Edward Kienholz was born in 1927 at Fairfield, Washington, and died in 1994. He grew up on a farm and was expected to become a farmer like his father. Here he learned skills that he would use as an artist throughout his life: carpentry and plumbing. With no formal training, he began to paint while in high school. He studied at Eastern Washington College of Education and Whitworth College in Spokane, but did not study art. As a young man, he worked in sales as a vacuum cleaner and used car salesman, as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, as the manager of a dance band, and as a caterer and decorator. In 1953 he moved to Los Angeles and began making art.
Before being recognized as an artist, he was involved in the business side of the art world and in 1956 he founded a small gallery called the NOW Gallery, and a year later founded the influential and now famous Ferus Gallery with his friend, Walter Hopps.
It wasn't until 1961 that Kienholz produced his first environmental sculpture, the form that he would come to be so widely recognized for in the art world. These large works, which you can sometimes walk into, are somewhat like stage-sets and are a form of assemblage called tableau. His first tableau, or environmental sculpture, was titled "Roxy's", which caused a great deal of controversy because of its subject matter, when it was first exhibited.
Controversy was not uncommon regarding Kienholz's work and his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966 provoked the County Board of Supervision to attempt to close the exhibition. Part of that controversy was caused by "Back Seat Dodge", a tableau involving an actual shortened car with a back seat where the sculptured figures of a young couple were engaged in a sexual act. The windows of the car were mirrors so that when you approached the back seat to get a closer look you were confronted with your own image staring at you. Eventually a compromise between the artist and the Supervisors was worked out and the tableau was exhibited in a room where only visitors over the age of 18 could see it.
In 1972, he met and married Nancy Reddin, his fifth wife. From that point on his work was done in collaboration with Nancy, and they remained married until his death. In 1973 he was invited to be a visiting artist in Berlin, where he and Nancy lived for a year. For many years the couple would alternate their homes between Berlin and Hope, Idaho, where they had a ranch, often spending six months of the year in each.
Kienholz's sculpture, often associated with the work of the Pop artists on the East Coast, is critical of American society in a manner that is often far more brutal than the implied criticism of the other Pop Artists. Although much of his work has an ironic sense of humor, it can be bitingly sarcastic and shows no mercy for those he considers fools, whether in politics or in real life. His art has a rawness and directness that separates from the more refined visions of the other Pop artists.
While, like so many other artists, it is clear that his worked was influenced by Marcel Duchamp in the use of ready made materials, Kienholz had no interest in new materials that would come from the store, but is fascinated by used and discarded objects such as old photographs, used furniture and clothing that can be found in the streets, as well as stuffed animals from the taxidermist. The brutality of his work is often very pointed and difficult to take. In one of his sculptures, "The Illegal Operation", a woman is represented by a burlap sack filled with cement with an bloody gash, which has been tied to the back of a shopping cart, which is surrounded by filthy buckets, pots, and bedpans filled with rusted and stained surgical instruments. Needless to say, this makes a very strong statement about abortion, and references the issues surrounding the debate about legalized abortion in the late 1960's and early 1970's.
One of his most famous tableaus is "The Beanery", a sculpture based on the famous bar called "Barney's Beanery" in West Hollywood, near Los Angeles. Done in 1965, the tableau is one of the first to actually be chemically impregnated to produce an odor. As you look into the tableau, you smell the odor of beer, and hear the sound of barroom chatter and clinking glasses from an audiotape. The room is filled with people who are represented by store manikins with clocks set at 10:10 for faces. The women in the bar are wearing old and badly worn fur coats and the men are slouched at the bar drinking. Outside the tableau is a newspaper vending machine with a paper headlining an article titled "Children Kill Children in Vietnam." This is clearly an antiwar statement at a time that saw great resistance to the Viet Nam war, although the sculpture is less a political indictment than a condemnation of a culture that ignores brutality in it's everyday life.
Another powerful tableau "The Wait" portrays an old woman whose limbs are made from animal bones sitting in a badly worn armchair in her living room with an animal in her lap. Her head is represented by a glass bowl with a picture of her as a young woman. Next to her is a table filled with family photographs, a floor lamp and a birdcage containing a live canary. A large, oval framed portrait of a man hangs above her head. Around her neck are mason jars filled with small figures, perhaps representing memories.
Works by Kienholz have been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world and are represented in major museum collections in the United States and Europe.