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.

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