Edward Kienholz (1927-1994) first gained recognition as a member of the Pop Art generation. His "constructions" and "tableaux" were comprised of commonplace objects and cast figures which are combined to form familiar environments. These environments illuminated his vision of the decadence and hypocrisy of American values, culture, and society.
Edward Kienholz was born in Fairfield, Washington, in 1927. Kienholz' rural upbringing provided him with the skills of mechanics and carpentry that would later prove so useful in the creation of his detailed "constructions" and "tableaux." Between 1945 and 1953 Kienholz led a rather itinerant life. He held various jobs, travelled, and attended several colleges, including Washington State College, Eastern Washington College of Education, and Whitworth College. In 1953 he settled in Los Angeles.
Once in Los Angeles, Kienholz ran a succession of art galleries while embarking on his artistic career. His earliest works consisted of painted wood panels. Even in these early works we sense the bitterness and irony so characteristic of his later mature work. An early painting entitled George Warshington in Drag (1957) presents us with an image of our heroic first president in drag. The title, often an important ingredient in Kienholz' work, had been inscribed on the painting's surface. Walter Hops has suggested that the artist "mixed, in a sort of pun, two national compulsions: cleanliness and aggressiveness" by a simultaneous reading of the words "wash" and "war." The combination of both visual and verbal puns is a characteristic of Kienholz' art. This technique allowed him to comment effectively on American society and its values.
By the late 1950s Kienholz broke free from the two-dimensional surface altogether and began to create three-dimensional "constructions" through the assembly and combination of everyday objects. One of Kienholz' earliest constructions, entitled John Doe (1959), is at once a jolting and bitterly humorous comment on the anonymity of the individual in America's commercial society. By thrusting a paint-splattered mannequin's head and torso into a baby carriage, Kienholz created a shocking, even repulsive, commentary on the way in which contemporary values and social conditions affect the individual.
Another construction—The Illegal Operation (1962)— also revolves around an issue of great social concern— illegal abortion. It is a ferocious image riddled with visual puns. An ordinary shopping cart has been converted into a surgical table. Upon this makeshift table rests a soiled and bloody mattress, the end of which has been ripped open suggestively. On the floor rests a hospital bedpan and bucket full of blood-stained refuse and rags. In the foreground sits a small stool beside a saucepan filled with crude surgical instruments. An old household floor lamp provides the only source of light for this back room operation. The detail and staging seen in The Illegal Operation anticipates Kienholz' more elaborate "tableaux" later in the decade.
During the mid-1960s Kienholz' constructions were expanded into life-sized environments referred to as "tableaux." These elaborate tableaux are typically composed of a life-size cast or assembled figures set within a familiar environment. In this respect, Kienholz' art shared an affinity with that of George Segal, but Kienholz combined the elements of fantasy, wit, irony, and sarcasm with reality. The result was always a rather moralistic criticism of American life.
Kienholz' tableau The State Hospital (1964-1966) is a gruesome image of institutionalism. Within the austere confines of a constructed cell, a nude mental patient with a fishbowl containing live fish for a head is otherwise modelled with revolting realism. The figure lies strapped to his bed. In the adjoining bunk above lies an identical figure surrounded with a cartoon bubble which points to the figure below. The implications are clear. The figure is both physically and mentally confined. His thoughts are restricted, like the fish in his bowl head, to himself and his self image. The spectator peering into this barren cell becomes a part of the patient's dismal world. His space becomes the viewer's, and the viewer suddenly loses his/her self-complacent attitude before such a grisly image. Through the realistically rendered environment and shocking imagery, Kienholz forced viewers to recognize what he saw as universal aspects of the human condition—loneliness and despair, both caused by society.
In another tableau, The Wait (1964-1965), Kienholz turned to the themes of old age and death. An old woman fashioned from animal bones sits in an antique chair. A glass jar containing a faded photograph serves as her head. Homey, domestic comforts surround her: an old lamp, a braided rug, a lapped cat, and a sewing basket on the floor. On the table to the right sits a collection of old family photographs representing her past. This lonely woman whose life has already passed must now await the inevitability of death. The overriding theme of death is ironically juxtaposed with the inclusion of a live bird which chatters away as the beholder remains frozen before this pathetic widow.
Kienholz' work during the 1970s and 1980s became more sophisticated and elaborate. In a later example entitled Sollie 17 (1979-1980) Kienholz placed three cast images of the same man within a realistically constructed dilapidated urban dwelling. Clad only in a pair of baggy undershorts, the old man is seen lying on a soiled bed reading a pulp Western. On the right edge of the bed the same man sits. His head—a framed photograph attached to the cast body—is downcast as the lonely man plays a game of cards. Finally the man is seen to the rear gazing out a window which opens onto an urban cityscape. The barrenness of the man's life is echoed in the bare bulb that illuminates this sordid interior from above. This is a powerful image of alienation and the despair of a vacuous life; a life wherein time is not measured by a clock but by the water that drips from a faulty tap.
Kienholz reproduced familiar environments by taking discarded objects from everyday life and assembling them in such a way that they took on a renewed significance. With an uncanny eye for detail and arrangement Kienholz orchestrated frozen dramas. By demanding that the viewers take an active part in his play he confronts them with images of themselves and the world around them. Everything suddenly becomes imbued with an allegorical significance and a once familiar world becomes hostile.
Kienholz acknowledged that his wife often assisted him in his work. After 1973 Kienholz spent six months of each year in Berlin and the other six months in Hope, Idaho.
Kienholz died of a heart attack on June 10, 1994 in Hope, Idaho. His burial was reminiscent of his "tableaux." He was buried in the passenger seat of a 1940 Packard coupe with the ashes of his dog in the back seat and, in the glovebox, a bottle of vintage wine. In 1996, a retrospective of his work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
There are many articles and numerous museum catalogues that are concerned with Kienholz. Some useful sources containing excellent background material are Lucy Lippard, Pop Art (1966); H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (1968); John Russell and Suzi Gablik, Pop Art Redefined (1969); and John Wilmerding, American Art (1976). See also: "All-American barbaric yawp" by Robert Hughes in Time, May 6, 1996, vol. 147, no. 19; and "Ed and Nancy: The Kienholzes' Art of Collaboration," by Kay Larson in The Village Voice, March 12, 1996.