David A. Smith
A Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, David A. Smith can be reached at http://davidasmith.net.
Italian astronomer Galileo took a considerable amount of heat for daring to assert that the Earth was not the center of the solar system. His ideas ran him afoul of no less than the Pope, and in a dramatic confrontation the astronomer was grudgingly forced to take it all back. Time, however, proved him right.
Sometimes one gets the feeling the art world is as insistent as were those ill-informed authorities about a certain place being the fixed star around which everything else subserviently revolves. Such was said of Paris before World War II, and after the war New York City became the hot spot in the late 1940s and ’50s.
Like planets pulled into the orbit of a massive star, artists from all over the country went to New York, shaping the assumption that the Big Apple was where you looked for innovative cutting-edge art. By contrast, most critics thought the West Coast was a dead zone, devoid of any identifiable scene. When energy began to percolate in Los Angeles in those years, few outside the city took note.
In a wonderful 2008 documentary entitled “The Cool School,” filmmakers Morgan Neville and Kristine McKenna traced a group of LA artists who in the 1950s were insistent on creating art that was insouciantly removed from the center of the universe. Like the coincident music style known as West Coast jazz that reflected a temperament far removed from the intricate bebop style dominating back east, LA artists created art that was rooted there.
Central to that scene was a vastly creative and prolific artist named Ed Moses, who died last week in Venice, California. The Washington Post described him as helping “transform Los Angeles from a cultural backwater to a major force in the world of modern art.”
Moses served in the Navy during WWII. When he was discharged, he had his mind on a medical career, but soon discovered art was his true calling. While a graduate student at UCLA in 1958, he had his first exhibition at LA’s Ferus Gallery, a groundbreaking gallery that among other things gave Andy Warhol his first West Coast show and the first exhibition of his soup cans.
The Los Angeles Times called Moses “one of the city’s most productive and experimental artists of the last half-century,” but speculated that his perpetual experimentation and complete independence from any one instantly identifiable style “probably cost him a measure of fame and fortune achieved by some of his peers who developed trademark styles.”
In 1996 critic John Yau said that the diversity of Moses’ work was “unparalleled among contemporary abstract artists. And within this diversity is an emotional range that is also unparalleled.” Moses himself was fond of saying that he never knew exactly what he was doing when he set out to make a painting, and freely admitted that often what he intended didn’t click. But he added that “every once in a while it hits the note and lights up the whole room.”
Moses’ long and buoyant career reminds us that a painter is, when all is said and done, an individualist. And that the center of the art world is not a neighborhood or a city, no matter what the size, but the heart and mind of the artist himself.
He also reminds us of what I wrote about last week: We ought never to write off an artist just because he or she is advancing in age. Ed Moses was making new art until just a couple of weeks before he died. He was 91.