The Sunday Conversation: Ed Moses

Los Angeles art lion Ed Moses threw himself an 85th birthday dinner last year that inspired guest and Bergamot Station gallery owner William Turner to organize an exhibition of work by some of Moses' multi-generational group of artist friends who attended, "to take a snapshot of these relationships at a moment in time," Turner says. "Ed's Party: Spheres of Influence in the L.A. Art Scene" runs through April 16 at the William Turner Gallery, where Moses spoke recently.

Tell me about the birthday party that inspired the show.

The birthday party was held at my house, a barbecue. And I'd just put a fire pit in my place, and I was very proud of it. And this friend of mine, Alan Shaffer, who's a photographer for all the artists, helped me put it together. So I invited a lot of people who are friends of mine. So Mr. Turner and my son [artist Andy Moses] cooked this idea up that they would have a show previous to my birthday, which is on April 9. This show is sort of a celebration of that particular event with my birthday coming up, where I'm going to be 86. I decided that 86 is one to ignore. I'm going to wait until 90.

What are you planning?

I have no plans. I make no plans. Well, I lie. But I try to [be] free whatever comes up. This show, these are various people who were at that barbecue.

Like who?

Like Charles Hill, Samantha Thomas, Jimmy Hayward, Larry Poons, who's a very successful New York person, Gwynn Murrill made this cat sculpture. My friend and the best painter I think to have come out of L.A. is Charles Garabedian. Peter Alexander. My son has a painting over in the corner that's the first corner painting he's put together. And to the right of him is Larry Bell, who's a very close ally of mine, and he does these vapor drawings through a vacuum machine. Then Laddie Dill has those two pieces there, and then this spectacular piece is by Frank Gehry. It's a sculpture, and I always say to Frank, "Stop being a sculptor. You've already got the biggest sculptures there are, but they're usable; they're architecture." Frank Gehry turned architecture inside out. So this is a piece that would make a great building.

If it were a little bigger.

Yeah, it could be 30 stories, 40 stories. Then Chuck Arnoldi. Then my good friend Tony Berlant to the right of that. Et cetera, et cetera.

Let's talk about your centerpiece painting.

The centerpiece is part of a new series I've been in process with. I call them "the crackle paintings." I've done some bigger ones than this.

How big is this one?

This one is 7 feet by 6 feet. By chance, the crackling came about when I was doing these Van Doesburg paintings inspired by [De Stijl art movement founder Theo] Van Doesburg. How could I take it to the next step? And I looked at the early Mondrian paintings. When they got very old, they crackled. I said, I want to elaborate on that crackle. So I did some research and found a way to do it. Then by chance, I stumbled and hit my elbow on the surface, and it made these spinners.

You mean circular forms?

Yeah. Don't they sort of spin around visually? That wasn't intention — that was a discovery. And pretty much what I do has to do with trying different things, and every once in a while out there in right field or left field something happens. I used to try to ignore that because I was directed. I felt you had to be disciplined. Then finally I realized I've never had any discipline. I work out of obsession. I can't wait every day to paint. But it's taken me 60 years before I got to that point. It was always a struggle before that. Now it's my only adventure. Painting is like discovery, trying this, trying that, bending this, twirling that, and then every once in a while it goes bing!

At what point did you start enjoying the process and stop struggling?

When I was 60. Well, it could also have been more recently. I got cancer, and the idea of mortality struck me for the first time. And I said, man, you're limited. You'd better get to work.

How are you?

I'm probably dying, but we won't talk about that. Let's put it this way — it's limited time, and I don't mind that. But now a good friend of mine just died, and he was a great creator and also a great revelation to me. Ken Price, a fantastic sculptor. Anyway, there was a great cavity in my mind, and I realized how precious life is. I can't waste a moment. This moment here has to be particular and poignant and right — morally right, ethically right.

How do you stay open to new ideas?

The thing is if you're awake and alive, you see all kinds of activity going on. Some of them you might want to appropriate into what you're doing and others you just enjoy. Charles Garabedian says they're artifacts, they're not art, these things we do that are the residue of a kind of activity and the brilliance of the person carrying on the activity and his ability to discover.

What did you think of Pacific Standard Time, the recent exhibitions coordinated by the Getty Institute to explore the birth of Southern California art, and did you ever envision anything like that when you were starting out with L.A.'s Ferus Gallery in '58?

I think it was a great thing to do. Pacific Standard Time helped point out that L.A. is a place where things do happen. It's just not New York or Europe. New York was the disseminator of painting, sculpture and all that. They sent it all out into the world. It came here, it got clogged on the post between here and Japan, bunched all up here in California, broke loose through some psychic exchange between Asia and us. So the Asians have had an influence on us, and we've had a lot of influence on Asia, particularly in China, with Western painting. Poor things. But they're responding to their environment. This so-called activity we carry out called art is a response to our environment.

What's your typical day like now?

I get up at 6:30 or 7:30, depending, and I prepare myself. And at 9 o'clock I finish breakfast and I have three people come in. And they set up all the paints, so about 9, 9:30 I'm starting to activate with all these materials that are laid out. And I say, "Put red on that panel, put black on that panel." So I keep them all moving around. It's like a chess game, and I'm discovering things as they're moving them around. So I'm interacting with this activity that I set up because I've decided I need assistants. And so many more discoveries happen. There's a lot of work, the thing is sifting through it. When you get the really great one, you keep the sisters and brothers, in other words, the secondary ones. They can go into a gallery or you can sell them. So is business a factor? Well, it's something that can't be denied, but does it override? Is there an ethical position there? I found out that I did, when I was younger, very naughty things.

This was when you were a kid?

This was between 14 and 16. It wasn't later on. But I was shot at a couple of times. I did escape a few times. And I thought to myself, wouldn't it be humiliating if you were found as a peeping tom? Whoa! Anyway, when I was little I used to peep through keyholes to see activities with parents, whatever. And so I had this ability to focus. I think that was my first training to really look at things with a critical eye because I was so curious. I wanted to see. And then I defied the morality of that by being, that's the rules? I'm not going to play by the rules. I've always been a rebel without a cause.

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