Ed Kienholz images
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Ed Kienholz

See also: Contemporary/Postmodern Art; Lothar Wolleh's photographic portrait of Ed Kienholz


Theory and history were of little concern to Edward Kienholz when he constructed his first environmental sculpture, Roxy's. Its form, he recalls, evolved from the folk tableaux and stop action scenes he had witnessed in the churches and grange halls of his native Fairfield, Washington, whereas its subject emanated from his own memories of a visit to a brothel in Idaho as a teenager. Kienholz constructed human scale rooms in which he employed props such as a picture of General McArthur, a June 1943 calendar, and magazines of the time to evoke the era of his adolescence. He filled these rooms with grotesque interpretations of "prostitutes" created from skulls, dolls, boxes, and other found objects. In retrospect, it is clear that Roxy's is also the pivotal work of his career, for it was to provide the basic formats for all of Kienholz's subsequent tableaux: scenes that one views frontally, much like a stage in a theater; or environments that one can enter and experience much like the architectural spaces of our cultural landscape.

Working in Los Angeles with only the most cursory knowledge of precedents or contemporary parallels, Kienholz forged a powerful West Coast counterpart to environmental developments that were taking place on the East coast. Working from a decidedly more theoretical and historically informed vantage point, Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and others were creating collage environments that functioned as works in and of themselves and as "places" in which their fragmented theatrical pieces - commonly termed "happenings" - were enacted. As early as 1958, Kaprow, an art historian then teaching at Rutgers University, had constructed the first of his environments; it was structured like a maze out of suspended strips of fabric, plastic sheets, cellophane, and lights and played electronic sounds at approximately one hour intervals. In the very same year, Robert Rauschenberg exhibited the first of his wall-mounted hybrids of painting and assemblage - "combines," as he called them - at the Leo Castelli Gallery...

Yet if he created work on a scale that matched that of his East Coast counterparts, Kienholz had different ends in mind for his art. He used discarded objects to reconstruct everyday environments and in turn to make us see the workings of contemporary culture more lucidly and startlingly. As one tableaux after another followed Roxy's, it became clear that Kienholz's art was predominantly a socially critical art - that it confronted us with the darker aspects of contemporary American life. Its subjects were society's victims and the methods of their victimization: the loneliness of death, furtive sex, violent acts motivated by racism. Indeed, Kienholz focused on these and other troubling aspects of everyday life in Western culture that were generally excluded from art of the 1950s and 1960s including other assemblages and environmental work.

He employed similar means to those of his East Coast counterparts, using discards on a grand scale. To paraphrase Kaprow, Kienholz was willing to relinquish the goal of picture making. Like Kaprow and Rauschenberg, he wanted to create an art that was more like the real world than any art that came before it. Yet the underlying impulse of these other artists' work was to subsume more of the real world into the arena of art; in their varied ways, they strived to aestheticize more of the world...

For all of its use of both the materials and imagery of contemporary American society, the work of these artists offered a different sort of realism than Kienholz's. His art wasn't so much about extending the space of action painting into three dimensions, as were Kaprow's environments of that time: or blurring the boundaries between detritus and a painting, in the fashion of Rauschenberg's combines; or playfully transforming the technological world, as Oldenburg's sculptures did; or making segments of the everyday world serve as the setting for cast figures that evoked Classical and neo-Classical sources, which is the achievement of George Segal's tableaux. Instead, Kienholz's art provides an intensified version of the given social world. It forces us to think about the darker, troubling, and more covert aspects of contemporary Western culture with a decided emphasis on American society by giving it back to us in a distorted form that strives to reveal its underlying cruelties.

This is the aesthetic that has unfolded in the more than a quarter century of art that has followed Roxy's: first in the work that bears only his name and in the subsequent art that displays his name and that of his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz. It is an oeuvre, as I have begun to suggest, which seems fairly idiosyncratic amongst other notable environmental work of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Moreover, as this kind of environmental art waned and the room scale geometric forms of Minimal sculpture waxed dominant throughout much of the rest of the 1960s, Kienholz's tableaux came to occupy an equally, if not more, eccentric position in the panorama of American sculpture.

His aesthetic is maximalist, as it were. His "rooms" or "scenes" are often filled with the clutter of life: letters, photographs, knick knacks, and every other sort of item that connotes a place that possesses a history or patina of use. He employs these things much like the novelist of Realist temperament would: to place characters (in his case, the figure or figures within the constructed environment or implied by it) within a quite specific social milieu. However, the figures in these tableaux are decidedly not the stuff of Realism. They function as generic types rather than as fully realized individuals, providing nightmarish, quasi-surrealist correlatives for the anguish, loneliness, and cruelty of those who live and suffer in such places. In this respect, their oeuvre reveals its debt to the objets trouvés and tableaux of the Surrealists dating from the 1930s and 1940s...

What Kienholz did share with Minimalists such as Carl Andre and Donald Judd was a concern with the interrelationship between sculptural form and architectural space. These Minimalists, however, were chiefly preoccupied with the ways common objects or fabricated ones could create new relationships between the object and the gallery, between their sculpture and that of their modernist predecessors...

For Kienholz, however, optics, form, and space were and have remained secondary. Each of these criteria are subordinated to a work's theme, which invariably focuses on a large cultural problem and offers a critical reading of it. Although this approach relegated him to the category of "eccentrics" in the 1960s, he was nevertheless recognized as a major eccentric. But only in Europe, where he and Reddin Kienholz have lived [note: this was written before Kienholz's death in 1994 - mh] and worked half the year since 1973 (in Berlin), has their oeuvre long been recognized as a uncontestably important one of the post 1945 era; in the United States, where they have assumed the posture of outsiders living in rural Hope, Idaho and rarely mounting solo shows in New York critical acceptance lags behind.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, however, Kienholz's work as well as the later tableaux executed with Reddin Kienholz had looked increasingly less idiosyncratic, as the dominance of optical and formal criteria had given way to a whole host of strategies for introducing social realities and ideas as well as figurative imagery into the plastic arts. In an era when optical and formal criteria for art no longer dominate, the literary orientation of the Kienholzes' art no longer seems eccentric or idiosyncratic. Indeed, their work seems to have anticipated other significant art; and its influence is widespread. A host of artists, from those devoted to socially critical picturemaking, such as Leon Golub and Sue Coe, to later tableaux artists, like Michael McMillen and Roland Reiss, are indebted to Kienholz's pioneering work of the 1960s.

My essay traces the development of Kienho1z's and the Kienholzes' oeuvre, which in following its own trajectory, has assumed an increasingly more prominent position in recent and contemporary American art. It also attempts to place this body of work within the context of post 1945 American art and the tradition of American cultural criticism in literature, as I have outlined them above. These assemblages and tableaux insist on this kind of interdisciplinary reading, because the Kienholzes integrate a wide array of effects - literary, theatrical, visual, and plastic - into their art as they attempt to address various aspects of life in both the United States and Europe. Working on a scale that competes with that of our prosaic environment, they recreate it in ways that make it seem utterly familiar but also extraordinarily strange and richly interpreted.

- From Robert Pincus, Introduction to "On a Scale that Competes with the World"

Ed Kienholz Images

1959 John Doe
1961 History as a Planter
1962 The Illegal Operation
1964 Back Seat Dodge '38
1964 The Birthday
1966 The State Hospital (EXTERIOR)
1966 The State Hospital (INTERIOR)
1968 The Portable War Memorial
1979-80 Sollie 17
1989 To Mourn a Dead Horse

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