| Reprinted with Permission from Topanga
Being Stewart Moskowitz
By Dan Mazur
When Stewart Moskowitz was three years old
he decided he wanted to be an artist - a commercial artist. "That was
the big thing back then," he says. "It had an appeal. It was important."
He remembers the aesthetic impact of the
movies he saw as a child as well.
"Seeing a full-color Walt Disney movie in
a theatre - now that's f***ing art," he says "Not the movement, not the
movie part, just the art."
These qualities have led to the enormous success of many of his paintings in the form of posters. Doing work with popular appeal is important to Moskowitz. "I love the mass market, I live for that," he says. "I'll spend months on a painting and it's going to end up in one guy's house and that's it? Forget it!"
Moskowitz grew up in Los Angeles, but left
home as a teenager and headed for New York City. He lived at the Chelsea
Hotel while he was in high school, studied commercial art at the Pratt
Institute, then got a job in the mailroom at advertising agency McCann-Erikson,
waiting for a promotion to the art department. The promotion came, but
Moskowitz took it as his cue to quit.
"After six months of seeing those poor
artists getting beat over the head by the executives, I said, 'That's
not for me.'"
After that he tried the Art Students League,
but found that venerable institution - where such greats as Alexander
Calder, Jackson Pollock and Louise Nevelson had studied - a shadow of
its former self. Uninspired, Moskowitz headed back for the West Coast.
In L.A., he went to the Art Center but that
proved equally disillusioning. "That was the end of commercial art
for me," says Moskowitz. "Everyone there was a jock - clean
cut, well-dressed - and they could draw the pants off me! I'm sitting
there with these guys with no souls, but they could draw. So I quit art,
took a job at Aaron Brothers, and went to school for a year for history.
"The thing that bothered me most was, when people asked me what
do I want to do, I couldn't say anymore, 'I want to be a commercial artist!'
I just couldn't say it, and that hurt."
Moskowitz's ambitions got back on track one night at a gas station in
El Segundo. Having just bought a $50 car, he was heading out to Las Vegas
to visit his mother. "This young guy was pumping gas, and we started
talking about art - he went to Otis. We went in the back and he showed
me his pictures. Man, it was pivotal. If your life ever changed on a dime,
that was it."
Moskowitz enrolled at the Otis Art Institute, working night jobs - in
a donut shop, and as a dispatcher for the Auto Club, among others - while
earning his master's degree in art.
"I sold enough pictures at the Otis student art show to finance
a trip to Spain. I got a dealer, and sent pictures back to the U.S. and
sold them. They were abstract, Miro-like pictures."
After a year in Spain, Moskowitz returned to the U.S., and had a major
case of culture shock. While he'd been gone, the '60s had happened.
"My passport photo - I looked like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. I came back
and all my friends had motorcycles and long hair. I'd been living in a
small village in Spain. I didn't know what a hippie was. I was at a party
and someone said, 'There were 50,000 hippies at this festival,' and I
said, '50,000 whats?'"
"And the music - when I came back, in one day I heard for the first
time, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, Phil Ochs. In one
Moskowitz tried acid and found he couldn't paint anymore. "It just
didn't make sense. I figured, 'Why bother, nature as it is doesn't need
any help from me.'"
For a year, he worked as an art handler, crating and shipping works of
art for a living until he got fired for smoking pot on the job. "That
was the last job I had - 34 years ago."
After that, Moskowitz began painting again. He noticed an outdoor art
sale on La Cienega, and took his stuff there.
"They said it wouldn't sell, but they gave me a space at the back.
The first week I didn't sell anything. Then the second week I sold twice
as much as my take-home pay as an art handler. I was on my way. I never
Moskowitz had also found the beginnings of the subject matter and style
that he would develop over the coming decades.
"I was doing nothing but cows: cows in the wind, cows on the side
of a hill, psychedelic cows, Jewish cows, you name it. Cows."
"People would say to me, 'Do you do any frogs?' I'd say, 'Sure,
come back next week,' and I'd have some frogs."
It was after Moskowitz moved to Topanga that his work began to hit it
big, as posters. The first hit was "American Rabbit" in the
late '70s - a roller-skating, stars-and-stripes bunny. This was followed
by a string of successes that included "The Corporation," "The
White Brothers," "Chocolate Mousse," "Save the Whales,"
"Patchwork Cow," "United Stars of America," and "Chicken
Moskowitz's work has been especially popular in Japan - where, on its
own, it has fulfilled its maker's early commercial art aspirations.
"Every major company in Japan has used one of my characters as their
logo - Fuji, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, AT&T Japan. I created the logo
for one of the longest running TV shows in Japan. It's been very serendipitous.
A lot of the time it's been paintings I've done as paintings, and they
see characters in the paintings. They'll look at these cockatoos and say
'This would make a great logo.'"
Currently, Moskowitz is working on a children's book entitled "Vincent
Van Goat." It tells the story of a brilliant artist goat who's tormented
by the constant appearance of other hungry goats in his paintings - which
are strongly reminiscent of the work of a certain well-known Dutch artist.
Moskowitz's recent paintings, while retaining his trademark animal imagery
and visual puns like "Poodles with Noodles," and "Fish
and Ships" are moving away from the "cartoony" look to
a more realistically rendered style.
"Just now, at 60 years old, I'm shaking the cartoon image,"
he says. "It's like leaving behind a beloved toy, but it took me
a long way."
Howell Green Gallery at Pine Tree Circle
is having a show of Moskowitz's preliminary painted studies for larger
pieces. The liveliness of his brush work complement the humor and spirit
of his pictures. His posters and prints can also be seen - and purchased
- at his online gallery at http://www.smoskowitz.com.