Progression of Art
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.