IN 1962, the year Edward Kienholz made his devastating assemblage sculpture "The Illegal Operation," newspapers and television screens were filled with the terrible story of Sherri Finkbine, cheerful mother of four and the popular "Miss Sherri" on the Phoenix franchise of the children's television show "Romper Room." Finkbine had learned that early in her fifth pregnancy, she had taken headache medication containing the drug Thalidomide, suspected of causing severe fetal deformities. Despite that, she was denied an abortion in her home state, where the procedure was illegal.
Amid a blaze of hostile publicity, Finkbine and her husband left for Sweden to have the operation. She was vilified by politicians, humiliated in the media, condemned on Vatican radio, threatened with death by anonymous telephone callers and fired from her television station. Her husband was suspended from his teaching job. After the abortion, Swedish doctors confirmed that the fetus had no legs and just one arm.
Kienholz's sculpture, on view in a new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, exemplifies a dramatic shift in the long-contentious abortion debate, which culminated in the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade. Of an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 American women who each year underwent back-alley abortions in the 1950s and 1960s, untold numbers died or were maimed. Their grim fate was mostly hidden behind a screen of moralizing silence; but suddenly, Finkbine's tragic story thrust an all-American mom into the glaring abortion spotlight.
For his sculpture, Kienholz dumped a sagging gray bag of wet cement on top of a supermarket shopping cart covered with soiled white rags and standing on a stained and shabby rug. Blunt instruments from the kitchen and garage are crammed into a filthy bedpan beneath it. A bucket and a chipped enamel pot are nearby, while dirty fingerprints mar a frilly lampshade, tilted in the direction of the lifeless, drooping "body." Its innards ooze from a slit in the bag.
Equally disturbing is a short wooden stool painted pink. Seemingly incongruous, the chair is pivotal to the sculpture's power. It's placed as if offering a viewer the seat from which the grim butchery was performed.
"Put yourself in their place," Kienholz's sculpture in effect says. "Because whether it's hidden or not, we all participate in this social horror."
"The Illegal Operation" evokes the shocking injustice forced on desperate women by laws prohibiting abortion. Its gesture of empathetic identification, subtle yet profound, represented a cultural shift in focus -- one that soon overtook the fractious debate about terminating a pregnancy.
The sculpture is among a handful of Kienholz's most important assemblages, almost all of them made in a prolific period between 1959 and 1966. Unlike "Backseat Dodge '38," the notorious 1964 assemblage showing tawdry, drunken sex in the back of a beat-up car, installed nearby in the exhibition, "The Illegal Operation" is the rare Kienholz masterpiece not already owned by an American or European museum.
The powerful work is instead on loan from a private collector. That fact, surprising in its own right, is doubly notable in a show titled "SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s From LACMA's Collection." Indeed, three additional works have also been lent to LACMA's "collection" show. Given that all four are superlative, the museum is doubtless engaged in a public bit of wishful thinking about works it would like to acquire.
Two of the other loans are by Robert Irwin, the central figure in the awesome development of 1960s Light and Space art, which ranks as L.A.'s first, wholly original contribution to 20th century art. (The final loan is related -- a 1966 projection by James Turrell, in which a cube of light appears to hover in the corner of a room.)
The show's five exceptional Irwin works chronicle a transformative period between the early 1960s and the early 1970s, offering a stunning capsule history of a major artist's radical evolution. Would that they were permanently on view. (Incidentally, a 50-year Irwin retrospective is scheduled to open at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art on Oct. 21.)
The sequence culminates in Irwin's breathtaking 1974 "Soft Wall," a large, taut panel of stretched white fabric, its edges affixed to the ceiling, the floor and two side walls of a large gallery. Ceiling lights aimed toward the floor bounce reflected illumination, causing the white scrim to be opaque at the bottom and diaphanous at the top. Between the floor and the ceiling, the wall seems to dissolve, as if it were a plane of translucent white light. A hidden volume of perceptually accessible space -- otherwise unreachable and unknowable -- opens up behind it.