One World Meeting Another
Before this article begins, I want to thank a couple of people whose openness and kindness have made this research possible. Bob Wilhite, a close friend of Huguette and Ed, whose relationship with these two wonderful artists makes up the narrative of what you will read. I want to thank Brigitte Caland, Huguette’s daughter, for her insight into Huguette’s work, her friendship with Ed, the portraits, and sharing all the superb images with me. I want to thank Carol from the Ed Moses estate, for her information and putting me in contact with Bob and Brigitte. I would also like to thank Andy Moses, Ed’s son, and Livia from the Kohn Gallery.
Our story starts with Huguette Caland. Born in 1931 as the only daughter of the first president of an independent Lebanon, she trained as an artist under the private tutelage of Italian artist Fernando Manetti in Beirut. She was generous, brilliant, determined, gracious, wonderful, loving, a huge personality wherever she went, always hospitable to friends and unceasingly serious about her art. Her solo show at Tate St Ives in 2019 brought her to the attention of the Western art world, focusing on her work from the seventies and eighties, but she was always a star in Beirut and the Middle East. A leading modern Arabic artist.
It’s 1970. Huguette leaves Beirut, her husband, and her adolescent children for Paris to live independently as an artist. She stays there for 17 years.
One night, at an exhibition opening, Huguette Caland sees Ed Moses. Even from afar, she is struck by his physical features. She goes back to her studio and starts painting his portrait, without meeting him, without talking to him. Over and over again. She would go on to paint over a hundred in her lifetime.
Was he her muse? This was an artistic obsession with only the memory of a face as its subject matter. A woman having a man as a muse is rarely seen, but memory being the muse could be a completely new phenomenon in art history. Brigitte told me that “there was an attraction there”, but as they do not meet until after she leaves Paris, this rubbishes the idea there was a romantic element, leaving it in this liminal muse space that nothing else really touches. The accuracy and variety are stunning, there is no dip in quality, despite the sheer number she painted.
After her lover, the sculptor George Apostu, dies, she decides to continue following her dream with art and moves to America. The year is 1987. She goes to New York first but settles in Los Angeles, in part because of the art scene and her son is living on the West Coast, but also because “California (CA) Land” reminds her of “Caland”.
Needing somewhere to live, she rents a place from an architect, wanting to purchase some land so she can build a home-studio of her own.
Enter Ed Moses. Art scenes are small even in the biggest cities, so it was an inevitability that she would have run into Ed at some point. Born on a ship in 1926, Ed was a towering figure in LA art, instrumental in the creation of the artistic scene with the Ferus Gallery in the fifties and sixties, remaining monumental in the city. He was there, he was in it, dating Marilyn Monroe, influencing Frank Gehry. You could say that he never achieved the true internationally renowned status of his contemporaries (Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, Larry Bell, and so on) as a result of his refusal to settle on a signature style, but this was key to his artistic practice, a restless desire to engage with the history of painting in as many ways as he could.
He was hard on the outside, curmudgeonly. Bob Wilhite remembers being in a restaurant with him, seated near a rather loud diner a few tables down, to which Ed leaned over and said will you please shut the fuck up. They promptly did, along with the rest of the clientele. He was part of the Ferus clique, which, as with all the artistic cliques in the city, hated everybody else; anyone who was new to them needed to be vetted, needed to be worthy of their time and appreciation.
He was soft on the inside. A generous, tender, loving person, and a real international artist. He would go on to gift Huguette’s family prints and paintings; he was part of their family. He held many strong friendships, who he cared for and loved, even if he didn’t admit it.
Their paths do cross; Ed convinces Sam Francis, on his deathbed, to sell Huguette his last lot in Venice. Huguette hires the architect she was renting from to build her house, cuts corners, puts in plywood flooring, chooses to have no doors downstairs, only one bedroom upstairs, a kitchen, a living room, a huge studio with a 20 foot roof, a central outside pool, complete with a guest house at the back of the garden.
The house is a central character in this story and thus in the story of LA art until she leaves in 2013. Everyone passed through at one time or another. In the Middle Eastern tradition, Huguette’s house was open, she received people, they moved through it, everyone who was part of the LA scene passed through at one time or another: Americans, Europeans, Middle Eastern people, Muslims, Christians, it was open to anyone who could be civil, Artie Shaw was seen there, Larry Bell made a great chilli there. Her hospitality was certainly understood by the art scene in the city, even if she and her art was not.
With the house built, Huguette starts looking to show her work in the city and reaches out to the director of the LA Louver Gallery, with whom Ed was showing with. Around this time, Ed sees the portraits, and it totally freaks him out, makes him really nervous, it makes him think what the fuck? Who is this person? What is she doing? What is her ulterior motive? Prompting him to tell the director if you show her work so help me, I’ll leave this gallery. He left the gallery later, regardless.
It was a reaction that came about because of difference. The LA cliques aren’t an understanding people, especially not towards someone who had arrived from a different place and immediately held court with a big house, presence, and history. As a result, Ed was pre-disposed to be cautious, exacerbated by the fact he had been painted without his knowledge, in a way that he didn’t understand.
Huguette used an aesthetic taken from the Middle East and Lebanon and applied it in a completely different way. Gestural, often minimal, brushstrokes which start as one thing and then extend into another, then another with each new series. It was different to what Ed understood, and different to what LA at large understood. Ed, on the other hand, wrestled with materials and the history of painting, making decisions on a spot, throwing everything at it, looking to take painting forward. Constantly innovating, looking at the next idea, folding back and mutating the idea and seeing what comes next. They came from different worlds, different approaches to art. Each of them was outside of the other’s comprehension, which resulted in a push-pull relationship, one world meeting another. Two huge personalities, serious artists who went at their work with everything they had, each as prolific as the other.
In this push and pull, Ed’s curmudgeonly ways reacted to this difference with nastiness. In an interview with the Hammer Museum about Huguette’s life and work, Ed recalls “I used to give her a bad time...she would show a few tears at times out of frustration,” but when I spoke to Bob Wilhite, he said “I gotta say, he said some really fucking nasty things, as a way to test her mettle, to find out where she was coming from and what kind of spine she had as much as anything else” – She had a spine, but she was often crying when Bob came over. After moments like this, they stopped talking for a few days, but soon it was like normal again.
Normal is Ed coming round to Huguette’s house. Hating to eat alone, he comes round for dinner, breakfast, for parties, cocktails, lunch, you name it, five days a week or more. Their friendship is strong. Completely unruffled by Ed’s reaction to her portraits, Huguette continues painting his portrait, having a particularly fertile year in 1992, producing at least forty portraits of her (now) friend. She never paints for anyone other than herself, certainly not Ed, so why should she stop?
In 1996, this push-pull relationship produces one artwork together. It is called Breakfast Together, Ed Moses and Huguette, and it is painted on one side of paper, which has been folded over to imprint the image on the other side. It looks like a figure running, but as it is folded there are two figures, both running toward the central crease. It’s beautiful, finely balanced, finely painted.
It is improbable bordering on miraculous, considering their mutual lack of understanding, that anything was produced at all. Perhaps it was inevitable that two hugely prolific and serious artists who spent this much time with one another would create something together. At the time, Ed wasinterested in seeing how the paint reacts to movement and being folded, so that the paint acts as a mirror for itself, producing a Rorschach-style image. The piece hung in her bedroom for years, alongside a grey portrait of Ed, and a large work by Ed which hung over the fireplace.
In 2000, Huguette has a show in Beirut and asks Ed to accompany her. She had offered to bring Ed along with her to Morocco earlier, but various factors meant it couldn’t happen, so Beirut provides another opportunity to see a part of the world that was alien to him. Beirut offers Ed a window to understand where Huguette was coming from, opens his eyes to her background, which she never spoke about back in Los Angeles. They have a driver who takes them to visit Damascus, flags on the front of the car, and Ed sees that Huguette represents a different level of society.
A chink in the armour of non-understanding? A little. The two artists never influenced either’s work in any way. They were both totally focused, headstrong people. They were equally open to conversations and discussions about their art, and if they didn’t agree they’d just tell you to get lost. They shared an undying passion for art, a tendency to stick to their guns, steadfast and true. The foundation was there, a great friendship, yet they never changed or conceded any level of influence to the other.
Despite Ed’s curmudgeonly ways, he truly loved Huguette, she was often in his thoughts. The titles of his works should not be read into too much, often simply exercises in free association, but it gives a guide to what he was thinking about. Ed made three artworks that are named after Huguette in the mid-2000s, called Huguette in Veil, Huguette’s Tooth, and Huguette, alongside one named after her son, Philippe in Structure. He also owned two works by Huguette, Untitled (Abstract in Colors) from 1995, and Untitled (Cyclone) which is undated.
They continue as strong friends until she leaves Los Angeles to be with her dying husband in 2013. He was round almost every day, for conversation, good food, good company, at any type of gathering or celebration. They loved each other; he was part of her family.
This is where the story ends, with Bob Wilhite explaining what they did for each other, and the role that LA played in their lives and art.
“They both came from different worlds, and I think that Huguette enlarged Ed’s scene, and I think Ed really helped her understand more of what the LA painting thing was about, which was more of a mystery to her until she got here. It’s really individuals taking ideas and concepts in one direction or another. This place enabled it. There is a freedom here. You can talk about it from other places, but once you come here you feel it, you think I can do whatever the fuck I want. There is a restriction from truly being free in other places. It allowed Huguette to blossom, and it also allowed Ed to find himself.”