In more than one interview, Ed Moses has insisted that he makes art not to express himself, but to explore—explore the nature of his medium, explore his own formal language(s), explore the history and the discipline of painting. Moses is equally concerned with process and results, but not with any extraneous meaning, illustrative or symbolic, he might invest in his mark-making; for him, mark making is its own meaning, and his work concerns itself precisely with the relationship between its processes and its results. If a particular painting or series of paintings looks like something—cracked mud flats, for instance, or nasty, runny tattoos— the association is the viewers to make.
This essential characterization of Moses and his art was conveyed recently by a relatively large collection of his work assembled to celebrate his 90th birthday. To mount the expansive exhibition, William Turner filled his own gallery and took over the nearby space recently vacated by the erstwhile Santa Monica Museum of Art— in its vast entirety. Moses has enjoyed several survey shows in recent years, including one at LACMA looking at his works on paper; but none evinced the experimental nature of Moses methods to the extent that this one did, even though it was a quasi-commercial venture and was drawn largely from the artists own inventory. The shows very unevenness as a retrospective, leaving large lacunae in the arc of Moses' oeuvre, aided in the understanding of Moses painting (and, among the early work, drawing) as activity. A single work might represent one group of paintings or drawings, while another group might be described by a cluster of canvases, and the irregular bunching of motifs and gestures made the survey feel as if it were breathing— breathing, that is, after a heavy workout.
Indeed, one of Moses' recent, especially jaunty investigations, paintings incorporating mirrors, presented itself as a discrete room, a funhouse installation that took on almost architectural dimensions and multiplied the viewers presence while dwarfing it. The effect was at once alienating and exhilarating—not least because, for all the clean, reflective surfaces, the environment was still filled with the strokes and patterns of paint Moses now lays down with the insouciant energy of a calligraphic Zen master. No, you did not feel as if you were in an immense Moses painting; you felt as if you were among it, as if it had become a place for you and paint to co-exist in two-and-a-half dimensions.
The mirror room was almost a rainbow explosion in comparison to much of the rest of the show; it brimmed with color, whereas the single paintings hanging elsewhere tendedto the monoor duo-chrome. Moses is no colorist—if anything, he tends to a mineral-tinged tonalism—but he is adept at its use. Where Matisse-drunk painters use color as a main course, Moses uses it as a condiment: it is handmaiden in his work to line and mass. Even the blazing one-color paintings of the mid 1970s are not about color the way that seemingly identical paintings by Ellsworth Kelly—or even by Moses' friend James Hayward—are. The pasty, even loamy quality of these paintings' grain deliberately compromises their visual brilliance, so that each seems less to proclaim the presence of a color than it does the absence of notation, which we go looking for in that chewy surface—ground without figure. This is color as Ad Reinhardt conceived it, a mystical void at once grim and transcendent.
The basic impulses in Moses' art, as mentioned, are line and mass, with gesture serving as a means of mediating between the two conditions. We see this in the early, pop-up drawings and the anxious flower renditions that followed them; in these, as in so many other series, Moses poses mass against line at the same time he formulates mass as line. The Navajo series and especially the diagonal crosshatch paintings that followed them—and to which Moses has returned time and again through his latter career—propose that line is mass, that a broad and runny (if tidily rendered) streak of hard-to-describe color coursing across a canvas and intersecting other such panels in a tartan-like pattern comprises not simply a description of contours and boundaries, but of thick optical harmonies and thicker dissonances. Such compositions are anything but clean, their swaths sweating drips and encountering one another in muddy intersections.
Line becomes or articulates mass in series as diverse as that reliant on arcing structures of invisible lines—thick lines the color of their backgrounds whose contours are described by other lines—and the aforementioned mud flat paintings, whose puckered skins fairly dance with networks of naturally occurring cracks. Upon closer inspection, one realizes that these networks have been induced as much as they've been allowed; Moses has punched and jiggered the parched surfaces into crackling more, and in more rhythmic fashion, than they might have otherwise. Moses may not be expressing himself with such intervention, but he is eager to explore what happens at every step of the way, and under every possible circumstance.
Bronco, 2002, Ed Moses, acrylic on panel, 78" x 132"