Los Angeles

Edward Kienholz

Eugenia Butler Gallery

If Edward Kienholz had sprung upon us his latest body of work two or three (or especially more) years ago, it is uncertain whether many would have rushed to buy it, whole or piecemeal. What is so fascinating about the dauntlessly cheerful willingness of his public to barter for his hundreds of new watercolors is that Kienholz has negotiated a preposterously brazen and entirely characteristic deal, openly, largely by timing himself right. He is acquiring lots of money and, to boot, most of the possessions he might otherwise have to purchase with it, by trading on a current esthetic vagary: “Concept Art.” The ground has been laid by Oldenburg, Smithson and De Maria, by Kosuth, Baldessari, Baxter et al. Kienholz himself has of course prepared us for this too, in the Concept Tableaux of 1963–67, but they were not so popularly received as the present series; besides, the concept was still preliminary and ultimately realizable for the buyer in the form of a unique sculptural object.

For a pair of mountain horses, two box springs and mattresses or a refrigerator, one can take possession of that particular framed, palely washed and stylishly lettered work which states the given item’s price. The elite ones of this type are personalized: “Anything I want from Maurice Tuchman,” “A Rudi Gernreich Original” or “A Baldessari Painting,” for example; then there are those requiring cash in amounts from $1 to $10,000. All the pictures are 12 by 16 inches, and each is framed with a single rectangular strip of galvanized sheet metal, soldered end to end at bottom center. It should be noted that the more expensively bought numbers (501 and up) have been streaked horizontally in a comparatively luxurious blue, and the middle range—101 to 500—in red, whereas the cheaper ones tend to mute yellow (11 to 55) or grey (1 to 54) monotony. Each is signed with a genuine thumbprint.

The Eugenia Butler Gallery is currently purveying these watercolors. The recipients of the works stand to immediately gain more than the face value of the object, since as more works are sold, the value of each automatically increases to the price of the highest bartered to date. The $1 and $10,000 pieces must be bought together.

I must say Mr. Kienholz has once again managed not to be in the least boring, this time in the face of pretty overwhelming odds. One certainly does prefer this to the coyly unmarketable notions we’re being handed by so many of the Idea chaps lately. Kienholz’s esthetic durability seems truly to reside in the difficultly sustained qualities of consistent explicitness, literalness, pragmatic cynicism—it’s a temperamental scorn for the “understated” (underhanded) in art. I’m beginning to think it is because of the persistent presence in his work of an unrepressed survival instinct that even the least of his assemblages and environments maintain some freshness and credibility. It has less to do at bottom with the celebrated “timelessness in timeliness” we’ve kept hearing as a rationale for his power than with his remarkable ability to directly translate an honest canniness about self-preservation tactics. The heavily anecdotal tableau sculpture is not in all ways so remote in spirit from this current rude exaggeration of inappetent and intellectually abstracted art. One must acknowledge the personal animus behind it, albeit while rebelling against its flaunting of ulterior moralities. Kienholz, it turns out, can proselytize while remaining uncommitted.

Jane Livingston