postwar years. At the center of this group, affectionately termed the “Cool School” by critics, was Ferus Gallery, which was founded by Walter Hopps, Edward Kienholz, and Bob Alexander in 1957. Moses had his first show there in 1958 and later became a regular at the gallery, where he showed work alongside Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, John Altoon, Wallace Berman, and others.
In his time showing at Ferus Gallery, various movements came and went. When he started working, a number of L.A. artists, like Kienholz and Berman, had engineered a style based on collaging and assembling found objects, often to violent and sexual ends. Then there was Light and Space, the movement that placed an emphasis on minimalist installations and sculpture, and later there was Conceptualism, which questioned the very nature of art objects themselves. But Moses steadfastly continued working in his own painterly style all the while, absorbing elements of various avant-garde activities but holding true to his interest in process-based abstraction and geometric repetition.
Some of Moses’s most famous early works were his “Rose Drawings,” for which he traced rose patterns he found on an oilcloth from Tijuana, Mexico, and repeated them so that they created dense abstract fields. Eventually, the works exploded out into space—for one piece now in the collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Moses covered a folding four-piece panel with his flowery forms.
During the ’70s, Moses grew more interested in process-based art. Working outdoors at his Venice Beach studio because the fumes from different materials were toxic, Moses would place a layer of Mylar film on top of a linoleum platform, draw red and blue lines in chalk on a canvas, pour resin onto the canvas’ back, and squeegee it off. When he took the canvas off of the Mylar, a record of every step of his process was left behind. Unlike the slick works with soft finishes being produced by his colleagues, the aesthetic of these works were decidedly raw.
In 1978, Moses became a Buddhist practitioner, and his paintings became sparer. Works from the late ’70s recall canvases by Ellsowrth Kelly and Carmen Herrera in their simplicity, with only a few colors used at once. He also produced monochromes and grid-based work at the time, in an effort to explore what couldn’t be controlled by a painter.
Moses attributed his process and his work to a sort of shamanistic power. “The shamans were the interpreters of the unknown, they reacted to the unknown with symbols and objects and wall painting,” he once said. “And that’s where it all came from. That’s where I came from, but when you’re a young man you don’t know that.”
Moses was born in 1926 in Long Beach, California. In interviews, Moses said he knew he was destined to become a painter, noting that, as a baby, he would smear his excrement on the walls, causing his aunt to exclaim that he would one day be an artist. (He had an irreverent sense of humor up to the very end of his life; in a 2016 interview, he described himself as a “retired playboy.”) During World War II, he became a surgical technician for the U.S. Navy. After the war, he got his M.F.A. at the University of California, Los Angeles, where Craig Kauffman introduced him to Hopps, setting Moses up to become one of Los Angeles’s most important artists at the time.
Moses’s work has since been seen in various museums, most notably in a 1996 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and a show of his drawings from the ’60s and ’70s at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015.
At the end of his life, Moses was confined to a wheelchair, but continued making new work. In 2016, at William Turner Gallery in Santa Monica, he debuted a series of craquelure paintings that he made by placing black or white paint on a canvas and then adding what he called a “secret sauce,” letting it dry, and hitting the canvas with his fist or his elbow. He got the idea from Piet Mondrian—and said it occurred to him when he once accidentally fell on a painting.
Playful as ever, Moses enjoyed success on both the East and West coasts in the later stages of his career, but he acknowledged that he also enjoyed being an outsider. In 2016, he told ARTnews, “I like to think that I’m in [art history] in some way. But I’m atypical. I like not fitting. In fact I am working on pieces that are all about that, things that come together by chance. I think my whole life has evolved from chance factors. I don’t know what I’m doing. I go into things, like this interview, cold. I don’t know what I’m going to say. And that’s the way I have always approached painting. I like dealing with things I don’t know about.”