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.
Important Art by Edward Kienholz
The Illegal Operation
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.
Polyester resin, pigment, shopping cart, wooden stool, concrete, lamp, fabric, basin, metal pots, blanket, hooked rug, and medical equipment - The Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Back Seat Dodge '38
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.
Paint, fiberglass and flock, 1938 Dodge, recorded music and player, chicken wire, beer bottles, artificial grass, and cast plaster figures - The Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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.
Multimedia installation - The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
The State Hospital
The State Hospital was inspired by Kienholz's experiences working as an attendant in a mental hospital in the late 1940s. Its two naked, life-size figures are bound to their metal bed-frames in identical positions; their mattresses are grimy and the bedpan on the floor is encrusted in filth. In the inhumane confinement of these emaciated patients, Kienholz was commenting on societal and institutional mistreatment of the mentally ill. The patients' isolation and entrapment is emphasized by the goldfish bowls contained within their heads, and by the neon "thought bubble" linking the two bunks - the figure in the lower bed can imagine nothing beyond their present situation.
Plaster casts, fiberglass, hospital beds, bedpan, hospital table, goldfish bowls, black fish, lighted neon tubing, steel hardware, wood, paint - Moderna Museet, Stockholm
The Portable War Memorial
Kienholz constructed this massive installation, measuring thirty-three feet long, during the Vietnam War as a bitter commentary on the United States' international politics, the human sacrifice of military actions, and the consumerism of the American dream. In the left side of the tableau, several mannequins in uniform recreate Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of Marines raising the United States flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during World War II (and the monument that it inspired); however, they are faceless, and they are planting the flag on an unsteady-looking picnic table. Behind them hangs an army recruitment poster with an image of Uncle Sam; at the very left end, a female form crafted from a trash can plays a recording of the singer Kate Smith performing "God Bless America."
On the central, tombstone-shaped panel of the composition, a blackboard records the fading names of hundreds of countries that have been obliterated by war throughout history. A panel bearing the installation's title includes blank spaces where the date can be filled in, as new wars continue to occur. Yet in the right half, life continues as usual for diners at a snack bar outfitted with a working Coca-Cola vending machine; they have become so accustomed to war in the headlines that they are able to ignore the propaganda behind them as well as the symbolic death toll written on the wall.
Plaster casts, tombstone, blackboard, flag, poster, restaurant furniture, photographs, working Coca-Cola machine, stuffed dog, wood, metal, and fiberglass - Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Five Car Stud
In Five Car Stud Kienholz addresses the enduring violence, prejudice, and racism in America during the Civil Rights era and its aftermath. This life-sized multimedia installation depicts a group of white men attacking a black man who lies prostrate on the ground, arms pinned to his sides, as one of his attackers tries to castrate him. Surrounded by four cars and a pickup truck that illuminate the scene with their headlights, white men wearing grotesque masks are posed standing, crouching, and grappling with the black man at the center of the installation.
According to Kienholz, the black man had been singled out by the group of white men for having a drink with a white woman, who cowers in one of the automobiles, vomiting. Nightmarish and emotionally disturbing, the work was intended to jolt the viewer with its graphic intensity, forcing the audience to come face to face with the brutal reality of the African-American experience. It is also jarring in its surreal depiction of the figures; while the attackers wear rubber masks, the victim has two facial expressions, one layered on top of the other. Not surprisingly, Five Car Stud received a strong critical reaction when it was first presented in Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972 and has only been publicly exhibited a handful of times.
Multimedia installation - The Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Sakura, Japan
Arguably the Kienholzes' most important body of work from the 1970s, their series Volksempfängers (People's Receivers) (1975-76) engages with the history of fascism in Germany, where the couple lived and worked from 1973 until the early 1990s. For this series, the artists purchased discarded radios at flea markets and repurposed them as art objects, at times arranging them in series, combining them with other objects, or inserting sound-based elements. On a symbolic level, the volksempfänger was an object with a weighty political history that played a significant role in disseminating the Nazi party's ideology and in asserting its control over the German public. In art and propaganda from the Third Reich, the volksempfänger was often used to symbolize Adolf Hitler, whilst the instrument's function as a one-way receiver turned its audience into passive listeners. This work from the Volksempfängers series, titled The Bench, is named after the plinths that are central to the sculptural installation and features eights radios placed on top of two platforms. The radios, arranged chronologically from left to right, represent different periods of German history between 1930 and 1970; some are decorated with swastikas while others play music by Richard Wagner, a composer appropriated by the Nazis to symbolize the Aryan race, layered over contemporaneous news broadcasts. This work, like others in the Volksempfängers series, illustrates the Kienholzes' varied approaches to the readymade, their adroit use of sound elements, and their critical engagement with postwar Germany's history and national identity.
Multimedia installation - The New National Gallery, Berlin
The Ozymandias Parade
An incisive commentary on despotism and the abuse of political power, The Ozymandias Parade is an example of the Kienholzes' engagement with European and American social issues in their later work. Presented on a reflective mirrored platform, the multifaceted tableau consists of an assemblage of cast figures, dolls, figurines, and found items that represent various sectors of society, including the members of its government, in an allegorical ship of fools. The figure of a president-like leader clings to the stomach of a white horse on its hind legs; he holds a red phone in one hand and a sword, which stabs a deflated blow-up globe, in the other. His eyes are covered by a blindfold that reads either "YES" or "NO" - depending on a poll performed in the weeks leading up to each exhibition of the work: participants are asked whether or not they are satisfied with their government, and the prevailing answer will be presented on the figure's blindfold. Behind the president, a headless vice-president blows a trumpet and waves a flag while seated atop his toppled horse, and an armed general rides on the back of an emaciated female figure who is guided blindly by a crucifix dangling before her. These figures are surrounded by their minions, comically portrayed as miniature figurines across the platform. Like many of the Kienholzes' works, this piece exemplifies the duo's criticality of government, political corruption, and the public's unquestioning acceptance of authority, with a distinct air of humor and irony.
Edward Kienholz's Burial
Upon Kienholz's death in 1994, his friends and family staged his funeral as his final tableau. According to his own wishes, Kienholz was buried in his old Packard car on a mountain in Idaho. Like an Egyptian pharaoh outfitted with his favorite things for the afterlife, he was seated in the passenger seat, with a dollar and a deck of playing cards in his pocket, a bottle of vintage Chianti nestled into the passenger seat, and the cremated remains of his recently deceased pet dog in the back seat. As "Amazing Grace" was played on bagpipes, the car was driven (by his wife, Nancy) into a tomb for burial.
Biography of Edward Kienholz
Childhood and Education
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.
After earning his high school degree, Kienholz pursued undergraduate studies at the nearby Eastern Washington College of Education and briefly attended Whitworth College in Spokane. As a young adult, Kienholz made a living working various odd jobs. After dropping out of college, he continued to live in Washington and was diversely employed as a care aide in a psychiatric hospital, a manager of a dance band, a used car dealer, a caterer, a decorator, and a handyman. In 1953 Kienholz moved to Los Angeles and began to develop his interest in art, transitioning from his initial fascination with painting to woodwork, which resulted in his first large-scale wooden relief in 1954. His first one-person exhibition took place at Los Angeles's Vons Café Galleria in 1955, followed by a solo show at the Coronet Louvre Theater later that year.
Just after his arrival in California, Kienholz quickly became embedded in the burgeoning Los Angeles art scene, acting not only as a prominent visual artist but also as an art dealer, gallerist, and curator. In August 1956, he founded the short-lived NOW Gallery in the Turnabout Theater, where he organized exhibitions of work by local artists. In 1957 he cofounded the Ferus Gallery with curator Walter Hopps, who would later become the director of the Pasadena Museum of Art. According to their official contract, written out on a hotdog wrapper, Hopps selected the gallery's artists while Kienholz oversaw the space's day-to-day management. The artist and poet Robert Alexander was also a central, although unofficial, collaborator in the gallery's programming and administration. From its founding in 1957 through its closing in 1966, Ferus (whose name derives from the Latin word for "wild beast") held a reputation for showcasing new and provocative art. It attracted a diverse following from various facets of the Californian avant-garde, acquiring a reputation as a gathering place for Beat poets and emerging artists including Richard Diebenkorn and Ed Ruscha. Two artists whose ideas and whose work in assemblages had a particularly strong influence on Kienholz were Bruce Conner and Wallace Berman. In 1957, Ferus was raided and temporarily shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department due to the "obscene" content of an exhibition of Conner's art. Kienholz left his post at Ferus in 1958 to devote his attention to his artistic practice and was succeeded by the important Pop art dealer Irving Blum (under whose stewardship Andy Warhol's soup-can paintings were publicly exhibited at Ferus for the very first time in 1962). Kienholz would continue to participate in Ferus's events, showing his work on several occasions before it closed down in 1966.
In the early 1960s Kienholz moved from his practice of creating wooden reliefs to constructing the large-scale assemblage-based sculptures for which he is best known. These installations, or tableaux, were immersive, stage-like environments including life-size figures, found objects like furniture and household appliances, taxidermied animals, and other everyday objects that he had salvaged and repurposed for his art. His pioneering approach to assemblage garnered him a reputation as key practitioner of Funk art, a style prevalent among a loosely knit group of artists working in San Francisco and other areas of California.
As Kienholz gradually rose to fame, his work acquired a reputation for its overt politics: it addressed such taboo topics as abortion, racism, hate crimes, prostitution, and casual sex. This subject matter, rendered in an often grotesque and unsettling style, prompted some critics to denounce his work as obscene. While his work was strongly critical of contemporary issues relating to the era's Civil, Women's, and Gay Rights movements, it was also deeply rooted in his personal experience; Kienholz's sculptures and installations frequently documented actual locales, scenes, or individuals that he had encountered throughout his life. For example, The State Hospital (1966) draws upon Kienholz's tenure as a psychiatric hospital attendant, while The Beanery (1965) depicts the seedy interior of the Los Angeles bar Barney's Beanery. Although the works' impact on viewers was hard to deny, some critics condemned Kienholz's works for being bombastic in their social messages or overly exaggerated in their imagery.
Kienholz continued to live in Los Angeles until the mid-1960s, while his reputation as a prominent fixture of the local art scene grew. He had his first solo museum exhibition in 1961 at the Pasadena Art Museum and was included in the Museum of Modern Art's group show The Art of Assemblage that same year. In 1962 Kienholz joined the Dwan Gallery, and art dealer Victoria Dwan introduced him to such European artists as Arman, Jean Tinguely, and Yves Klein. These seminal figures of postwar European art would have a profound influence on Kienholz's work in the years to come.
In 1966 Kienholz was selected to have a solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which included his now notorious sculpture Back Seat Dodge '38 (1964). After the exhibition opened, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors attempted to close the show, claiming that the sculpture, which depicts a youthful sexual encounter in the back seat of an automobile, was "blasphemous" and "pornographic." Despite these claims and the Board's threats to withdraw museum funding, the exhibition went on, contingent on the grounds that a guard would watch over the sculpture at all times, keeping the car door closed and the tryst out of clear view, unless an adult requested that the door be opened.
In 1966, Kienholz started spending his summers in the rural community of Hope, Idaho while maintaining a studio practice in Los Angeles throughout the rest of the year. Known for his cantankerous and confrontational attitude, Kienholz had various unsuccessful relationships, including three marriages that ended in divorce. In the 1960s he was married to Lyn Kienholz, who had worked at Ferus Gallery in the early 1960s and became an important figure of the Los Angeles scene. In 1972 Kienholz met the photojournalist and self-taught artist Nancy Reddin at a party her parents were hosting for the writer Irving Stone. Although Kienholz was still married to Lyn, he and Reddin soon became inseparable and began a powerful romantic and artistic partnership, which resulted in Kienholz's divorce from Lyn and marriage to Reddin the following year.
The couple worked on their first collaborative artwork, The Middle Islands No. 1 (1972), and would go on to create installations and tableaux together until Kienholz's death in the mid-1990s. In 1981, Kienholz retroactively asserted that all of his artistic output after 1972 should be attributed to both himself and his wife, noting that they should be referred to simply as "Kienholz." While Reddin Kienholz had received no formal artistic training, she was a significant collaborator in both the conceptualization and realization of the duo's prolific work. As she later noted, "Ed taught me everything I know about art and we worked together for 24 hours a day.. art was more important for him than he or I or our children, and once that was clear, it became our focus and it was fun."
In 1973 Kienholz was awarded a grant by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to live and work in the Federal Republic of Germany. The Kienholzes sold their house in Los Angeles and moved to Berlin with their children, including Kienholz's son Noah and daughter Jenny from his third marriage and Reddin Kienholz's daughter Christine, whom Kienholz would later adopt. While the grant lasted for only one year, the artists continued to live with their family in Berlin part-time, maintaining a studio there and traveling between Germany and the United States until the 1990s. Deeply influenced by the tumultuous postwar environment of the fractured German Republic, the Kienholzes' work began to deal with fraught political themes of war, fascism, and oppression during this era.
Later in the decade, the Kienholzes were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a highly coveted prize that they used to fund their complex artistic practice. While continuing to travel between Germany and the rural Midwest, they decided to open an informal exhibition space in their Idaho studio, fashioned in the same vein as Kienholz's earlier galleries, The NOW Gallery and The Ferus Gallery. They named it the Faith and Charity in Hope Gallery, which exhibited both emerging and established artists, including Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, Peter Shelton, and Robert Helm.
The artists' popularity and stature continued to grow throughout Europe, due to several significant exhibitions. In the early 1990s the couple and their children left Berlin for good and settled down in their on-again, off-again home in bucolic Hope, Idaho.
During his later years, Kienholz began to suffer the detrimental effects of his chronic smoking and diabetes. As a result of his deteriorating health, he passed away suddenly from a massive heart attack after hiking in the mountains near his home on June 10, 1994.
The Legacy of Edward Kienholz
Kienholz's radical technique of integrating found detritus into immersive installations would influence the next generation of sculptors who used readymade materials in complex and oftentimes subversive ways. Such artists as Damien Hirst and Paul McCarthy would draw upon Kienholz's aesthetic, themes, and techniques to carve out their own unique practices of assemblage and installation. Although they implemented drastically different aesthetics, the Photorealist sculptor Duane Hanson and the Pop artist George Segal were also informed by Kienholz's large-scale arrangements and life-casting practice. Other artists, including Leon Golub and Sue Coe, have been inspired by Kienholz's confrontational and often jarring use of social and political themes, while artists Michael McMillen and Roland Reiss were directly influenced by his tableaux compositions in the creation of their own sculptures. As one of the best-known proponents of Funk art, Kienholz had a lasting effect on the development of late-20th-century sculptural practices, as he veered away from the self-reflexivity of abstraction towards the critical engagement of Conceptualism. Lastly, in their frequent collaborations and shared authorial credit, Kienholz and his wife Nancy Reddin Kienholz are very much contemporaries of Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, two other couples that emphasized the shared creation of their art.
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