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ART : Putting Things All Together : Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, talk (a bit reluctantly) about life, art, love and all those changes

October 31, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

SAN DIEGO — In 1961, assemblagist Edward Kienholz completed "Roxy's," the first of what was to be an ongoing series of life-sized tableaux that established him as one of the most significant American artists of the 20th Century. Inspired by a notorious Las Vegas bordello, Kienholz's dark homage re-created Roxy's as it might have been in 1943, transforming the shabby cathouse into a bleak meditation on time, loneliness and memory.

Now working in tandem with Nancy Reddin Kienholz, his wife and collaborator of the past 21 years, Kienholz returns to the world of Roxy's with the unveiling this week of "The Hoerengracht," on view through Jan. 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. A re-creation of Amsterdam's red-light district, "The Hoerengracht" (Dutch for "the whore's canal") is an epic tableau that includes photographs, 11 figures and highly detailed interiors, all awash--as is the environment that inspired it--in dramatic light. Begun in 1984 and four years in the making, the piece offers a clear reading of shifts in the artist's sensibility when measured against "Roxy's," and throws Reddin Kienholz's contribution to the couple's collaborations into high relief.

This huge, complex piece comes together with remarkable ease; the entire San Diego installation, in fact, took little more than a day, and the handful of workers assisting the artists proceeded without a hitch. Oct. 23, the day the bulk of the installation took place, also happened to be Edward Kienholz's birthday (he's 66), and midway through the afternoon everyone took a break for birthday cake and a few laughs.

Kienholz seemed pleased with the way the installation is coming together, but less than thrilled at the prospect of being interviewed and photographed (the Kienholzes adamantly refused to pose for the camera). "Where are we gonna do this miserable thing?" he grumbled good-naturedly prior to being led into a museum conference room with a view of downtown San Diego. Though the artist agreed with considerable trepidation to be interviewed, he spoke with candor once he got going and quickly revealed that beneath his gruff exterior is an open-minded and sensitive man; Kienholz's sensitivity is particularly evident in the deeply respectful and affectionate way he treats his wife.

En route from their home in Hope, Ida., to their second U.S. home in Houston, the Kienholzes weren't too thrilled to be stuck in San Diego for a week because their stay required that their two beloved golden retrievers be exiled to a kennel for the duration of their visit. Edward Kienholz kept threatening to skip the opening and "get my dogs and leave town" as soon as the installation was completed. After returning to Houston for a brief stay, the couple will travel to their third home in Berlin--a city he says he wouldn't mind leaving for good ("it became virtually unlivable after the wall came down," he says), but that she still enjoys. "It's nice to live in a place where artists are respected," says Reddin Kienholz of the city where "The Hoerengracht" was conceived and executed.

What drew you to Amsterdam's red-light district as the subject for an artwork?

Edward Kienholz: This will be disputed by Nancy, but the truth is that I was fascinated by the color and the lights in the red-light district.

Nancy Reddin Kienholz: (laughing) If anybody falls for that--that's a lie.

E.K.: No, really, I can remember very vividly the first time I was in Amsterdam in 1970 how beautiful I thought it was--the streets are exploding with color. The girls wear white clothes and stand next to black lights and they glow like little jewels in the windows. You walk along, you smile, they smile back--it's terrific.

N.R.K.: What he's describing is totally a male fantasy--Amsterdam's red-light district looks like a tough day on the job to me.

E.K.: Obviously we weren't completely in agreement about this, but she said, "If it really interests you we'll do the piece," and we spent the next four years working on it. Another reason I wanted to do the piece was that I simply like whores. You can learn more from them than you can from most people because they've experienced a hell of a lot more than the average person, and I respect them for how direct and honest they are--their attitude is "you want it, I've got it and it's for sale." And of course, the subject appeals to the voyeur in me. We're all voyeurs in one way or another and the commercialization of sex is something I don't know much about, so it interests me on that level.

*

How does your take on prostitution in "The Hoerengracht" differ from the reading you gave it in "Roxy's"?

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