New York

Ed Moses

Sidney Janis Gallery

The titles of the first three paintings in Ed Moses’ show are R-1, Y-1, B-1. What additional information do you need? Obviously, one is going to be red, one yellow, one blue—three square canvases, each all one primary color. I think the paint is car enamel, but the paintings look like refrigerator doors, not car doors. The paint is rather like Poptarts icing—slick, smooth, chemical, stopping at the edge, flat and in-penetrable. You couldn’t will any depth into them. There is a layeredness in Marden’s work that gives an ambiguous shallowness. There are crosses in Reinhardt. There is an absolute flatness and an infinite depth to a Newman. Yves Klein achieved depth through texture. Kelly’s paintings are incorrigibly pictorial.

Moses will not have any of this. His paintings are ridiculous and serious about it. Three square canvases, utterly uninflected, one in red, one in yellow, one in blue? Is it a joke? Are we back to “pure” color, “pure” shape, “pure” surface, “pure” painting again? Does Moses live in a time warp? The real key in the titles is the number “1”. Moses begins again. He wipes away all those other false starts, begins at step one, not again, but as the first. Do we really need another artist who every time out has to start at this point? Is this really another beginning? Isn’t this purification, this fundamentalism, a shade too much like being born again, smacking of conversion experience—Moses being born again in order to show us the light, the only true way through real, tough, modern painting? Is it theological moralism of the most reactionary type, or is it about the impossibility of starting again, meant ironically?

I wasn’t assured by the drawings hanging opposite the paintings. They are all empty squares, with dark, shiny, worked-over graphite frames, empty squares with the most deliberate, elegant, overrefined, precious detail: arched areas of graphite powder on the edges as if blown from a spray gun. Could it be that Moses expends such technical mastery on such trivial ideas on purpose? Moses is incapable of clumsiness—it’s beyond his range—so he takes the basics, the crude elements, and dresses them up in his best Sunday skills. I’m not saying they aren’t attractive; they’re just so imposingly severe, self-consciously studious, like work done by a bright art student constantly having to prove his dedication to art.

But then, in the back room, there were three other paintings. I would have enjoyed them more if I hadn’t suffered through the rigorous manifestos of red, yellow and blue. One, in three panels, goes from red to orange-red to fluorescent orange; another, from black to rust to cobalt blue. The last, in four panels, ranges from black to silvery gray to fluorescent orange to olive drab. Some of the panels have flat and uniform surfaces; some are covered “gesturally.” (The more flamboyant colors usually come with “gesture.”) These gestures are painted, freely; their manufacture is not rigidly prescribed. I think their mystery comes from a simultaneous obviousness and muffledness. The strokes reminded me of leaves—long, slender shapes with lines, veins or bristles of the brush running through them. Although they appear layered in depth, the effect is more like crossover, or directional pull. These panels look like trompe l’oeil decorative Abstract Expressionist images seen from the back—the image could be paper thin or transparent pictorially. These panels are beautiful in a concealed, teasing, but sensuous way.

Jeff Perone