Summary of Edward Kienholz
An American artist of unwavering originality, critical insight, and notoriety, Edward Kienholz created powerful work that reflected upon contemporary social and political issues of late-20th-century America. He created life-size three-dimensional tableaux and immersive environments, composed out of the discarded detritus he found at yard sales and flea markets. Although he is best known for his contributions to the development of postwar sculptural practices, Kienholz was also a key promoter of the Los Angeles avant-garde as the founder of the NOW Gallery and cofounder of the Ferus Gallery, a pivotal venue and gathering place for the era's emerging poets and artists. From 1972 onward, he worked almost exclusively with his fifth wife, the artist Nancy Reddin Kienholz, who played a significant role in the conceptualization and fabrication of his later works.
- In the 1960s Kienholz took an even grittier approach to his materials than his predecessors by utilizing discarded objects that appeared grimy and damaged. In large-scale installations with life-sized figures and built environments, Kienholz made his work physically and emotionally immersive, breaking down the comfort zone between the art and its audience.
- Echoing the degraded, filthy quality of his materials, his sculptures and tableaux often evoke American society's sexual prudery, political corruption, moral hypocrisy, and oppression of marginalized groups. These works are designed to evoke complicated responses of revulsion and guilt, often making viewers feel complicit in their atrocities.
- Due to its controversial subject matter and its unflinching portrayals of sex and violence, Kienholz's work was frequently the target of debates over obscenity and the appropriate use of public funding for the arts, foreshadowing discussions about contemporary art that still continue to this day.
Biography of Edward Kienholz
Edward Kienholz was born in Fairfield, Washington to a conservative, working-class family of Swiss descent. He grew up on his parents' wheat farm, where he learned the crafts of metalwork, carpentry, and automobile mechanics. The skills that he acquired as a farmer and the surrounding environment of the rural Northwest would come to inform his later artwork, which incorporates themes of working-class America and displays his deft technical ability.
Important Art by Edward Kienholz
Made nearly a decade before the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion in the United States, The Illegal Operation depicts the scene of an abortion at a time when the procedure was practiced in secrecy, often in dangerous and unregulated conditions. This early sculpture, created out of found objects including a shopping cart, a wooden stool, and a standing lamp, is a prime example of Kienholz's Funk art assemblage. Its title hints at the taboo debate surrounding abortion rights, while its crudely hewn composition - with the cart reconfigured into a chair, the lampshade tilted askew, and the linens darkened with filth - suggests that something is clearly amiss. Through its visceral imagery, the sculpture draws attention to the country's problematic handling of the abortion issue during the middle of the 20th century. This piece was also based on Kienholz's personal experience of abortion, since his wife at the time had undergone the same procedure during this period and was forced to do so illegally. Like much of his later work, The Illegal Operation broaches a controversial topic while insisting that matters of political and social discourse are never unwarranted artistic subjects.
When this work was displayed in Kienholz's 1966 solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it caused an uproar, leading some local authorities to call it pornographic and others to plead for its removal from the exhibition. The sculpture portrays a youthful couple engaged in sexual activity in a truncated 1938 Dodge coupe with its passenger seat door propped ajar. The woman, cast in plaster, lies across the seat with the man, formed out of chicken wire, lying on top of her; the two figures are surrounded by beer bottles. As Kienholz has noted, this piece represents an adolescent experience common to many young adults who grew up in the new age of the automobile and is based on his own early sexual experimentation. The work, which can only be seen by gazing through the open door, gives the sense that the viewer has intruded upon the scene as a voyeur. By embedding the scene within the car, dimly lit by the car's headlights and cab light, Kienholz engages simultaneous reactions of discomfort, revulsion, interest, and curiosity that evoke the mid-20th century American public's attitudes towards sexuality.
The walk-in installation The Beanery is one of Kienholz's most admired works. Inspired by Barney's Beanery, a seedy pub located off the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles that was a famous hangout for celebrities, musicians, and artists, the work reconstructs a typical bar scene filtered through Kienholz's unwieldy lens. While the installation reconstructs the general layout of the pub, The Beanery is also surreal, featuring denizens with faces formed out of clocks, all of which are set to the same time of 10:10. Kienholz has noted that time is suspended in the installation to underscore the escapism of the bar's clientele; as he stated, "A bar is a sad place, a place full of strangers who are killing time, postponing the idea that they're going to die." Only the figure of Barney, the pub's owner, has a human face, which acts as an emblem of the merciless passage of time.
As one of Kienholz's most ambitious installations, this work also highlights the artist's prowess as a craftsman. The tableau, which includes seventeen individuals scattered throughout the scene, combines cast elements with found objects that have been cleverly woven together; some figures are engaged in private interactions, creating multiple simultaneous narratives that are united through the looped soundtrack of clinking glasses and laughter that plays whenever the installation is displayed. While Kienholz had previously created multiple-figure tableaux such as the seminal Roxy's (1960-61), this was the most technically intricate example of the installation format in his early career.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Edward Kienholz
- KienholzOur PickBy Max Hollein and Martina Weinhart
- On a Scale that Competes with the World: The Art of Edward and Nancy Reddin KienholzOur PickBy Robert L. Pincus
- Kienholz: A RetrospectiveBy Walter Hopps
- Kienholz: Five Car StudBy Michael Holm, Anders Kold, and Poul Erik Tojner
- Kienholz, The HoerengrachtBy Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz
- Ed and Nancy Kienholz, The Hoerengracht, the National GalleryBy Kate Connolly / The Guardian / November 7, 2009
- Good Morning, My Name is Ed KienholzOur PickBy Damon Willick / X-Tra / Spring 2006
- In Sunny Southern California, a Sculpture Finds Its Place in the ShadowsOur PickBy Edward Wyatt / The New York Times / October 2, 2007
- Putting Things All TogetherOur PickBy Kristine McKenna / The Los Angeles Times / October 31, 1993
- LACMA Lands Ed Kienholz's 'The Illegal Operation'By Suzanne Muchnic / The Los Angeles Times / August 20, 2008