Anyone who avoids modern art museums because they seem intimidating and involuted should see "Kienholz: A Retrospective." On view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, it's an overwhelming circus parading some 100 heartfelt assemblages and life-size tableaux. They talk to everybody in the carnival-barker accents of Paul Bunyan and Billy Sunday. They dwell thoughtfully on life and death, sex and old age, the absurd and the sublime. "Check out the great American freak show!" they exhort, laughing and weeping.
Not that Ed Kienholz's art credentials aren't in order. A self-taught farm boy from Fairfield, Wash., Kienholz dodged the draft in the Korean War and started L.A. Beat Generation art almost single-handedly. In 1966, he whomped the L.A. Board of Supervisors when it tried to shut down his first retrospective at the County Museum. They said his tableau about a couple doing it in "Back Seat Dodge '38" was obscene. The ensuing scandal made Kienholz the most famous of the L.A. artists.
In 1972, he moved to West Berlin with his new wife and their kids. Tableaux they made together are signed Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. He was among the first artists to acknowledge a wife as partner. He became an international star. Over there they think of Kienholz and Charles Bukowski as equivalents.
Kienholz died too soon, at 67 in 1994, turning this retrospective into a memorial survey. He had himself buried in his favorite Pontiac. By any measure, he was larger than life. He became contemporary art's Everyman Michelangelo of the Absurd.
The exhibition, coordinated here by MOCA curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, was organized by curator Walter Hopps, Kienholz's partner in L.A.'s seminal Ferus Gallery. The show opened at the originating institution, New York's Whitney Museum of Art, and will move on to Berlin.
It's a full-dress affair including the first full monograph of the artist. Its catalog essayists credit Kienholz with key roles in the invention of the large-scale installation, Conceptualism and for pioneering the revival of socially relevant subject matter. He is flatteringly compared to a battalion of other artists, from Bruce Conner to Mike Kelley. At bottom, however, Kienholz is unlike any of them. His art is so accessible, protean and prolific, the art world can barely contain him. It takes references to everything from H.L. Menken to German Expressionist film, medieval morality plays and self-made Americanism to even get started on Kienholz.
His subjects are equally various. They range from the 1961 "Boy, Son of John Doe," satirizing the flimsy macho of Cold War adolescents, to "The Ozymandias Parade" of 1985. It's a 30-foot-long spectacular of flashing lights and martial music that's risibly relevant in a presidential election year. Its leader is so dumb he rides his rearing white stallion from the belly up. His umpteen-star general sits on a lady so old her head is already a skull. Long before it was fashionable, Kienholz confronted touchy social issues as in the chilling 1962 "The Illegal Operation." He was still at it in 1991 with "The Bear Chair," a piece about ravaged innocence so mordant you can barely look at it.
If all this marked the outside borders of Kienholz's sensibility, he'd be a kind of particularly courageous topical political cartoonist in three dimensions. That's not chopped liver, but Kienholz has yet greater depths. Pressed to find a mega-theme that unites all this work, I'd say it's all about a profound reverence for human life and a positive repugnance at any waste of the brief time we all have.
He returns repeatedly to two themes--old age and the traditional role of women as child bearers and caregivers. Sometimes the themes are interwoven, as in "The Wait" of 1965. It shows an old widow, already a skeleton in her nice dress, alone except for old photos and a necklace of mason jars stuffed with memorabilia. There's an equally affecting male version of all this in "Sollie 17," finished in 1980.
Such works are particularly elegiac because they are about inevitability. It's not human folly that makes women bear the kids or subjects everybody to aging--it's biology. When it comes to the option of free will, Kienholz is a little tougher on his fellow humans. "The Beanery" of 1965 remains the most viscerally affecting of the works on view. A walk-in environment, it meticulously re-creates the bar at Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood. Surrounded by the piece, one is eerily whisked back in time to the bohemian hangout with its clientele of moving men, matrons in furs, lonely Beat chicks and guys with an eye out for them. All the figures have clocks for faces. It's bad enough that time is killing these people, the piece seems to say, they make it worse by killing time.
Kienholz's exasperation with this waste of human potential rises as he confronts hypocrisy in "History as a Planter," patriotic violence in "The Portable War Memorial" or racial prejudice in "It Takes Two to Integrate, Cha, Cha, Cha."
The artist could really get his back up, but curiously enough he's never really preachy or polemical. It's impossible to make a political or religious agenda stick to him. After all, his way of not wasting his life was to make art. It's not art's job to make judgments. It asks questions and dwells on life's enigmas.
Where there can be anger, there can also be deep tenderness. Kienholz revealed his most lyric feelings in "The Tadpole Piano Pool With Woman AffixedAlso." In it, a metalized baby grand is turned into a pond rich with fish and plants. A beautiful nude pregnant woman lies across the keys. It's Kienholz's testament to life's sheer, miraculous fecundity.
* MOCA at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave.; through Nov. 3, closed Mondays, (213) 626-6222.