New York

Edward Kienholz, The Cement Store #1 (under 5,000 Pop), 1967, engraved brass on walnut, paper in walnut frame, glass, 22 5/8 x 11 3/4".

Edward Kienholz, The Cement Store #1 (under 5,000 Pop), 1967, engraved brass on walnut, paper in walnut frame, glass, 22 5/8 x 11 3/4".

Edward and Nancy Kienholz

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Edward Kienholz, The Cement Store #1 (under 5,000 Pop), 1967, engraved brass on walnut, paper in walnut frame, glass, 22 5/8 x 11 3/4".

Dense fusions of memory and imagination, Edward Kienholz’s constructions and installations of the late 1950s and ’60s introduced a pungent scent of Americana to the art of the time. In the funky surrealism that they found in commonplace objects, the works shared something with the contemporaneous Combines of Robert Rauschenberg, but showed less of the high-art awareness that Rauschenberg had absorbed from Abstract Expressionism and Black Mountain, and were more deeply embedded in the vernacular American scene that Kienholz knew. The artist as Kienholz reconstructed the role was a close observer of that scene, and responded to it with pointed moral messages phrased through the skills not of the painter but of the mechanic, the carpenter, the interior decorator. These trades as Kienholz applied them were compatible with sweeping ambition.

This exhibition showed Kienholz at both his most grandiose and his most focused and forceful. The first quality was represented by The Ozymandias Parade, 1985, made with his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, collaborator on all his work after 1972. “Ozymandias,” of course, refers to the Shelley sonnet of 1817, one of English poetry’s sharpest judgments on the fallacies of empire, and The Ozymandias Parade was made during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, to which it surely alludes. The work’s base is a room-filling arrow-shaped stage, its mirrored, lightbulb-ringed floor insinuating the tawdry and burlesque. Down it marches a trio of life-size martial figures, two of them on horseback, though the word horseback is undone by the riders’ positioning on the animals’ stomachs (one horse rears up on its hind legs, so that its rider sticks out from its underside semihorizontally, while the second horse lies on its back with its hooves in the air—hooves, incidentally, shod with both roller and ice skates). The third rider, his uniform studded with medals, is carried piggy-back by a poor blind woman (she leans on a pair of white canes) with a skull for a head. Scattered around these three is a clutter of further paraphernalia—toy soldiers, flags, hundred-dollar bills, religious figures, etc.—whose symbolism, like that of the work as a whole, is potent but obvious.

Of course, one could more approvingly say that the symbolism is obvious but potent, supposing that that was how one responded to it. The title’s reference to “Ozymandias” may be unfortunate, though, in its reminder of what Shelley managed in fourteen honed lines—a terse riposte to the Kienholzes’ aesthetic of the grotesque and baroque. The work’s size was actually not unusual for Kienholz, a pioneer of the environmentally scaled artwork, but a piece such as Roxys, 1960–61, for example, a room-size evocation of a Nevada brothel, is both specific and personal in its atmosphere, while the associations of The Ozymandias Parade are more generic. Even the works this installation seems to me closest to, the harshly satiric Dada drawings and prints of Otto Dix and George Grosz from the late 1910s and ’20s, get their ferocity from the tightness of their focus, a quality this piece forgoes through accumulative sprawl.

Meanwhile, a second part of the show, a group of what Kienholz called “Concept Tableaux,” from 1963–67, had all the concision the installation lacked. Each tableau is a framed sheet of paper carrying a typewritten description of an idea for an artwork. Below the description is a set of prices, the stage-by-stage cost of the artwork’s realization; and each framed sheet is accompanied by a bronze plaque with the work’s title, the artist’s name, and the date, establishing each idea as an artwork whether or not it is ever funded. The works are often set in deep America, in small cities and towns, some named, some not. Into these ordinary places they tend to introduce the inexplicable: One, for example, involves finding a grocery store somewhere and filling it to the ceiling with concrete, turning it into a solid block, then leaving it “with little or no explanation other than it is now some sort of an art object and no longer subject to improved property taxes.” That concrete block sits in the mind, just as it would in its neighborhood had it ever been built, and generates aura.

David Frankel