Suggested Research – Edward Kienholz

Edward Kienholz 1927-1994

I’d never heard of Edward Kienholz therefore was intrigued over what I might find ‘challenging’ about his work when Russell suggested I look…on Googling him I soon found out why he is described as an ‘artist of unwavering originality, critical insight, and notoriety’; he certainly does seem to produce some obscure and in some cases repulsive, looking work!

His huge life-size three-dimensional tableaux were ‘immersive environments’ that strongly reflected upon ‘contemporary social and political issues of late twentieth-century America.’ These tableaux were mainly made from discarded items.

Kienholz was married several times, but eventually settled in a stable relationship with his fifth wife, the artist Nancy Reddin Kienholz, who worked closely with him in the conceptualisation and fabrication of his later works.

In the 1960s Kienholz took an even grittier approach to his materials than his predecessors by utilizing discarded objects that appeared grimy and damaged. In large-scale installations with life-sized figures and built environments, Kienholz made his work physically and emotionally immersive, breaking down the comfort zone between the art and its audience.

Echoing the degraded, filthy quality of his materials, his sculptures and tableaux often evoke American society’s sexual prudery, political corruption, moral hypocrisy, and oppression of marginalised groups. These works are designed to evoke complicated responses of revulsion and guilt, often making viewers feel complicit in their atrocities.
Due to its controversial subject matter and its unflinching portrayals of sex and violence, Kienholz’s work was frequently the target of debates over obscenity and the appropriate use of public funding for the arts, foreshadowing discussions about contemporary art that still continue to this day.

The more I found out about him the more I wanted to discover, looking on YouTube for videos of his installations was definitely eye-opening. His work is visceral, ugly, deformed, in some ways incomprehensible, whilst at the same time sending exactly the right message, which inexorably draws you in – well it did me. I could not just look and comment on one single installation.

The following block quote descriptions are all taken from the website The Art Story.

The Illegal Operation (1962)

Artwork description & Analysis: Made nearly a decade before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion in the United States, The Illegal Operation depicts the scene of an abortion at a time when the procedure was practiced in secrecy, often in dangerous and unregulated conditions. This early sculpture, created out of found objects including a shopping cart, a wooden stool, and a standing lamp, is a prime example of Kienholz’s Funk art assemblage. Its title hints at the taboo debate surrounding abortion rights, while its crudely hewn composition – with the cart reconfigured into a chair, the lampshade tilted askew, and the linens darkened with filth – suggests that something is clearly amiss. Through its visceral imagery, the sculpture draws attention to the country’s problematic handling of the abortion issue during the middle of the twentieth century. This piece was also based on Kienholz’s personal experience of abortion, since his wife at the time had undergone the same procedure during this period and was forced to do so illegally. Like much of his later work, The Illegal Operation broaches a controversial topic while insisting that matters of political and social discourse are never unwarranted artistic subjects.


I like the way he drew upon personal experiences a well as world events to base his pieces on.

The Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964)

Artwork description & Analysis: When this work was displayed in Kienholz’s 1966 solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it caused an uproar, leading some local authorities to call it pornographic and others to plead for its removal from the exhibition. The sculpture portrays a youthful couple engaged in sexual activity in a truncated 1938 Dodge coupe with its passenger seat door propped ajar. The woman, cast in plaster, lies across the seat with the man, formed out of chicken wire, lying on top of her; the two figures are surrounded by beer bottles. As Kienholz has noted, this piece represents an adolescent experience common to many young adults who grew up in the new age of the automobile and is based on his own early sexual experimentation. The work, which can only be seen by gazing through the open door, gives the sense that the viewer has intruded upon the scene as a voyeur. By embedding the scene within the car, dimly lit by the car’s headlights and cab light, Kienholz engages simultaneous reactions of discomfort, revulsion, interest, and curiosity that evoke the mid-twentieth century American public’s attitudes towards sexuality.

What attracted me to this piece was that it could be altered by changing the lighting, which gave a completely different atmosphere. Again he was drawing on personal as well as most contemporary, Western adolescent experiences.

He may or may not have got inspiration from a Bobby Smith image taken in Tampa Florida in the 1950’s simply called The Back Seat of a Car.

Bobby Smith was the first female “messenger boy,” and co-founder of the Metropolitan Community Church in Tampa, Bobby Smith’s personal and professional photographs include both portraits and “everyday” shots of the LGBT community. The collection consists of nearly 450 photographs documenting Tampa’s Gay and Lesbian communities from the 1950s to the 1970s. Images of popular hang-outs, such as Jack’s Place, Knotty Pine, Jimmie White’s Tavern and the Brass Rail, are included. A small sample of the collection has been digitized and are available online at


The Beanery (1965)

The walk-in installation The Beanery is one of Kienholz’s most admired works. Inspired by Barney’s Beanery, a seedy pub located off the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles that was a famous hangout for celebrities, musicians, and artists, the work reconstructs a typical bar scene filtered through Kienholz’s unwieldy lens. While the installation reconstructs the general layout of the pub, The Beanery is also surreal, featuring denizens with faces formed out of clocks, all of which are set to the same time of 10:10. Kienholz has noted that time is suspended in the installation to underscore the escapism of the bar’s clientele; as he stated, “A bar is a sad place, a place full of strangers who are killing time, postponing the idea that they’re going to die.” Only the figure of Barney, the pub’s owner, has a human face, which acts as an emblem of the merciless passage of time.

As one of Kienholz’s most ambitious installations, this work also highlights the artist’s prowess as a craftsman. The tableau, which includes seventeen individuals scattered throughout the scene, combines cast elements with found objects that have been cleverly woven together; some figures are engaged in private interactions, creating multiple simultaneous narratives that are united through the looped soundtrack of clinking glasses and laughter that plays whenever the installation is displayed.

This installation has in recent years been re-displayed, with the museum concerned trying to restore it.


I loved the close up shots from the video below. I just need a translation! Having said that a lot was fathomable. What I also found fascinating is that the work is degrading due to his resin mix. I think he would have loved the fact that it was degrading, a bit like society alters and degrades. However, I can also see why the museum would wish to preserve it as it is.


The State Hospital (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: The State Hospital was inspired by Kienholz’s experiences working as an attendant in a mental hospital in the late 1940s. Its two naked, life-size figures are bound to their metal bed-frames in identical positions; their mattresses are grimy and the bedpan on the floor is encrusted in filth. In the inhumane confinement of these emaciated patients, Kienholz was commenting on societal and institutional mistreatment of the mentally ill. The patients’ isolation and entrapment is emphasized by the goldfish bowls contained within their heads, and by the neon “thought bubble” linking the two bunks – the figure in the lower bed can imagine nothing beyond their present situation.

Somebody has written an essay on this piece here. Another commented that he drew upon his emotions after he was ‘horrified by sadistic guards, indifferent doctors and the typically inhuman treatment of patients… Kienholz (in retrospect) built his hospital as an angry indictment of all such places.’

Once I understood the messages that Kienholz was sending, the tangle mess of items and ephemera no longer repulsed me as on first viewing, I found myself looking at each item wanting to understand its significance within the tableaux. Unless a photographer fully stages their images they do not have this freedom, however they can choose their locations/subjects/lighting with care and ensure that their editing process does the rest.

The Portable War Memorial (1968)

Artwork description & Analysis: Kienholz constructed this massive installation, measuring thirty-three feet long, during the Vietnam War as a bitter commentary on the United States’ international politics, the human sacrifice of military actions, and the consumerism of the American dream. In the left side of the tableau, several mannequins in uniform recreate Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of Marines raising the United States flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during World War II (and the monument that it inspired); however, they are faceless, and they are planting the flag on an unsteady-looking picnic table. Behind them hangs an army recruitment poster with an image of Uncle Sam; at the very left end, a female form crafted from a trash can plays a recording of the singer Kate Smith performing “God Bless America.”

On the central, tombstone-shaped panel of the composition, a blackboard records the fading names of hundreds of countries that have been obliterated by war throughout history. A panel bearing the installation’s title includes blank spaces where the date can be filled in, as new wars continue to occur. Yet in the right half, life continues as usual for diners at a snack bar outfitted with a working Coca-Cola vending machine; they have become so accustomed to war in the headlines that they are able to ignore the propaganda behind them as well as the symbolic death toll written on the wall.

In 1968 Thomas Albright from Rollingstone wrote a brilliant review which can be read here but a short quote would be:

The power of the piece lies in the way the obvious meanings of its various parts overlap, blend and interpenetrate to form a message that is greater than the sum of its component parts—not simply a commentary on the futility of war, or the stupid complacency of lawn furniture suburbia, but a devastating, all embracing put-down of the whole mess, past, present and, by all indications, future. 

It would appear he was right, we have not learnt about the futility of war.




Five Car Stud (1969-72)

Artwork description & Analysis: In Five Car Stud Kienholz addresses the enduring violence, prejudice, and racism in America during the Civil Rights era and its aftermath. This life-sized multimedia installation depicts a group of white men attacking a black man who lies prostrate on the ground, arms pinned to his sides, as one of his attackers tries to castrate him. Surrounded by four cars and a pickup truck that illuminate the scene with their headlights, white men wearing grotesque masks are posed standing, crouching, and grappling with the black man at the center of the installation.

According to Kienholz, the black man had been singled out by the group of white men for having a drink with a white woman, who cowers in one of the automobiles, vomiting. Nightmarish and emotionally disturbing, the work was intended to jolt the viewer with its graphic intensity, forcing the audience to come face to face with the brutal reality of the African-American experience. It is also jarring in its surreal depiction of the figures; while the attackers wear rubber masks, the victim has two facial expressions, one layered on top of the other. Not surprisingly, Five Car Stud received a strong critical reaction when it was first presented in Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972 and has only been publicly exhibited a handful of times.

I’m glad that I had looked up what ‘Documenta’ was from one of the previous exercises.

To me this is an exceedingly powerful piece of work depicting the hatred many white Americans expressed toward racial minorities and interracial partnerships in the not-too-distant-past; and the current climate post Trump victory.It stands as ‘Kienholz’s major civil rights work’.  It is a truly horrific life-size tableau. Commenting on the work and its theme of racial oppression, Kienholz said:

If six to one is unfair odds in my tableau, then 170 million to 20 million is sure as hell unfair odds in my country.

It was seen only in Germany in 1972 and has since remained in storage in Japan for almost forty years. It was not seen again until it was jointly presented by LACMA and the Getty at LACMA’s Art of the Americas Building September 4, 2011–January 15, 2012.

Another more contemporary review can be read here

In Venice at the Prada Foundation in 2012, Germano Celant, the foundation’s Artistic Director, had curated an exhibition entitled “The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata,” and included in the show  was Kienholz’s Sawdy (1971–72)—a series of vintage car doors whose windows have been replaced by Walter Hopps’s famous black-and-white photographs of Five Car Stud. During its Japanese hibernation, these photographs were the only evidence of the existence of the work. Fondazione Prada also presented “Kienholz: Five Car Stud,” in Milan from 19 May through 31 December 2016.





The Ozymandias Parade (1985)

Artwork description & Analysis: An incisive commentary on despotism and the abuse of political power, The Ozymandias Parade is an example of the Kienholzs’ engagement with European and American social issues in their later work. Presented on a reflective mirrored platform, the multifaceted tableau consists of an assemblage of cast figures, dolls, figurines, and found items that represent various sectors of society, including the members of its government, in an allegorical ship of fools. The figure of a president-like leader clings to the stomach of a white horse on its hind legs; he holds a red phone in one hand and a sword, which stabs a deflated blow-up globe, in the other. His eyes are covered by a blindfold that reads either “YES” or “NO” – depending on a poll performed in the weeks leading up to each exhibition of the work: participants are asked whether or not they are satisfied with their government, and the prevailing answer will be presented on the figure’s blindfold. Behind the president, a headless vice-president blows a trumpet and waves a flag while seated atop his toppled horse, and an armed general rides on the back of an emaciated female figure who is guided blindly by a crucifix dangling before her. These figures are surrounded by their minions, comically portrayed as miniature figurines across the platform. Like many of the Kienholzs’ works, this piece exemplifies the duo’s criticality of government, political corruption, and the public’s unquestioning acceptance of authority, with a distinct air of humor and irony.

The video below also contains other works of his that I would not dare to try and explain their meanings, but they certainly make you stop and think!


Kienholz had an unusual life…

Because of the enormous cost involved in assembling, transporting and housing his tableaux, the artist drew up legal contracts describing future, unrealised installations which he sold to collectors who then had the option to have them made at a prearranged price. He also devised a new kind of barter. If he wanted a new car, he had a stainless steel plaque engraved ‘For One New Car’ which, when framed and signed, would be exchanged for the desired article. His reputation was such that he was able to acquire refrigerators, washing-machines and works by other artists in this hilariously unconventional fashion.

and he also had an unusual burial…

Edward Kienholz’s Burial (1994)

Artwork description & Analysis: Upon Kienholz’s death in 1994, his friends and family staged his funeral as his final tableau. According to his own wishes, Kienholz was buried in his old Packard car on a mountain in Idaho. Like an Egyptian pharaoh outfitted with his favorite things for the afterlife, he was seated in the passenger seat, with a dollar and a deck of playing cards in his pocket, a bottle of vintage Chianti nestled into the passenger seat, and the cremated remains of his recently deceased pet dog in the back seat. As “Amazing Grace” was played on bagpipes, the car was driven (by his wife, Nancy) into a tomb for burial.



So what did I take away from all of that? The fact that he used found objects to make his work is as much a social commentary as the pieces themselves, that modern America has no history, that Kienholz  and other artists, such as Kurt Schwitters and Bruce Conner, ‘make a history out of our detritus… true modernism is not austerity but a garbage-strewn plenitude…[America’s] consciousness is built…out of scraps and junk.’ Sontag (2008, p.68) Work with what you know, what you have experienced, what you feel passionate about. Consider the surreal, signs and symbols, don’t be afraid to use metaphors, mix your media experiment and don’t be afraid to shock.  I don’t think I am quite there yet but it looks like it could be fun!




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