PRINT March 1972

Ed Moses: The Problem of Regionalism

LOS ANGELES ART BEARS a peculiar, ambivalent, and unfortunate relation to New York ever since, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, this city was promoted, inside and outside, as a peer or at least a strong second to the Big Apple. (The broader, weirder problem of the mystic critical necessity for diverse artists across this whole bountiful land to sort the same soot as vanguard Gotham kunstmeisters is perhaps the overriding issue; I’m dealing only with one aspect of it.) Until the ’50s, Los Angeles was a thinly spread bantamweight—no history, no culture, just a string of defense plants and movie studios—with isolated practitioners of comatose styles (Lebrun, Surrealist Lundeberg, Merrill Gage, et al) copping the “new” market. Abstract Expressionist’s overall freedom prompted the area to suppose it could manifest something of its own; since then quality modernists have traveled one of two routes—practicing a New York-based, theoretically “correct” art mode just as heavily as the Manhattanites (Francis, Woelffer, Chamberlain, etc.), or making something glamorously “regional” (without the rural connotations of the word). The latter has amounted mostly to extra spit and polish on Pop and Minimal art, plus space-age materials (Valentine, Bell, Cooper, Irwin, Ruscha, Goode, Price, etc.), and it has oft been described as the “L.A. Look” or the “California finish fetish,” or other, less polite, things.

Recently, after five years of pervasive casting, sanding, polishing, spraying, lighting, and coating, two artists have made it big (critically, in New York) through the neglected first option. Bruce Nauman, a peripatetic only a few years settled in the Basin, investigates the contextual/epistemological problem sired by Duchamp and nursed through Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage, Warhol, and parts of Oldenburg, and together with the mainstream of downtown New York theory, is shepherding it through a healthy adolescence (some say, already, old age). Ron Davis (see Artforum, December, 1971) dug himself firmly into the no-nonsense Serious Painting groove (Cubism-Hofmann-Stella) and continues to outpaint guys like Ruda, Avedisian, and Dzubas (no slouches), although of late he’s contracted the recent-Poons, recent-Noland Baroque Structure virus. The point is, Nauman and Davis are doing it the hard way, with art which must pass through New York, physically or otherwise. Maybe the choice is between flying to London to do prints or hitchhiking to New York to have articles written about you.

For 15 years, Ed Moses has been plowing a furrow of his own (uncovering an occasional boulder belonging to somebody else), slightly to the right of Nauman, considerably to the left of Ed Ruscha; he’s attracted to the regional rôle (the portion of it eschewing forced “mainstream” avant-garde art “issues,” the artist standing on his own soil saying, “this is where I am and this is where the crop’s planted”), but formally convinced by hardcore, serious painting, the kind you see a hundred times more there than here. Thus, Moses has been split, neither expansive, sizable enough for New York, nor effete-craftsman enough for Los Angeles.

Moses’ was one of the first shows at the seminal Ferus Gallery (managed by Irving Blum and theory-piloted by Walter Hopps), because he was the oldest (46 now) of the original stable: Bengston, Ken Price, Ed Keinholz, Robert Irwin. “I didn’t make it in L.A. right off because I didn’t ‘fit’. When everybody else was doing these fetish objects, and the L.A. thing was starting to boom, here I was doing those goddamned valentines.” (The “valentines” are small, cutout, pop-up images derived from some shapes on a Swedish greeting card.) A few years later, his show at Riko Mizuno involved, together with canvas tacked to the walls, half-unrolled on the floor, on platforms, and a general smell of in-process carpentry, half-ripping the roof off the gallery, resulting in slanting bands of sunlight floating down from the opened slits in the ceiling; it was quite beautiful, and superficially related to the venetian blind works of Jim Turrell. “Ripping up Riko’s roof was the most interesting thing I’ve ever been involved in. Originally, I wanted to take off the whole roof, and make a piece out of the sky. Do you know how the sky looks up through a hole in the roof? There’s absolutely no distance, that blue is as deep or as far away as you want it, and it changes with the day. But her landlord threatened to revoke the lease and evict her, so I let it go at that. The piece still worked.” That exhibition exuded Moses’. base feelings of anti-hard-edge, anti-art-and-technology, anti-polish—visceral intuitions rather than set policy. “I’ve always had the feeling relative to the supposed ‘finish fetish’ of L.A. art, that my asshole is just as much a part of me as my mouth, only, for some reason, we’re supposed to keep that part covered up. I don’t want to, in my art. The mistakes and erasures and additions and changes are part of it.”

Typically, a lovely, inclusive exhibition of works ranging over 20 years was not on La Cienega, or in the County or Pasadena museums, but 50 miles eastward in Claremont, an idyllic grove of academe pocketed in the pall of ozone the prevailing winds have unjustly washed to the pastures of Pomona. (Helene Winer has taken over from Hal Glicksman, and is maintaining the quality.) Here, Moses employs the largest gallery to display several “soft” (unstretched) paintings; in the middle room hang transparent overlay lithographs, one big current painting, one current wrong turn (see below), and a jewel of a poignant, quaint late (1958) Abstract Expressionist straight oil owing not a little to Altoon and Hassel Smith. Off to the left are more drawings mounted with push pins, or simply leaning against the wall. As an entity, the exhibition is more than a simple solo, flexing as it does with Moses hauling semifinished paintings back and forth between Pomona College and Venice; it’s a manner of condensed, codified retrospective without the restrictive pomp.

There is a danger of seduction by the good looks of the stuff (Moses has never been that far from Los Angeles) and its unexpected “consistency”: from the early, student drawings of the Venice boardwalk and the Glady McBean kiln, charged with intense, ruler perspective and compulsive overworking of the surface, to the snap-line, romantic, resined paintings of the last two years, Moses lays down an insistent, reiterated horizontal strata. In a 1968 pencil drawing, like the ground behind a Jasper Johns’ coat hanger, that horizontal is an understructure for recorded time clock hours of laborious pencil-patching; in the recent lithographs the lines form wispy color fields interacting with others on separate layers of translucent paper; and in the current, unstretched, resin-backed canvases, the bleeding lines function as both calibrated color areas set against the matte cream canvas and the gloss, maple sugar resin, and as subtly architectonic composition devices preventing the paintings from dissolving into Process clichés. But, throughout most of the work, these lines measure dispersed, compulsive, psychological energy which is, to Moses, the most important part of his art. I asked him if, for instance, it would be wrong to see the painting as simply visually pretty in its balance of elements (which it is). “Yes”, he said. “The painting should be done blindfolded, or close up. If I step back, it’s lost, and I’m a decorator.”

For all the autobiographical paraphernalia of the installation (Moses’ attempt to reconstruct the private-public transference of the art), the best work and clearest statements are the big recent paintings. They are mainstream (New York, if you will) in their austerity: canvas, coating, lines. They are unequivocally painting, and partake of all the formalist issues of the times. Is the surface flat? Yes. Do the materials connote other than themselves? No. Is there an ambivalence between the painting as object and what is painted on it? Yes. But they also evidence an ethereal romanticism peculiar to recent Los Angeles art, in the bleeding stripes, holes, and seepings in the resin backing, and the urine-colored halation (resin at the edges) extending beyond the canvas perimeter (a device which “sinks” the canvas into the wall, although it is clearly part of a wrinkly object on top of it). This subjectivism, attention to sensation (Los Angeles, if you will), weaves itself around a gently architectonic arrangement of lines and voids, color groupings, margin and resin frame, and lifts Moses’ paintings a cut above the dead academic formalist painting which produces pictorial addenda to Greenbergian criticism. Moses’ problems arise when he gets too theoretically “correct,“ as with a new work, a “loom” which is redundant of Eva Hesse and imitative of the au courant soft, shamanist art object. Moses admits, “In every show there’s a bummer, a worst work, something embarrassing, something you want to walk around to avoid,” and he concedes the “loom” is it.

What Moses’ cumulative labor amounts to, however, is not simply a moderately underground (or in-between) career upturning with the surfacing of suitably stylish objects, although the resined paintings are as “together” as anything around. Rather, it is the acting out of the paradox of the works themselves: on the one hand private, personal, fabricated one-to-one in the privileged sanctuary of the studio, and, on the other, coming to cold, clear presence in public, entering its being-in-the-world. If Moses’ paintings were merely good-looking, they would simply illustrate that; they are significant because they embody, in elegant existential tension, the standoff between the visual and the visceral.

Peter Plagens