Ed Moses. Photo: Kwaku Alston.

Ed Moses (1926–2018)

Ed Moses, the rebellious postwar painter whose eclectic career spanned five decades and earned him legendary status on the West Coast, has died at ninety-one. Moses, who continued making art until his death, is considered one of the most innovative artists of his generation and a fixture in the Los Angeles art scene.

Born in Long Beach, California, in 1926, he joined the US Navy in 1944 before enrolling as a pre-med student on the GI Bill. He took up painting when he failed to qualify for medical school and had his first solo exhibition at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery in 1958. Moses belonged to the “cool school” of avant-garde painters that showed at Ferus, which opened in 1957. Along with his contemporaries—Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, and Robert Irwin, among others—Moses helped transform the city into an arts hub.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he displayed an interest in gestural abstraction, often combining Asian and European influences. In addition to painting, he taught art at the University of California, Los Angeles, intermittently from 1968 to 1976. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1976 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984.

A theme of unruly self-reinvention recurs throughout Moses’s practice. “The rational mind constantly wants to be in charge. The other parts want to fly,” Moses said in a 1987 interview in the Los Angeles Times. “My painting is the encounter between the mind’s necessity for control and its yearning to fly, to be free from our ever-confining skull.”

For his pioneering 1969 exhibition “Deconstruction,” at the Mizuno Gallery in LA, Moses tore off a section of the space’s roof to expose wooden slats that refracted the sunlight into diagonal patterns on the floors and walls. The show marked a turning point for Moses. Although known for shifting between styles and traditions, the artist remained interested in the idea of the grid and repetition. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, he experimented with watercolors, assemblage, drawing, acrylic, and installation. In the 1970s, he began to focus on the process of painting rather than the finished product.

Moses has had many exhibitions across the United States, including a major retrospective held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1996. “Moses restlessly moves from one stylistic mode to another, each contradicting the next; in the end, we are left with an apotheosis of restlessness itself,” Donald Kuspit wrote in a review of the exhibition for the October 1996 issue of Artforum. “Again and again, he stages an encounter between late-Modernist America and early-Modernist Europe, in which a touch of California angst about being too serious mingles with a very ambitious seriousness indeed.”