On a recent Monday morning in Venice, Hal Frederick, a partner in Hal’s Bar & Grill, sat quietly, nursing a New York Times, waiting for painter Ed Moses.
It was more than two hours before opening, early for Frederick, a night person. But Moses was bringing a painting to hang, so Frederick was there.
For years, the space has been the defacto commissary for Venice artists. It’s in the neighborhood and easy for lunch. Over time, artists’ works have become integral to the large dining room and bar.
Today, Moses is reclaiming wall space.
“Ed called, they’re loading the truck,” says Don Novack, one of Frederick’s partners.
Moses is a morning person, notoriously punctual, but this morning he’s contending with moving the large piece for installation. The logistics involve five painted panels, cutout wooden heads that are part of the piece, two ladders, measuring tapes, installation tools — and four of his assistants.
Moses is 83. MOMA includes his work in its collection. But sending his team to mount the piece without him is not how he operates.
His method as an artist is to lay panels across sawhorses in an outdoor studio, then paint. He doesn’t see works at eye level until they hang before him in one of two barns on his property. Then, he moves panels around, often forming diptychs and triptychs, tossing the works here and there so casually that this writer, a friend of the artist’s, has been tempted to say, “Hey, Ed, be careful, that’s an Ed Moses.”
The painting destined for Hal’s began in the outdoor studio in summer, subsequently changed multiple times in a barn, and won’t be completed until Moses has configured it at Hal’s. Even then, he’ll slip back into the restaurant several times before finalizing it.
“We could go 16 feet or 20 feet,” Moses says to Frederick as he arrives, meaning the work could contain four or five of the 4-foot-wide panels.
The men met in 1977, when Frederick launched a Venice eatery called Roberts. “It was the first place that opened with good food and a cocktail lounge, and a lot of us used to hang out there, a lot of the artists,” says Moses, who built his initial Venice studio in 1968.
“It was the first white-tablecloth restaurant in Venice,” says Frederick, who then corrects himself. The tablecloths were pink.
At one point, Frederick lived above the Venice gallery L.A. Louver. He credits Peter Gould, its owner and Moses’ former art dealer, for schooling him in art, and he rapidly developed an appreciation for Moses. When Frederick opened the eponymous space on Abbot Kinney Boulevard with new partners years later, he asked Moses to put up a painting.
“I just happened to have a four-panel painting that would look good,” Moses recalls. “He already had Peter Alexander, and Laddie Dill over the bar.
“My art dealer at that time was not thrilled,” Moses says. “It was not considered proper form to hang your paintings in restaurants unless they were purchased. But I didn’t care. I paint to be seen … and it was a neighborhood place.”
Since then, five Moses paintings have hung at the watering hole. The last one locals nicknamed “the red one.”
“How high up do you want to go, Ed?” one of Moses’ assistants asks.
“As high as you can,” Moses and Frederick answer, pretty much simultaneously. “So you don’t wind up with someone’s spaghetti on them,” one of them says.
The piece Moses installs is three-dimensional. Five panels, which in their entirety transmit vibrant, warm colors, run nearly the full length of a line of booths. A few scattered silhouettes of disembodied heads mounted several inches from the surface are interjected in the piece. Echoing their shape is a gap bitten from a final corner, a hint of the man who — though occasionally said to be temperamental — dubs dessert “the surprise.”
The work is painted not on canvas but Homasote, a soft-surfaced, unglamorous board used in the building industry. Carpets are frequently laid on top of it. The artist has used it in his material palette before, but it’s the first time he’s painted on the utilitarian staple. At different points in his mutation — a word the painter prefers to evolution — Moses has used mops and, at one time, water to move paint across surfaces.
Surprisingly, the work goes up fast, and shortly before the restaurant is due to open for lunch, the artist’s crew gets to the chore of filling the holes in the wall left by the previous artwork.
“Hal, do you have any toilet tissue?” Moses calls out. It’s an old trick: stuffing a hole with paper prior to spackling.
A cleaning crew is working its way through the high-ceilinged restaurant now, wiping down booths. Liquor bottles removed for cleaning are being returned to the shelves. Somewhere, someone is running a vacuum cleaner. And Ed Moses, 83, is standing in his socks on a banquette, adjusting his painting.