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The Shock of the Old

The late Edward Kienholz never shied from controversy, but when he left L.A. in 1972, his art went too. Now it can be seen in all its boldness at MOCA.

June 30, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

A grotesque troupe of prostitutes--Five Dollar Billy, Miss Cherry Delight, Cockeyed Jenny, a Lady Named Zoa and Dianna Poole, Miss Universal--has moved into the Museum of Contemporary Art. Fashioned of everything from dolls, mannequins and women's underwear to a bedpan and a trash can, these sculptural figures inhabit "Roxys," a brothel-like installation in "Kienholz: A Retrospective," which opens today at the museum's California Plaza building.

Seen through large, open windows along one wall of the room-size artwork, "Roxys" is an intentionally revolting sight--a brothel as chamber of horrors. The "working girls" are portrayed as burned-out sex machines, bloody carcasses, grinning zombies or, in the case of Miss Cherry Delight, a head spinning in front of a dressing table mirror. Their employer, who may be the world's ugliest madame, is a matronly sentry whose oversize head resembles a cow's skull.

The women ply their trade in a dingy parlor furnished with Oriental rugs, upholstered couches and chairs, wood tables, fussy lamps and enough dated bric-a-brac to stock a small thrift shop. A photographic portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur hangs by the door, next to a jukebox playing music from the 1940s. Maxfield Parrish prints of Greek temples and a June 1943 calendar decorate other walls. On the tables are crocheted doilies, dirty ashtrays, dishes of candy, metal cigarette cases and--in refreshing contrast--a fishbowl containing two live goldfish.

Ambitious as it is--in both physical form and social message--"Roxys" is only one of 150 works in a 40-year survey organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The exhibition provides an overview of the late Edward Kienholz's solo enterprise and his collaborations with Nancy Reddin Kienholz. The artist met his future wife and working partner, the daughter of former Los Angeles Police Chief Tom Reddin, in 1972. Her professional status became official in 1981, when Kienholz declared, "My life and art have been enriched and incredibly fulfilled by Nancy's presence" and said all works made from 1972 onward would bear both of their signatures.

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Edward Kienholz was born in 1927 in Fairfield, Wash., and grew up on his family's farm. He came to Los Angeles for the first time in 1952, returned the following year and lived here until 1972. During his 20-year sojourn, he established himself as an enormously energetic, socially conscious assemblage artist who found most of his materials among other people's castoffs.

Kienholz was a major figure on the local art scene. He co-founded the legendary Ferus Gallery with art historian and curator Walter Hopps in 1957, and his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966 was a highly controversial affair. County supervisors threatened to close the exhibition on the grounds that one work, "Back Seat Dodge '38,"--which depicts a couple making out in the back seat of a truncated car--was obscene. The show went on, with bigger crowds.

Kienholz also gained recognition in New York during the 1960s, showing his work in "The Art of Assemblage," a seminal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Alexander Iolas Gallery. But his working class mentality and fierce aversion to the art world's machinations propelled him away from glittering art centers.

"Ed had a real distaste for the art world's ratio of phonies to real people," says David A. Ross, director of the Whitney. "He had nothing but disdain for people whose commitment to art was less than his. They played in art; he worked in art."

Kienholz won a grant from the German government to work in Berlin in 1973. He and Nancy subsequently divided their time between Berlin and Hope, Idaho. But after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he found the city a far less interesting place to work. The couple bought a house and studio in Houston in 1991 and began spending three months of each year there, three months in Berlin and six months in Hope.

He died of a massive heart attack in 1994 and was buried in his 1940 Packard, with a dollar in his pocket, a bottle of Italian red wine, a deck of cards and his cremated dog Stash, who had died 10 days earlier. The Kienholz retrospective was already in advanced stages of planning, with Hopps as guest curator, so there was no need to cancel it.

"There's nothing here that Ed wasn't aware of, or that we didn't talk about," Hopps says, looking around the galleries at MOCA. "But I miss him enormously." Hopps says he had to persuade the artist to have the show, but he became excited about it as plans took shape.

Ross agrees. "Ed was totally into it. He was having a blast, thinking about how it was going to work. He was very pragmatic, so he didn't allow himself flights of fancy and he didn't shy away from twisting arms or raising funds," Ross says. "I really miss the guy."

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