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Edward Kienholz Photo

Edward Kienholz - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor

Born: October 23, 1927 - Fairfield, Washington
Died: June 10, 1994 - Hope, Idaho
Movements and Styles:
Installation Art

Biography of Edward Kienholz

Early Life

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.

Mature Period

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.

Late Life

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.

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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