A handsomely produced volume would contradict the spirit of Kienholz: The Signs of the Times. From the book's cover, which features an incomprehensible detail of a poorly photographed sculpture and "KIENHOLZ" stamped in gold; to gratuitously pastel-tinted pages printed with bizarre typefaces; to an overabundance of snapshots of husband-and-wife team of Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz; the monograph's cheesy design is perfectly suited to the aggressively vulgar Kienholzian oeuvre.
The catalogue accompanies a retrospective of Edward Kienholz's pioneering installations, and the couple's extended collaboration under the Kienholz name, at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, this past winter, now on view at the Museum Tinguely, Basel, through May 13. In the book's foreword, Schirn director and exhibition co-curator Max Hollein touts Kienholz's strategic "transgression of boundaries" both thematic and formal, stoked by a free-thinking West Coast avant-garde. This reputation was galvanized in 1966—some six years before Edward and Nancy met—by accusations of pornography from municipal officials who threatened to shut down the Edward Kienholz retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Times have changed. LACMA itself bought the offending work, Back Seat Dodge '38 (1964), in 1986. While the drunken, groping, plaster-and-chicken wire lovers that caused the uproar look tame now, to this day it is difficult to imagine Ed and Nancy's My Country ‘Tis of Thee (1991) exhibited without controversy in any American museum. Four life-size male figures are dressed in business attire but lack pants and shorts. Their skin, hair and clothes encrusted with resin, each stands with his right leg in the wooden barrel they encircle. Each places his right, work-gloved hand over his heart and, with his left, grasps the erect member of the man behind him. A resin-stiffened American flag surmounts this circle-jerk. It's a ham-handed critique of pork-barrel politics and mutual gratification at taxpayers' expense.
A rag-tag accumulation of found objects made of painted wood, sheet metal, plastic, glass, fur, textiles, hood ornaments and discarded toys on a bed of sand some 15 feet long, The Nativity (1961) demonstrates Ed Kienholz's early interest in folk and vernacular forms, taps into the energetic DIY esthetic of southern California assemblage, and substitutes a street light with a pair of doll's legs for the Messiah. Completed the year Ed died, the couple's 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade (1993/94) is a relatively spare, wall-mounted installation of 76 crucifixes made from wagon handles, quick cement, doll parts and small devotional images of Christ as the man of sorrows.
The book's essays include "The Disorder of Things" in which co-curator Martina Weinhart identifies the Dada and Beat progenitors of the Kienholz oeuvre and the "romantic and sometimes angry moralism" that fueled the artists' attacks on consumer culture, the hypocrisy of the ruling class and the political disenfranchisement of marginal populations. Weinhart's brief interview with Nancy Reddin Kienholz bolsters this reading. "Ed was a moralist," she tells Weinhart. "So was I, in a way. We both felt strongly about right and wrong."
Art historian Cécile Whiting takes a complementary approach in "The Los Angeles Tableaux of Edward Kienholz," establishing popular entertainment's influence-particularly that of melodrama, which aims to provoke sympathy for victims and anger at villains. But Kienholz's obsession with decrepitude, death and decay, Whiting speculates, was out of step with the shiny, slick "Finish Fetish" vibe of 1960s L.A., and indeed Europe—particularly Berlin—provided a more lasting audience.
Among the 34 works on the exhibition checklist are a dozen "concept tableaux," dating 1963–1967. Semiserious proposals for large-scale and/or time-based works, each consists of two parts: a small, wood-mounted brass plaque etched with a title, date and "KIENHOLZ," and a framed certificate describing the finished piece and indicating its price. The Cement Store #1 (1967) "will be made from an existing grocery store in a town anywhere in the United States," completely filled with cement via a hole cut in the roof and afterward repaired. "The store will be left with little or no explanation other than it is now some sort of an art object and no longer subject to improved property taxes." Begun years before the 1967 publication of Sol LeWitt's seminal "Sentences on Conceptual Art," the series shows Kienholz extending flamboyant materiality into the speculative realm.
For decades thereafter, the Kienholzian method involved meticulous attention to getting the low-end look just right. This book's daring design packages that quality intact.