(1) "The Wait", mixed media, 80 x 248 x 78", 1964-65.
(2) "The Beanery", mixed media, 84 x 72 x 264", 1965.
(3) with Nancy Reddin Kienholz, "Holding' The Dog", mixed media, 81 1/2 x 67 x 24", 1986.
(4) "John Doe," mixed media, 39 1/2 x 19 x 31 1/4", 1959. Photo: George Hixson.
(The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA],
Downtown) Edward Kienholz used objects the way Mark Twain used language.
Like Twain he was an American satirist and a moralist who could perceive
the absurdity of the human condition. Also like Twain, he always retained
a sympathy for those less fortunate. He showed little mercy, however, for
those who abused power, whether it be in interpersonal relationships or
in the political arena.
He has been labeled a "raging satirist." For those of us who are sympathetic to his values he was keenly and simply to the point. While he is most often historically linked to Surrealism, German Dada, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, there are clear points of departure. While Duchamp chose new store-bought materials for his readymades, Kienholz wanted to retain human memory in discards such as photographs, torn bits of fabric, or worn furniture that he scavenged for use in sculptures, tableaux and environments. Cornell's boxes are subtle delicate, whereas Kienholz' assemblages shock the viewer's awareness. In terms of content, the tradition of Goya's and Daumier's theme of man's inhumanity to man seems most to the point.
At the same time Kienholz doesn't simply make voyeurs of us. He communicates empathy and culpability so that we become both victim and perpetrator if we remain passive. During the 1960s, when many people were campaigning for legalized abortion (remember that it was not legalized until 1973), Kienholz created The Illegal Operation, in which a woman's body, represented by a sagging burlap sack filled with cement, is trussed to the back of a shopping cart, complete with an oozing gash in the midriff area. Filthy buckets, pots, and bedpans filled with rusted and stained surgical instruments sit on a ragged knit rug. Its circular design draws one into the horror of the scene. About the piece, Kienholz declared, "I'm not sure what art is--you know, art, capital A-R-T--and I don't even care a hell of a lot about what art is, but if there is such a thing as art, and if I have even made a piece of art, The Illegal Operation would be it. . .We bleed off it."
In his catalogue essay Walter Hopps comments that no one ever forgets the first time they see a Kienholz. Those who encountered The Beanery, an environment created at Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood in 1965, still talk about the smell of beer poured all around the bar, the sound of endless chatter and clinking glasses from the sound track, and the sight of stopped clocks for faces on the manikins, the women wearing ratty, stained fur coats and the men slouching at the bar.
Kienholz created the piece after noticing the headline "Children Kill Children in Viet Nam" on a newsstand outside Barney's. The incongruity of the denizens wasting time coupled with the urgency of the headline motivated the construction of the work.
Indelibly memorable, The Wait features a small skeleton of an old woman sitting upright in a huge square armchair, a glass bowl for her head displaying a small picture of her when she was young. A round open sewing basket rests at her feet on a circular, woven rag rug. Beside her is a round table exhibiting family photos. A large, oval framed portrait of her husband hangs above her head. The poetic repitition of ovals gather emotional impact in the necklace of mason jars circling her neck like a ruffled collar.
Kienholz' art has been called ugly and unrefined. Refinement frequently means smiling in polite company, holding your tongue--and then scapegoating and gossiping. Kienholz did none of that. He was never politically correct. His art is blunt. Like Carl Sandberg's poetry, it screams out "hogbutcher." As for its ugliness, the beauty in Kienholz's art is in its very ugliness--the ugliness of truth.