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Confronting the darkness of Ed Kienholz's 'Five Car Stud' at LACMA

The work, which depicts a brutal, racially motivated assault, will be seen publicly for the first time in nearly 40 years.

August 28, 2011|By Holly Myers, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Ed Kienholz's installation "Five Car Stud," 1969-1972, depicting a brutal racist attack, is set to go on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in October as part of the six-month-long Pacific Standard Time exhibition.
Ed Kienholz's installation "Five Car Stud," 1969-1972,… (Ed Kienholz / L.A. Louver…)

The story of Ed Kienholz's "Five Car Stud" has been something of a mystery for decades. Made in Los Angeles between 1969 and 1972, it was the last work Kienholz completed here before moving to Berlin and one of the most powerful by any measure: a searing indictment of race relations in America, told with a stroke of blunt violence as alarming today as it was the year it was made.

The piece was shown, however, only in Germany before being acquired by a Japanese collector and disappearing into the vaults of the museum he would go on to found. It remained there until 2007, when it was sent to Kienholz's widow and longtime collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, for restoration. When it opens at the L.A. County Museum of Art on Sept. 4, 17 years after the artist's death, as part of the region-wide Pacific Standard Time initiative, it will be the first time the work has been publicly seen in nearly 40 years. It's a development that leaves those closest to the piece excited and uneasy. Indeed, Reddin Kienholz flat-out refused initially to work on it, reluctant to immerse herself in such a dark chapter.

It is a difficult piece on multiple levels. It is enormous, for one thing: a tableau installation involving nine life-sized figures, five automobiles, several trees and a truckload of dirt. More difficult still is what the piece depicts: a circle of white men, lighted only by the headlights of the circled automobiles, pinning and castrating a lone black man, while a child cowers in one of the cars and a woman — presumably the victim's companion — huddles and vomits in another.

The white figures are all realistically cast, but for the grotesque rubber masks on each of the men. The black figure's face is uncannily bifurcated: a clear plastic outer face is frozen in a scream while a darker one within it is "sadly resigned and quiet," as Kienholz put it in a statement at the time. His torso is made from a rectangular tin filled with black water, in which float letters that spell out a racial slur.

"It's a shocking piece," says Reddin Kienholz, speaking from her studio in Idaho. "If your sympathy is with the plight of people, it's a tough piece to deal with."

Born in eastern Washington state, Ed Kienholz came to art by way of a variety of odd jobs — an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, a used-car salesman, manager of a dance band — with no formal training. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s and became quickly involved in the avant-garde art scene, opening the infamous Ferus Gallery with Walter Hopps in 1957. By the early 1960s, he'd focused on installation: large, free-standing tableau made from found and salvaged materials, often involving semi-realistic human figures and a forceful degree of social critique. Because they require the viewer to literally step into the scene, the works are unavoidably confrontational. The 1964 piece "Back Seat Dodge '38" — a car containing two sexually entangled figures — nearly closed down his 1966 retrospective at LACMA, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called it "revolting, pornographic and blasphemous."

Kienholz met Nancy Reddin in 1972, not long after finishing "Five Car Stud." ("When I met him he said he had a white elephant sitting up on the hill in Los Angeles," she says. "Because it's so big!") They combined their families from previous marriages and moved to Berlin the following year, never to return to Los Angeles in any permanent sense. They built a studio in Idaho and lived primarily between there and Berlin for the next 20 years. Kienholz later publicly declared that all the work made after 1972 was in collaboration with Reddin Kienholz, and today that work is attributed to the pair. Reddin Kienholz continues to manage the estate as well as to make her own work: assemblage sculpture, primarily, with a strong feminist undertone. Kienholz died of a heart attack in 1994 and was buried in Idaho, in the front seat of a 1940 Packard.

Winding road

"Five Car Stud" was installed in Los Angeles only once: in the parking lot of the print studio Gemini G.E.L., to be photographed for a limited-edition book. When an attempt by then-LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman to include the piece in an exhibition of L.A. artists in London fell through in 1971, he made an appeal to his own institution. It was a tough sell coming so soon after Kienholz's retrospective.

The following year, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann included the work in his now legendary Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany, where it was installed inside an inflated black dome. It traveled from there to Berlin and Dusseldorf, where it was acquired by Katsumi Kawamura, then president of the DIC Corporation, on the recommendation of his nephew, a poet. Kawamura's collection became the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum in Sakura City, Japan, in 1990, but "Five Car Stud" was never exhibited.

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