New York

Edward Kienholz

Candace Dwan Gallery

At the Dwan Gallery, Edward Kienholz, under the touted description “Concept Tableaux” shows one of his macabre mock-ups, together with projects for a dozen additional ones. To back off from these latter for a moment, the main thing to see in the exhibition is the artist’s The State Hospital. This piece reproduces with grisly fidelity a room, or rather a cell, in the hopeless ward of a state mental institution. One peeks into the room through a small barred window in the padlocked door to discover a brown varnished figure of an elderly nude man. He reclines, facing the observer, on an iron cot ameliorated only by a thin filthy mattress. His left arm is strapped to the bed frame. Instead of a face, the figure has an encapsulated goldfish bowl in which a couple of large deformed goldfish are swimming. On the floor, just a little too far away, is an ancient bedpan. There is a battered hospital table in the room, one white ceiling bulb.

Directly above the male figure is another, identical, figure, bed and all. This figure and its mattress are enframed in a long horizontal ellipsoid of blue neon; a fin-like thank-you-mam in the neon indicates that the upper figure is the dream or idea of the lower one. In other words, the mind of the wretched elderly man is capable only of a watery awareness of his own present hopeless existence. The tableau is a marvelous evocation of the eternal hellishness of extreme mental illness, and scorching propaganda for the alleviation of at least the physical miseries of the many people so afflicted who populate such hospital wards in every state. In its way, then, The State Hospital takes its honored if artistically equivocal place with Kathe Kollwitz’s Hunger.

The twelve projects in the show are curious. Each consists of a plainly but solidly framed typed sheet describing, in an economical but effective style, another tableau which Kienholz has dreamed up, under a heading which is the title. Above the framed typed sheet is a brass plaque, repeating, in large upright serif letters, the title of the “piece.” The point of these dozen descriptions and their accompanying plaques seems to be to let us know that, despite the gallery’s inability to show more than one realized work at present, there are at least a dozen more ideas which could be run up to order.

Kienholz writes a good piece, and to anyone familiar with his work, it is not too difficult to imagine what the concepts here to be read would look like. This is of course the real crux of the matter. This fact does not in the least entitle these interesting descriptions and pretentious but cheaply made plaques to be taken seriously as works of art for one minute. What’s more, the gallery should certainly have realized that not every viewer is Little Nell who might be gulled into doing Kienholz’s work for him by dreaming up the piece, and then trying to critically accept or reject his own fantasy. More than one uncooperative type is going to ponder briefly, and then come to the realization that these “concepts” also say something about all of Kienholz’s constructed pieces, i.e., that each and every one of them may be very fully described in two or three quite short paragraphs.

The road to hell, besides being paved with good intentions and boffola ideas, is a two way street to boot. It is very rare that an artist explodes his own myth, and rarer still that it be done in public. As a self-inflicted auto-da-fé it has a characteristically Kienholzian quality, but one rather doubts that any of this whimsical disaster was intentional. The waves of the catastrophe radiate out from the artist: must not the owners of earlier pieces feel that if they had just held out a bit longer they could have avoided the expense and nuisance of actually owning and maintaining one? It takes but a few minutes to copy out the text of one of the ideas, even in longhand. It could be typed up in a steno pool, and framed at an art supply shop. The plaque, of course, would have to be ordered, but the overall space saving would make it worthwhile, particularly for small museums.

Dennis Adrian