Lyn Kienholz. Photo: Spencer Weiner for the Los Angeles Times.

Lyn Kienholz (1930–2019)

Lyn Kienholz, a fierce champion of California artists, beloved socialite, and founder of the California/International Arts Foundation, died at her home in Hollywood Hills on January 25. She was eighty-eight years old. “She’s been a formative influence in a lot of things that have happened in LA—particularly in the contemporary arts scene,” Thomas Rhoads, the founder of the Santa Monica Museum of Art and her longtime friend, told the Los Angeles Times.

Born Marilyn Shearer Chicago on September 16, 1930 in Chicago, Kienholz moved to Los Angeles in 1961 and began working for West Hollywood’s Ferus Gallery the same year that it mounted Andy Warhol’s first solo exhibition—Artforum was run out of the offices above Ferus Gallery from 1965 to 1967. In 1966, Kienholz married the Los Angeles sculptor and assemblage artist Ed Kienholz and became his office manager and studio assistant, which gave her the opportunity to frequently travel abroad.

Kienholz’s divorce from Ed in 1973 spurred her to begin hosting dinner parties, to which she would often invite a hodgepodge of writers, artists, politicians, and art-world luminaries. The following year, she was hired to help Pontus Hultén, founding director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, establish a foundation that would acquire American artworks for the museum, which at the time was still under construction.

Kienholz’s work with Hultén led her to establish her foundation in 1981, which she funded with the profits from the sale of her ex-husband’s 1964 assemblage Back Seat Dodge ’38 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The nonprofit, conceived to boost the visibility of Golden State artists, organized at least thirteen exhibitions that traveled internationally, including “The California Sculpture Show,” which featured work by Robert Arneson and Manuel Neri, among others, and was staged in five countries. The foundation also financed numerous books, films, and other initiatives.

In 2002, Kienholz teamed up with Henry Hopkins, the first director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, on the LA History Project. Backed by two grants from the Getty Foundation, the two-year initiative focused on chronicling the work of Los Angeles artists and archiving relevant documents from regional galleries, museums, artists, and collectors. The project would later serve as the inspiration behind the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time. 

Later in life, Kienholz advocated for African American artists in LA, and armed with another Getty grant, she sought to document their contributions to the California art scene, which she included in her encyclopedic “L.A. Rising, SoCal Artists Before 1980” (2010). She also worked to put together an exhibition of African American art for the Venice Biennale, but her vision wasn’t realized, partly due to her failing health.