We are making a documentary about the iconoclastic artist Ed Moses and his impact on the Los Angeles art world.
In his early years, Ed Moses was identified with what was later known as “the Cool School” of artists, which emerged from the Beat aesthetic of the 1950’s. This group primarily consisted of artists known as The Ferus Gang: Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufman, Edward Kienholz, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, John Altoon and Wallace Berman. They were the first generation of post-WWII artists who rose to prominence between the years 1957 – 1966 at the Ferus Gallery under owners Walter Hopps and later Irving Blum. Moses’ path to this group began about 10 years earlier with an unlikely encounter.
Moses had been with the Medical Corps when he was in the Navy. Afterward, he thought he might want to become a doctor, which led to taking pre-med classes at Long Beach City College. But it wasn’t taking. He was having difficulty doing the math and memorizing. Someone suggested he take an art course. They talked about this kind of crazy bohemian guy, Pedro Miller, who ran the art department.
Moses went to his first art class, where Miller began to discuss copies of Cézannes, Van Goghs and Picassos that leaned on a shelf around the room. Moses was intrigued. Then Miller set up a still life and said, “Now we’re all going to make a painting.” Moses really wasn’t sure what to do. As Miller came around to each of the students, he knew he had to do something. Sort of out of exasperation, he dipped his fingers in the paint and did this whole thing with his fingers. Miller took that painting up to the head of the class. He put it on an easel, and said, “I want you all to see something. That’s a real artist.” Afterward, Moses got a reputation as the talented artist in the group, who they nicknamed Picasso.
Moses always spoke of this as a defining, pivotal moment in his life, one that opened the possibility of being an artist.
It’s difficult to imagine today, but there was almost no art scene in the 1950s, except for the burgeoning film industry. There were surfers, Bohemians and beatniks. The Los Angeles Board of Supervisor’s even banned Art Fairs as a form of communism. The powerful New York art scene thought we were just a desert wasteland. Little did they know we were soon to become the Wild West of the art world. That’s when Ferus Gallery and the Cool School came along. Ferus is the latin word for wild. This gallery was located behind Streeter Blair’s antique shop at 736 La Cienega in Los Angeles, an area better known today as West Hollywood. It was on what soon became known as Gallery Row.
After a somewhat circuitous period, Moses enrolled in the graduate art program at UCLA, where he met and became friends with Craig Kaufman. Kaufman introduced Moses to Walter Hopps, who had just opened the Ferus Gallery. Walter put Moses into the first group show at Ferus in 1957, and then offered Moses a solo show at Ferus, comprised of the work that was also to be in Moses’ graduate show at UCLA. This created some small controversy with the faculty, who felt like Moses had crossed some sort of line by showing his work off campus at a commercial gallery. This early recognition led Moses to this group of artists who would become life-long friends and form the core of the emergent contemporary art scene in Los Angles known as The Ferus Gang.
In its nine year lifetime, Ferus held important exhibitions for major east coast art stars as well, namely Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd and Frank Stella. Andy Warhol had his first solo show at Ferus in 1962, exhibiting the famous Campbell’s soup cans for the first time. Then there were others on the scene like John Baldessari, Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Joe Goode, Tony Berlant, and feminists artists like Vija Celmins.
Kienholz ran the store during the day and used it as a studio. According to Peter Goulds, Founding Director of LA Louver in his work Kienhholz Before LACMA, Hopps was an autodidact intellectual, very much into art history and had connections with Cubist and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, contemporary collecting interests and the Arensberg Family Collection, and with the emerging young Los Angeles collectors of that era.
After Hopps and Kienholz parted ways, Ferus Gallery was in the red and changed hands to Irving Blum, who was a smooth personality and groomed Ferus and the LA art scene until the gallery got out of the red. Blum took the gallery from a loose knit group of beatniks and molded them into a competitive and brilliant group of artists that brought about the commercialization of the LA art scene. History says there was much lost and much gained in that process. Blum ran the gallery until its closure in 1966.
What Ed did, his unique path, was very different. He was very iconoclastic, as they all were, but early on he explored mark making to an intense and unusual degree,” said Turner. “If you look at his early graphite drawings in the sixties, made at a time when pop art imagery, primary color, large bold eye-catching works were taking hold, you see that Moses was headed in a very different direction.
He was doing these works on paper with graphite, not using huge amounts of color. But they were remarkable. You can feel the intense pressure of the graphite onto, and into the paper, almost like he was trying to push through to the other side! There is one very well-known series of huge graphite drawings of dense rose patterns, inspired by a tablecloth that he and his wife, Avilda, found when they were in Tijuana. That pattern interested him. You get this sense of curiosity from these pieces, a sense that he was asking, how far could you push that idea and find something that was magical by doing something to an unusual degree, very intensely and with a laser focus.
A lot of that early work of his seems counterintuitive to that macho bluster that the Ferus Gang had. You had these very intense, very intricate, delicate, monochromatic works on paper that were in some instances somewhat intimate in scale. You can see when you look at the arc of Moses’ career, he was really exploring, and pushing through from the familiar to get to another dimension with the material. That became a hallmark of his work throughout the rest of his career – pushing the possibilities of his materials.
Risks and challenges
We have contacts within the art community to help create the necessary footage to make this project happen. We also have access to footage of Ed Moses in talks with gallery owners and other artists. We have access to footage and photos of Ed Moses’ art.