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Ed Moses, 'Cool School' painter who helped forge L.A.'s art scene, dies at 91

Ed Moses, a painter who helped forge Los Angeles' art scene, died Thursday at 91.

When he was 90 years old, preparing for a 2016 exhibition of new work, Ed Moses zipped across the courtyard of his Los Angeles art studio in a paint-spattered wheelchair and stained Birkenstocks. The artist, who was still working every day, jerked his chair to a stop at a row of enormous canvases, the fresh paint drying in the sun.

"You caught me on a good day!" he bellowed, noting some vibrantly colored abstract works. "These are all self-portraits. These paintings have history, action — scars and blemishes, scratches and imperfections. These are me."

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All that intensity, history and action came to a close Wednesday evening when Moses died at his home in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, adjacent to his art studio. He died peacefully at 91 of natural causes, surrounded by family, his son Andy Moses said Thursday.

Moses will be remembered as an L.A. art world fixture, one of the city's most productive and experimental artists of the last half-century. He had a restless romance with abstract painting that sparked a perpetually evolving body of work, leading him to dub himself "The Mutator." Moses formed the "Cool School" of artists — who included Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Edward Kienholz, John Altoon, Ken Price and Billy Al Bengston — at L.A.'s influential Ferus Gallery in the 1950s and '60s. Their raucous partying and creative camaraderie not only fused a nascent local scene but made the art world beyond take notice.

When Ed Moses turned 90 years old in 2016, William Turner Gallery marked the milestone with a survey of decades of Moses' work. The artist made more than 50 new paintings for the show, and here he talks about it from his home studio in Venice.

"Ed Moses has been central to the history of art making in Los Angeles for more than half a century," Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said in a statement.

Architect Frank Gehry, one of Moses' closest friends, met the painter when he was just starting out.

"He opened a lot of doors for me, doors of thinking, to a way of looking at life, of thinking about work and creativity and freedom and expressing oneself — taking chances," Gehry said. "He was the first person that was in that world that sort of took me under his wing. He was very supportive.

"I think he influenced others by his sense of freedom, his personality, his willingness to step into the unknown. He epitomized that. … I think of him as my north star."

Gallerist William Turner, who represented Moses, described the artist as "a living link to the inception of the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles from the late '50s to the present."

"He was a striking presence and force of nature to be reckoned with, especially in his later years. If anything, he went guns a-blazing into his old age and seemed to speed up instead of slow down. He loved painting, for him to be alive was to paint, it's how he marked his existence."

In the catalog of Moses' 1996 retrospective exhibition of paintings and drawings at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, critic John Yau wrote, "The diversity he has achieved is unparalleled among contemporary abstract artists. And within this diversity is an emotional range that is also unparalleled."

A spiritual descendant of the Abstract Expressionists and a student of Buddhism who meditated daily, Moses blazed his own trail to aesthetic truth. Working with unconventional materials and tools, including mops, hoses and rubber scrapers, he painted behind his house in Venice — where he lived for more than 30 years — on an open-air concrete slab and in a barn-like studio. As his career evolved, he produced intricately crafted diagonal grids as well as splashy gestural works.

Moses at his Venice studio in 2015.
Moses at his Venice studio in 2015. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Moses captured critical attention in 1961 with graphite drawings of repetitive patterns of roses inspired by Mexican tablecloths. His "Cubist Paintings" of the mid-1970s resemble exquisitely woven lengths of silky fabric. In relatively earthy works made in 1987, the paths of fat, juicy squiggles emulate snails' trails. Expanding his reach in the 1990s, Moses combined passages of explosive energy and soulful introspection in vast mural-like compositions.

As director of MOCA, Richard Koshalek wrote in the catalog that Moses' exhibition placed him in a pantheon that included Irwin, Ruscha, Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Alexis Smith and James Turrell.

Moses distinguished himself, Koshalek wrote, by combining "a plastic vocabulary rooted in European and American abstract art with a personal quest born out of his desire to continually reinvent himself and his art."

MOCA's sweeping survey was a high point of Moses' exhibition career. In The Times' review of the show, critic William Wilson praised his work as "art that can hold its own and assert its distinction against any other art made at any time, any place, anywhere."

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But Moses' independence probably cost him a measure of fame and fortune achieved by some of his peers who developed trademark styles. As critic Robert L. Pincus pointed out in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the MOCA show would not travel to museums in other cities, as might have been expected. One possible reason, he conjectured, was that the eclectic array of work didn't collectively shout "Ed Moses."

Ed Moses in his studio in 2004.
Ed Moses in his studio in 2004. (Los Angeles Times)

That was no accident for an artist who often cast himself as an outsider and a contrarian. A ruggedly handsome man-about-the-art-world and self-described "retired playboy," he was known as a staunch defender of friends who he thought had been overlooked or deprived of deserved recognition, but he also cultivated a tough image.

"I realize that for a professional artist, being emblematic or having a signature style is important," Moses told The Times shortly before the MOCA retrospective opened. "But I don't consider myself a professional artist. That's someone who is responsible to the fact that this is a business enterprise.... Someone who asks, 'What are my costs? What are my revenues? Who is my audience? Is this going to be acceptable to the audience?' I always had this dumb idea that you are the visionary for the audience. You open their possibilities. You certainly don't introduce your own thoughts, but you can introduce your discoveries."

In the early 1970s, Moses made a splash in the art market with a batch of ragged-edged canvases, backed with resin that seeped through the fabric. But he soon lost interest in them and began experimenting with acrylic paint and rhoplex, an acrylic polymer material, on drafting tissue.

"I don't make paintings, I find paintings," he told The Times. "I spend a lot of hours on repetitious activity, but every once in a while it's like the old idea of slipping on a banana peel, and you are upended. That's when something slides through that I could not have done. I don't want to do paintings that I can do.

"There's some vague thing I'm shooting for, but I don't know exactly how it's going to come about. So I try one thing and then another, and in this process once in a while something falls in the cracks. It might be on the reverse side of a canvas I've painted, or it could be something that happens on the concrete that gives me a toehold, the beginning of a vocabulary to pursue. But that can take three or four months."

Born April 9, 1926, in Long Beach, Moses was the product of a short, stormy marriage in Hawaii. His mother, Oliva Branco, was the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant. His father, Alphonsus Lemuel Moses, was a British-born English teacher and entrepreneur who left a teaching position in Nova Scotia for a Hawaiian adventure. Branco separated from her husband and moved to Southern California before her son was born. Ed Moses grew up in Compton, Torrance and Long Beach, rarely seeing his father.

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A self-described rebellious youth, Moses enrolled at Long Beach Polytechnic High School but dropped out after three semesters. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and served two years as a surgical technician. His aptitude for treating war injuries led him to consider a medical career. When he returned to civilian life, he enrolled at Long Beach City College as a premed student. But an art class with painter Pedro Miller sent him off in a different direction.

Moses transferred to UCLA in 1949 and drifted in and out of the university for nearly a decade, receiving a master of fine arts degree in 1958. Though frequently at odds with his instructors, he made important contacts with Craig Kauffman and other young artists who would be affiliated with the Ferus Gallery, a hub of avant-garde activity on La Cienega Boulevard.

Moses staged his graduate exhibition, featuring Abstract Expressionist paintings inspired by Arshile Gorky's work, at Ferus. But he soon set out to get a broader view of the art world, spending a few months in San Francisco and moving on to New York, where he met prominent East Coast artists. Back in Los Angeles, he met Avilda Peters, who would become his wife.

Married in 1959, the couple relocated to San Francisco in 1960 but soon settled in Los Angeles. Their first son, Cedd L. Moses, a hospitality entrepreneur, was born in 1960; the second, artist Andy Moses, in 1962. The marriage lasted 17 years. In a 1989 interview with The Times, Moses attributed his separation from Avilda to his "madness." The couple remarried in 2015 after 38 years apart.

Moses taught art at UC Irvine from 1968 to 1972 and at UCLA from 1975 to 1976. He also held temporary teaching positions at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and at Cal State Bakersfield and Cal State Long Beach. He won a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1976 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984.

Beginning at the 1949 California State Fair in Sacramento, where the youthful Moses won second prize for his painting, he compiled a resume of hundreds of exhibitions throughout his long career.

Ed Moses is third from the right with fellow Ferus Gallery artists, from left, John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Allen Lynch, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston in 1962 in an image from the 2008 TV documentary "The Cool School."
Ed Moses is third from the right with fellow Ferus Gallery artists, from left, John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Allen Lynch, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston in 1962 in an image from the 2008 TV documentary "The Cool School." (Patricia Faure / ITVS / PBS)

In 1972, a banner year, he was represented in a dozen venues, including solo shows in London, Minneapolis and Los Angeles and Documenta, a prestigious international exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany.

In the 1976 LACMA show "Ed Moses: New Paintings," the artist introduced his resolutely abstract style with a series of red paintings. "It was a commitment to abstraction that was pretty radical at the time," said Stephanie Barron, who curated the exhibition. "It had an influence on many artists at the time."

In 1991 he presented one-man exhibitions at L.A. Louver's galleries in Los Angeles and New York and won a coveted place in the Whitney Museum of American Art's high-profile Biennial Exhibition in New York.

In 2006 Moses was one of 87 artists represented in "Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital" at the Pompidou Center in Paris. The hefty catalog contains a brief review of a 1959 Moses exhibition by Gerald Nordland, who concluded: "Ed Moses may become a serious painter."

More recently, "Ed Moses: Drawings From the 1960s and '70s" showed at LACMA in 2015. The following year, the survey exhibition "Moses @ 90" was at William Turner Gallery in Santa Monica, and a solo exhibition was at New York's Albertz Benda Gallery.

Irwin, who had a studio next door to Moses in Venice for years, noted his friend's reluctance to show his work earlier in his career.

"Doing it and showing it are two different things, and in the beginning, showing his work was very difficult for him," Irwin said. "As an artist, sometimes you're not sure of it, or it's too close to you, it's very personal."

In the end, Irwin noted, Moses "showed everything."

"He allowed himself the pleasure of being expansive," Irwin said. "He was a force, that's for sure."

Moses told The Times that he was thrilled to see so many decades of work in the "Moses @ 90" show. "I guess I didn't [waste] all the time I thought I did," he said.

"I'm an action painter," Moses added of the new work on view. "These paintings are ways that I can act out a thought or feeling — terror, misery, death."

At his side at the time of his death were Moses' wife, Avilda Peters; Cedd and Pamela Moses and their two children; and Andy and his wife, Kelly Berg.

Vankin is a Times arts writer. Muchnic is a former Times arts writer.

Ed Moses in Venice in 1987.
Ed Moses in Venice in 1987. (Con Keyes / Los Angeles Times)

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

UPDATES:

3:45 p.m.: This article was updated to add more reaction to Moses' death and to streamline some language.

4:45 p.m.: A photo gallery of Moses' work and a video of Moses at home were added.

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