PRINT Summer 1983


I really begin to understand any society by going through its junk stores and flea markets. It is a form of education and historical orientation for me. I can see the results of ideas in what is thrown away by a culture.
—Ed Kienholz1

WHAT IS THAT OBSCURE CATALYST that shapes you, gives your life definition? In Roman Catholicism, the fathers mystify it, call it a “calling,” but I refuse to romanticize. Without irony, shame, or hyperbole how do I explain that in 1966, I, a middle-class, Jewish, Los Angeles teenager (like, totally, a Valley Girl sans whine), one sunny April Saturday experienced two cultural events—a museum exhibition and a movie—that powerfully determined my future? The movie: Herb Gardner and Fred Coe’s A Thousand Clowns, starring Jason Robards, Jr., as a bohemian bachelor father (did his sister run off and leave him with her son?), a dropout from the ulcerated milieu of TV-comedy writing. The exhibition: Ed Kienholz at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a show so notorious that the County Board of Supervisors voted to suppress two pieces.

The two events are inextricable in my memory. Couldn’t Kienholz have been the character Robards played, the guy whose idea of interior decoration favored assemblages of American urban detritus over French provincial? Aren’t the faceless figures in a Kienholz tableau precisely those conformist sheep that the sitcom refugee was terrified of becoming? Don’t Kienholz’s caricatures and Gardner’s characters (Gardner wrote the Broadway play on which the film is based) illustrate the fringe personalities whose contempt of “normal” make us see it as a false ideal? For a teenager who wouldn’t hear the term “counterculture” for another year or two, the Kienholz exhibition and the Gardner movie embodied a precociously counter-cultural position. It was as if each suggested (unlike so-called “high” culture, they never sermonized) that what the official culture wants to discard or suppress is the stuff that threatens that culture. No, I wasn’t galvanized by Kienholz and Gardner because they espoused some kind of populist or popular-culture attitude in the realm of slick, spit’n’polish L.A. flash art imermg and the European art-house movies I occasionally saw at the Los Feliz Theatre. They changed my life because they made icons of and for unpopular culture. Among those Kienholz tableaux, those clock-faced specters tying one on at The Beanery, 1964, the decapitated female sex machines who work out of the brothel in Roxy’, 1961, and the lapsed comedy writer Robards plays, a hipster who performs a silly symphony with trash-can lids and lectures his neighbors on the poor quality of their garbage, were the connoisseurs who could collectively assemble The Journal of Unpopular Culture.

I saw a movie, maybe in Great Falls . . . where the artist is living on the top floor of a building, and there’s a pretty broad on the balcony below, and at the end of the movie he’s got the broad. And that seemed nice . . . . I thought it was neat that the artist got the girl, and if I. were the artist I would have the girl; so that was a good connection.
—Ed Kienholz2

What is that obscure catalyst that determined the course of Ed Kienholz’s life and career? A romantic image from a movie he saw when he was about 17? A Life magazine spread during the 1940s on an artist Kienholz would later recall must have been Richard Lindner? (“I saw those images of Lindner’s women—you know, those geometric, peculiar-breasted women that he makes. . . . I thought that was pretty interesting.”) Was the occupation of artist a possibility fora kid born in 1927 to wheat and pea farmers in eastern Washington, not far from the Idaho border? Though Kienholz remembers having a facility for drawing as early as grade school, when he would be drafted to design and build the sets for the high school play, he later recalled, “In a farm community, artistic stuff is pretty suspect if you’re a boy. I mean, it’s nice for girls to do watercolors or something, but a boy’s got to do something substantial, like hammer and pound and be involved with cars and machines and that stuff.” Life on the farm consisted of a number of manual and maintenance regimens which would probably sound obsolete to ears familiar with the language of modern agribusiness.

Depression economics and its attendant waste not, want not also shaped Kid Kienholz. If a piece of machinery broke down, it was adapted—not replaced—with a gadget on hand. As a recreational activity, Kienholz’s father, Lawrence, took wrecked cars and hammered them back into commission. From an early age Ed Kienholz figured that everything had an inherent value; it all depended on how you applied it. Being able to see the useful in the apparently useless stood Kienholz in good stead when he left the farm and, after a few unsuccessful attempts at college, became something of an automobile salesman, buying used cars in Montana and reselling them for a profit in Portland, Oregon, and other places. Throughout his late teens and early twenties, Kienholz juggled entrepreneurial exploits with other jobs, such as serving as an attendant in psychiatric hospitals. While working at a hospital, Kienholz moonlighted at Eastern Washington State College in Cheney—on a scholarship (though he insists he never had a facility for academe). He painted watercolors and assembled collages: “I made a piece, I remember, out of a dried fish that I picked up around the little lake out there; the piece had some sticks and twigs and whatever in it.” You can look at all these assignments as a kind of rehabilitation or redemption (Kienholz would probably resent the idea of redemption, as his mother’s staunch Presbyterianism never sat well with him), be it in the service of lost souls or remaindered cars. He was Captain Salvage, rescuing or studying that which had been discarded.

Shortly before Kienholz and his wife moved to Cheney he had been in Minneapolis visiting his wife’s folks where he saw his first art exhibition, at the Walker Art Center—Rembrandts which had recently been cleaned (by the Metropolitan Museum of Art). They had been shipped from New York and were installed at the Walker “all bearded yet with excelsior.” Seeing the Old Master in this dishabille took some of the intimidating mystery out of art for Kienholz: “You know, I thought, ‘Geez, if that’s a Rembrandt, and he’s such a hotshot, you know, there might be a chance for me.’ Because they did look pretty bad.”

After Kienholz divorced his wife (whose name he claims to have forgotten), he wended his way to Reno via Spokane, and in Reno, where he worked in a sign shop, he remembered:

My friend [A.G.] Grant came through from Spokane on his way to Las Vegas to open a club down there. . . . So he stopped at the house and said, “Come on, we’re going to Vegas and open a club.” I said, “Okay.” I had a ’32 Buick coupe that I’d cut the trunk deck lid away and made into a pickup. . . . I had a black Great Dane; I had a Puritas bottle full of goldfish; I had some books. I had a tombstone; I had probably 50 or 60 early constructions, things on paper and whatever, and—I don’t know—a couple of pairs of pants and a Botany 500 raincoat. . . .

It was in Vegas that Kienholz and his Great Dane, Boris, pulled into the parking lot of a self-improvement school. When asked what he did he identified himself as an artist, and taught there, though his curriculum is obscure.

Having learned from Las Vegas, Kienholz split—to Los Angeles. It was probably 1952—between Eisenhower’s election and his inauguration—and Kienholz had just turned 25. He arrived in North Hollywood in the same Buick that had been his Vegas chariot, accompanied by the same Great Dane, different goldfish, and using the tombstone as an impromptu hood ornament. He had a toothache, and before long bartered a painting in exchange for an extraction from a dentist/art collector in Van Nuys. Kienholz recalled, “I thought, ‘Jesus, I’ve come to heaven.’ I mean, you know, to be an artist was really worthwhile because I got rid of that tooth which hurt.”

It was Kienholz’s first sale, so to speak, and such a provident welcome to L.A. was one of the principal reasons why he stayed. Another was that “it was so big that you could be completely anonymous in Los Angeles. . . . It wasn’t a small town, it wasn’t people looking over your shoulder.” But, for Kienholz, probably the most compelling attribute of L.A. was that it “throws away an incredible amount of value every day. I mean, it’s just discarded, shitcanned. From automobiles to desks, to clothes, to paint. . . . there is an incredible waste in the city. . . . and if you’re living on the edge of the economy like that, all the waste filters through your awareness and you take what you want.” (Kienholz still is an inveterate reader of the classifieds, interested in unwanted stuff. The verdict: “Once a used-car dealer, always a used-car dealer.”3) For him, the city was an infinite art-supply store, a secret bounty that was being mined simultaneously across the country in New York by an artist of similar temperament, Robert Rauschenberg.

The middle 1950s in Los Angeles . . . was our time of renaissance, of youth, of vigor, of ignorance. We questioned everything. Walter Hopps and I started Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Blvd. as an alternative to what wasn’t working for us. Other artists picked up on our thrust and joined us. We were a group of loners forced together by a solid determination that art was all. We lived on the cutting edge of change, sensing it was happening but having no idea what it meant. There was hope and no hope. We were naive and profane.
—Ed Kienholz4

For someone who disavows his importance in the Los Angeles artquake of which he was, if not the epicenter, then the ranking epieccentric, Kienholz always managed to be in the right place until about five seconds before the right time. After being turned down by local dealers, he reckoned he’d open up his own art gallery so he’d have a place to show. Naturally gravitating toward La Cienega Boulevard, then in its Low Bohemian phase, Kienholz found Raymond Rohauer, then in the process of becoming America’s foremost collector of vintage films. Rohauer had rented the Turnabout Theatre, fitted with double proscenia—in back and front—and swivel seats so that while one stage was being cleared and re-set the other could be showcasing an entertainment. Kienholz bartered carpentry work—rebuilding the theater to make it into a functioning moviehouse—in exchange for the space behind what would become the now-unused stage in addition to an adjacent room—they became the studio and gallery. Once the space was prepared, he got too modest to give himself a show. All sorts of homeless artists found Kienholz’s Now Gallery, and he rapidly earned a reputation as an artist/host.

After a few months, a representative from the city of Los Angeles came to visit Now, complimented Kienholz on his fine work, and offered him the job of contractor for the All-City Outdoor Art Festival. Kienholz enthused those around him to put together a show that was received quite well by both public and press. And during the course of the planning events, a young student named Walter Hopps approached Kienholz and volunteered to work for him—gratis. Hopps and Kienholz may have had instant simpatico because Hopps was an attendant at UCLA Hospital. In Kienholz’s recollection, which sounds more like a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musical plot than the turning point in Los Angeles art, Hopps approached Kienholz and said, “Let’s make a gallery,” and Ferus was conceived. Other Kienholz art-spaces, the lobbyof the Coronet Theatre and the walls of a Laurel Canyon bohemian hangout, Cafe Galleria, were already alive and flourishing.

Ferus was a magnetic force in the city that had never before been recognized for attracting artists—unless you count Stanton MacDonald-Wright, who returned from Paris in the ’teens as a didactic adult, or Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, who left as roustabout teenagers during the late ’20s and early ’30s. According to Kienholz, “Jo Baer, for instance, came in, took one look . . . and decided on the spot to be an artist.” John Altoon, lately returned from Spain, asked what was happening and was told, instead, where: Ferus. “[Billy Al] Bengston walked in one day and said, ‘My name is Bengston, and I’m here, and I’m going to be the world’s greatest artist,’” recalls Kienholz. And there was Bengston’s off-again, on-again studio-mate, Kenny Price. And Wallace Berman, the cabbalist/collagist, whose first Ferus show got busted by the police for its so-called pornography (“a very loose ink drawing of two figures on hands and knees; there’s no sex involved in it at all . . . damned if he didn’t get sentenced . . . and then Dean Stockwell said that he would pay the bail. . . . ”). There was an ungoverned, uncensored general attitude embracing collage, assemblage, ceramics, drawings, paintings, and sculpture. An informal reciprocal trade agreement with San Francisco artists was maintained, but there wasn’t too much talk about what was going on in that other art capital, New York. Poetry readings and fashion shows, performances and aleatory happenings happened at Ferus as well.

During 1958, Kienholz won a purchase award from the Pasadena Museum for a painting called They Tarred and Feathered the Angel of Peace, 1957. By early 1959, when he had a two-man show with Bengston at the “new” Ferus (it moved across the street), he was beginning to create pieces that resembled painting less than they did neo-Dada objects. About this time, Kienholz sold his interest in Ferus to Hopps for about $1400: “I wanted to make art, and Walter wanted to run a gallery, and we just split it up.” Irving Blum became Hopps’ partner.

What Blum, who was from New York, might have represented to Kienholz was an awareness of what was happening in Manhattan at the moment, a neo-Dada, precocious Pop sensibility which was very close to what Kienholz was doing—although no one in New York knew he was doing it. “In the fifties, I was really sort of bitter about New York,” Kienholz said. Though by the early ’60s, Craig Kaufmann, Bob Irwin, and any number of Ferus wheels had been shown in Manhattan, Kienholz wasn’t among them. “I was like the holdout. I was the irascible one. . . . ” He said of that time:

I, first of all, would never really feel qualified to speak to somebody about art. And we didn’t talk the art out. If we sat around in the Beanery, we talked about who was a good fuck and where we were going to get six dollars so we could buy gas for a car to go to, you know, the Valley and get drunk. . . .

The New York holdout (he actually showed in Manhattan, at lolas, in 1963), Kienholz was ultimately un-like most of the Ferus studs (this isn’t macha language; there was actually a show called “The Studs” in about 1964) in that Price, Bengston, and Irwin prided themselves on their surfing, were denizens of beach culture, while Kienholz—then, as now, as in his early years—was something of the mountain man. Neither he nor his work was a product of sun’n’surf Pacific light. Both Kienholz and the art he assembled had a two-fisted, scrap and scrapper quality. Could be urban, could be rural, but it was definitely sui generis. Never the finish fetishist, Kienholz favored accident: “I like the drippy, messy look.”

Through the ’50s Kienholz’s painting/assemblage/collages essentially were wallbound, and he always worked in the studios adjacent to the exhibition spaces of Now, Turnabout, and Ferus. But by 1958 he had moved to Nash Drive in Laurel Canyon (ever laissez-faire central in Los Angeles, haven of bohemians, beats, and hippies—or whatever the hipster mutation of the moment) and he built the cheapest, most expedient of structures, an A-frame, on his parcel. (Most expedient because building and roof are one and the same.) Because of the slanted walls, it was impossible to hang pieces inside the studio so he used the space primarily for storage of tools and materials. He began working in real space on freestanding tableaux.

As he made the shift to virtual space, Kienholz (coincidentally?) started addressing virtual content. No longer were his painting/assemblages evocative, neoDada objects, but provocative, neo-Kienholz subjects contending with such causes as Little Rock (The Little Eagle Rock Incident, 1960), the Caryl Chessman execution (The Psycho-Vendetta Case, 1961), abortion (The Illegal Operation, 1962), prostitution (Roxy’s), ad gloriam.

Shortly after Kienholz’s work began tackling social issues (1960–62), he himself took on the responsibility of rearing his infant daughter and son, Jenny and Noah, by his lonesome. Housebound, he cared for and fed the kids, working odd hours when they were asleep. To contrast his new consciousness with his Dada playfulness of yore, consider the 1960 Odious to Rauschenberg, a collage/hommage, perhaps typical of the Ferus stage of his career. A prankish endeavor, Odious . . . was to be mailed in a box, which, when dismantled, revealed an electric cord attached to an apparatus. When the cord was plugged in, the head of the apparatus spun and its tongue would thrust out in a bratty gesture. The brattiest aspect of the assemblage, however, was not visible. In the apparatus was a diathermy device which, if the plug was engaged, would disturb television reception in the area. The piece summed up Kienholz’s razzing attitude toward New York art and artists—especially those garnering major reputations by doing the same kind of work as Kienholz. Rauschenberg’s success during this time made the reticent Kienholz demur from sending his Odious . . . , though its attention-getting strategy is not unlike Rauschenberg’s notorious erasure of a Willem de Kooning drawing nearly a decade before.

When Kienholz’s puckish artifacts gave way to the soberer, politically engaged tableaux, his foraging gave way to trailblazing. Though Kienholz’s political pieces are consistent—and exceptional—personally he pooh-poohs politics: “Politics are an abdication of our responsibility—it’s about getting people to do our thinking for us!” Kienholz bellowed when I visited him and his helpmeet and collaborator Nancy Reddin Kienholz at their paradisaic kunstland in Hope, Idaho, last November.

A Kienholz isn’t remarkable only for its examination of external politics, but also for its unflinching assessment of personal politics. There is the self-critical sexuality in The Back Seat Dodge—’38, 1963–64, and Roxy’s. About the time he accepted fatherhood as a fulltime responsibility, Kienholz assembled a devastating tableau-commentary on maternity, The Wait (1964–65), which would seem to be a decapitated effigy of Norman Bates’ mother (from Psycho), a putrefying skeleton dressed in a wrapper and seated in the den, a photograph substituting for her face, surrounded by family snapshots, her sewing box, a birdcage, and a lamp with fringed shade. To have children is to subject yourself to abandonment, The Wait implied, suggesting that the very idea of family was reducible to an accumulation of mementos, a decaying domesticity.

In the brief period 1960–66 Kienholz made most of those pieces that first knocked me out at the L.A. County Museum show. These were confrontational, situational works, more visceral than George Segal’s pristine—though powerful—plaster-cast excursions into anomie anonymous, angrier than the Red Grooms rummage-sale cheerfulness. Tableau artists like Grooms and Segal came out of Happenings; Kienholz told me a possible inspiration for him was the mannequin room in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was briefly and ate his brown-bag lunch. Unlike Segal’s chalky surfaces or Grooms’ manicured residue, a Kienholz surface is ambered and brittle with fiberglass or varnish—preservatives, like the formaldehyde used to pickle medical specimens. Glopping varnish on found objects and cast figures, Kienholz would at once unify disparate elements in a tableau and give them the patina of age. No one who has seen works like The Wait, The State Hospital, 1966, The Illegal Operation, Roxy’s, and The Back Seat Dodge—’38 (or even Kienholz’s more recent Sollie 17, 1978–80, shown at the Whitney Biennial in 1981) can fail to understand the potency of taxidermy, Kienholz-style. Kienholz is probably the only artist who makes incompatibles compatible; he aspires to preserve life and death.

Works like Roxy’s (set in 1943) and The Back Seat Dodge—’38 (set around 1945) used his memories of past events—sex bought on the cheap in a brothel, free feels on wheels—to criticize the segregation of desire from our daily activities. Kienholz made public private acts, even voyeurism, forcing his audience to become accessories after the fact. When you look inside The Back Seat Dodge—’38, the mirrored interior reflects you: you catch yourself in the act of Peeping Tomdom while you catch the necking couple, their heads becoming one, in flagrante. When you walk through Roxy’s, you pause at one of the “tricks,” Five-Dollar Billie, I think, whose mannequin’s pelvis is attached to a treadle sewing machine; when you pump the treadle, Billie’s genital region thrusts toward you, mechanically. The too-sweet stench of dimestore perfume—the scent of repression—sears the air in Roxy’s.

What is also astonishing about such work—let’s face it, no one else has channeled fury this way, harnessing it to social comment and criticism—is that not since Francis Picabia and Man Ray has an artist so profoundly illustrated how our bodies have been transformed by technology and machinery, to the point that we experience life technically and mechanically. You get the same type of Kienholz techno-apocalyptic trauma in the work of contemporary filmmakers like George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) and David Cronenberg (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome), but Kienholz was thinking along these lines well before Night of the Living Dead. He makes works that hover between tableau mort and tableau vivant. (Southern California is the host of a pleasantly perverse tableau vivant event at the annual Laguna Art Fair; each evening is devoted to a program of tableaux vivants recreating Old Master paintings and sculptures—the best of Velázquez, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt. There is something about Kienholz’s tableaux that has just such perversity—making the live dead and dead live—though not its kitsch.)

I mostly think of my work as the spoor of an animal that goes through the forest and makes a thought trail, and the viewer is the hunter who comes and follows the trail. At one point I as the trail-maker disappear. The viewer then is confronted with a dilemma of ideas and direction . . .
—Ed Kienholz5

For an artist whose productivity is ceaseless, whose work continues to mature and provoke, Kienholz has been shown only sporadically in America since the late ’60s. An occasional piece or exhibition pops up unexpectedly, but unless you travel to Europe a lot, chances are you haven’t seen a recent major Kienholz tableau. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made any. Two powerful indictments of the U.S. presence in Vietnam—The Portable War Memorial and The Eleventh Hour Final, 1968—brought the body bags and body count, respectively, right into our living rooms. The latter, shattering tableau shows a typical den, the centerpiece of which is a TV set. On the tube is listed a week’s death toll. In the tube, eerily staring out at the viewers, is the disembodied head of an Asian child. For Kienholz the war news was not merely a statistic, but a deeply felt crisis to be resolved. Describing his attitude toward the news—any news—Kienholz confessed, “When I do listen to the news now and events happen, like, it hurts me; it really physically hurts me to listen to the news.” To him art-making isn’t insular, isn’t a cerebral, abstract activity; it’s physical, political, concrete. (If I got a sense of anything when I visited the Kienholzes it was of their gripe that in New York, artists made art about art, while in Los Angeles, which was free of market considerations, they could make art about life.)

In a Kienholz world, TV and radio physically intrude (beginning with The Eleventh Hour Final, the media are actually on and functioning in a Kienholz piece), in fact intervene. It’s as though Kienholz suffers from “information sickness,” like characters in Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981). And the only cure for this information sickness is to make a tableau that takes the news’ would-be objectivity and transforms it with a highly partisan editorial slant. One well-known Kienholz antidote to information sickness is his remarkable Five Car Stud, 1969–71, shown at Documenta in 1972. Set up in a tent dramatically illuminated by auto headlights, the piece illustrates five white bigots savaging a black man.

When I say “I,” I shouldn’t; I’m talking about “We.”
—Ed Kienholz6

Since 1973, when Kienholz got awarded a DAAD grant and went to Berlin, he and Nancy have divided their year between Germany and their log cabin compound on Lake Pend Oreille (so named because it’s shaped like an ear lobe) in the Bitterroots, foothills of the Rockies, in Hope, Idaho, population about a hundred. On their land, Ed and Nancy run a gallery, “The Faith and Charity in Hope Gallery,” perhaps recreating his entrepreneurial days in Los Angeles. (In L.A., he used to drive a truck emblazoned, “Ed Kienholz, Expert” on its doors; in Hope, his expertise is a truth universally acknowledged.) Kienholzland is breathtaking as a setting—conveniently located to both fishing and hunting, two favorite pastimes. “Ed’s the kind of hunter who’d coo over how cute a deer is and wouldn’t be able to shoot it,” remarks Nancy Reddin Kienholz. This paradise is integral to the Kienholzes’ sensibility, yet their art does not deal with the splendor that is Hope. Their collaborations are principally about the unnatural hells of the art world, victimized women, and the Nazi propaganda machine—all far from Hope, but near to the Kienholz soul.

The Art Show, a tableau installed in 1977 at Centre Pompidou in Paris, among other places, is a trenchant satire of gallery protocol, Ed and Nancy’s Rules of Disorder, as it were. Plaster-cast figures, their faces fitted with exhaust or auto air-conditioner vents, populate an art gallery. Each figure comes factory equipped with a premeditated art “rap,” blaring fatuous commentary from tape-deck apparatuses they have in place of hearts. As they pontificate, (literal) hot air wafts out of their vents. This metaphor of the cognoscenti’s preconceived ideas about art speaks of total contempt for the commercial art world, which the Kienholzes see as an assembly of mechanized, broken-record dilettantes.

At the 1982 exhibition of “The Berlin Women” at Dibbert Gallery in Berlin, they exhibited 10 tableaux about the exploitation of women in society. The Art Show is self-criticism, an analysis of how the culture mystifies art and makes it moribund, a New York type of idea. “The Berlin Women,” on the other hand, is a product of its geography that nevertheless has universal meaning.

In this exhibition was In the Infield Was Patty Peccavi, 1981, which shows a torpid, pregnant woman slumped at the edge of her bed (spiritual spouse of Sollie?) contemplating a luminous window. On the window’s other side, five defiant female hands are affixed to a galvanized-metal wall, each clutching a crucifix which might be a challenge to the Church which tries to legislate the body politic for women—celibates legislating sexuality. . . . Patty Peccavi is the full-term version of Kienholz’s The Illegal Operation, a bloody-wire-hanger scenario from 1962 illustrating abortion aftermath—basically about how women would kill themselves fighting for control of their reproductive rights. The most didactic of “The Berlin Women”—although she is in good company—is The Bronze Pinball Machine With Woman Affixed Also, version 2, 1980. The affixed woman, or half of her, is cast in bronze from her pelvis down to her stiletto heels as she thrusts splay-legged from the pinball machine coin slot. She makes the perfect berth for a boy who wants to play the machine, the “Playboy” model featuring a cartoon rendering of Hugh Hefner and two bikinied bunnies on its flashing facade. When boys play pinball, their hips gyrate, they hump the apparatus, going at a tilt, but trying not to “tilt.”

The relations of people and their machines, subject of the auto eroticism of The Back Seat Dodge—’38, of Roxy’s, of the pinball enchantress, continue to obsess the Kienholzes—and perhaps their most powerful exhibition, the “Volksempfängers,” has made the point most clearly. Volksempfängers, or “people’s receivers,” were inexpensive radios, bakelite boxes mass-produced during the ’30s—all the better to hear Das Führer with. In the exhibit the radios are icons of propaganda, ultimate instruments of“information sickness.”

In one Volksempfänger tableau the units are arranged chronologically, so that the subtle shifts in their design (in which year does the swastika replace the trademark?) trace the lineage of the radio from its prosperous, bakelite material to its last, impoverished cardboard casing and reveal historical content. Another tableau, The Ladder, 1976, like Bruce Nauman’s From Hand to Mouth, 1967, but with political as well as autobiographical implications, illustrates a Volksempfänger on a footstool and a silvered, cast, disembodied right arm grabbing it. The arm stops at the scapula and is tenuously connected with electric wiring to the left arm, which reaches up a tall ladder, the southpaw clutching a Mercedes Benz hubcap. The divided arms (the left knows not what the right does) are symbolic of a divided Germany. The discarded machine, the Volksempfänger, blares music from Wagner’s Ring cycle. The new/old machine, the Mercedes, ascends the success ladder, continues into the present. The sum effect of the “Volksempfängers” is that of a concentrated Hans-Jürgen Syberberg movie like Hitler, a Film from Germany or Parsifal. As critic Willy Rotzler observed, “For Kienholz, the ‘Volksempfänger’ has become an example of how science, technology and industry can be misused to manipulate whole peoples and in the last resort humanity itself.”’

New York comes on with all its pretensions; it sucks the country dry.8

And then when I had a chance to show in Europe, I decided that was perfect because what I could do was bypass New York.
—Ed Kienholz

I speak of Kienholz as a taxidermist of civilization; he takes the culturally dead or deadbeat, revitalizes without actually reviving it, and confronts the apparitions that shape our present. I know of no other American artist who has so consistently presaged social and esthetic issues—and with such eloquence, such force. What is that obscure catalyst that shaped his life, determined his career: “My source material was ignorance.”’ The ability to unflinchingly face life-and-death issues, the will to sift through cultural detritus in order to discover what was being repressed—and to express it. In a word, desublimation. Did he learn it on the farm? From living at the edge? From being in Los Angeles when the scene was in New York? From living in a divided Berlin? Probably all of the above, though the decisive moment hardly matters.

If there’s been a shift in the Kienholz tone it’s that in his later work he’s more obsessed with continuity than with rupture. The Volksempfänger pieces try to connect a German history disconnected by World War II. Most profound perhaps is another meditation on maternity—Portrait of a Mother With Past Affixed Also, 1981—which is more or less The Wait, some 17 years later. It’s a peek-in tableau of Ed’s mother, plaster-cast (with a life-sized framed photograph of her face substituting for her head) standing in an environment evocative of her Hope, Idaho, house surrounded by the artifacts of her past. There’s no grotesque, pathological specter hovering over this piece, nor is there a nostalgic aura. Illustrating a woman actively surveying the stuff she’s accumulated (not passively waiting and decaying), Portrait of a Mother . . . is autobiographical and self-critical, the mirrors inside the tableau symbolic of Kienholz’s self-reflection. Without sentimentality, it’s a valentine/valedictory.

This oeuvre is the most concise course in mid-century politics, technology, and social history imaginable. Unlike the Robards character in A Thousand Clowns, it’s unlikely that Kienholz would ever capitulate to any establishment organ in order to secure his posterity, because ultimately Kienholz believes that art’s content must be contentious. And he’d rather disseminate information sickness than distribute misinformation balm.

Carrie Rickey writes about film and art for various publications, and is currently working on a book about six Hollywood actresses.

I’m indebted to Lawrence Weschler for his transcript of his interview with Kienholz, recorded as part of the UCLA Oral History Program.

And, of course, thanks to Ed and Nancy Kienholz for allowing a turncoat Californian, now a New Yorker, sully Kienholzland in Hope.



1. Quoted in Roland W. Wiegenstein, “Ed Kienholz, the ‘Volksempfängers’ and the ‘Ring,’” in Edward Kienholtz: Volksempfängers, catalogue for an exhibition at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1977.

2. Lawrence Weschler, “Edward Kienholz” (interview in the series “Los Angeles Art Community, Group Portrait,” conducted under the auspices of the UCLA Oral History Project. 1977), vol. 1, p. 72. Unless otherwise noted, all direct quotations from Kienholz are taken from this interview.

3. Nancy Reddin Kienholz to the author, November 1982, Hope, Idaho.

4. In John Altoon, catalogue for an exhibition at the Faith and Charity in Hope Gallery, Hope, Idaho, September 1982.

5. Quoted in Wiegenstein. “Ed Kienholz, the ‘Volksempfängers’ and the ‘Ring,’” 1977.

6. Interview with the author, November 1982.

7. Willy Rotzler, “Messages—Coded by Ed Kienholz,” in Edward Kienholz: Volksempfängers, catalogue for an exhibition at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1982.

8. Interview with the author, November 1982.

9. Interview with the author, November 1982.