Ed Kienholz 1927-1994

Ed Kienholz



In Life and Death, Ed Kienholz Makes Us Participate

By Frank McEntire

"He loved bartering," said Nancy Reddin Kienholz of her late husband and collaborator, sculptor Ed Kienholz, who died June 10, 1994 of a heart attack while hiking in the mountains near their home in Hope, Idaho, where Ed was born and raised.

"We went to flea markets all over the world. We would just wander aimlessly around and look for something that had magic -- and then bring it home and fool with it."

The Kienholzes' use found materials to create life-size sculptures and entire environments, which in turn make sardonic social commentary.

Perhaps it was the profusion of garage sales and junk shops in the Houston area and its culture of wheeling and dealing that enticed the Kienholzes to establish a studio here, in addition to the one in Idaho and another in Berlin.

Robert Hughes, known for his art criticism in Time magazine and his book on modern art, Shock of the New, features Kienholtz in the last episode of "American Vision," his art series airing on PBS.

Houston Painter Lucas Johnson said that the Kienholz's move there "energized everything. They didn't have people copying their work, becoming little Kienholzes, they just lifted everything up a level." What impressed Johnson most about Ed was his desire to seek out other artists. "Every time he came here we would go to artists' studios. And he would often buy their art to show his support."

Encouraging younger, or unrecognized, artists was a major theme throughout Ed's career. "Ed believed in the system," Nancy said.

Houston turned out to be a good place for the Kienholzes, with its bounty of recyclable objects, good ol' boys, story-telling women and cold beer. As collaborators, Nancy and Ed were able to use the Houston studio for only three years. It is where they and their assistants worked on several major pieces, including "All Have Sinned in Rm. 323," "76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade," "Feedin' The Hog" and "Jody, Jody, Jody."

Nancy and Ed began collaborating in 1972. "Ed taught me everything I know. He was my teacher, my mentor, my all, 100 percent," she said. For a year or so after his death, Nancy said she had a bust-sized sculpture of Ed on a dolly. She said she moved "him around to see what he thought7quot; about whatever piece she was working on.   "Mentally, I had the same arguments with him that I always did."

Several of the Kienholz's works started in Houston and completed in Idaho are among the 103 items included in the comprehensive exhibit, "Kienholz: A Retrospective," that originated in February 1996 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The exhibit was organized by one of the country's foremost curators, Walter Hopps, founding director and curator of The Menil Collection in Houston. Hopps and the Kienholzes have a long history together. He and Ed established the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957. Included in the exhibit is Kienholz's 1959 portrait, "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps."

The retrospective's second showing was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Its last venue closed earlier this year in Germany at the Berlinische Galerie.

All of the north galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art's main floor were used to house the exhibit, with generous room for small works and for such large pieces as "The Ozymandias Parade," "Sollie 17," "The Art Show," "The Beanery," "The State Hospital" and "The Portable War Memorial" which included a figure of Kate Smith repetitively singing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," a calming, mantra-like influence that permeated a space otherwise charged with bold work and big crowds.

Detractor's opinions of the Kienholz's work haven't changed much since 1966 when Ed's "Back Seat Dodge '38," which features an impassioned couple in the back seat of an old Dodge, caused a media frenzy after its premiere at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Hilton Kramer of the New York Observer labeled the Kienholz retrospective, "another jolly rape of the public's sensibilities," and "upchuck" and "disgusting." However, Mark Dery, quoting Kramer in his review of the exhibit for World Art said the description, "recommends Kienholz highly; anything that induces the gag reflex in a prig like Kramer can't be all bad, and is likely all good."

Hughes gave a hesitant blessing on the Kienholz retrospective in his regular column for Time and amplified his views in his book accompanying the television series. He called it "all-American yawp" that provided "a pretty good tribute to this profuse, energetic, sometimes brilliant and sometimes very corny artist."

Cecile Whiting, UCLA associate professor of art history, touched on one aspect of the Kienholz's work that makes it uncomfortable for the audience. "Voyeurism is a theme that runs throughout the Kienholzes' work." The audience is put into the position of "peering in on scenes that you would otherwise not have access to, whether its Back Seat Dodge or the State Hospital. . . While you're a voyeur you're also implicated in the piece."

Placing the audience into that role was, Nancy said, "very intentional."

"Maybe it will get you thinking about people, and maybe you'll be a little more kind or a little friendlier when you come across people that are in these positions."

Nancy's first work done without her collaborator/husband is permanently installed in Hope -- Ed Kienholz's mournful performance/tableau burial.

"His corpulent, embalmed body was wedged into the front seat of a brown 1940 Packard coupe," said Hughes. "There was a dollar and a deck of cards in his pocket, a bottle of 1931 Chianti beside him, and the ashes of his dog Smash in the trunk. He was set for the Afterlife. To the whine of bagpipes, the Packard, steered by his widow Nancy Reddin Kienholz, rolled like a funeral barge into the big hole: the most Egyptian funeral ever held in the American West, a fitting [exit] for this profuse, energetic, sometimes brilliant, and sometimes hopelessly vulgar artist."

by Frank McEntire, a sculptor and curator, and The Salt Lake Tribune's art critic.


Click title links for text-images

John Doe (1959)

Back Seat Dodge '38 (1964)

The Birthday (1964)

The Portable War Memorial (1968)

Sollie 17 (1979 - 1980)

To Mourn a Dead Horse (1989)