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2.1.0 Edward and nancy Reddin Kienholz


The following essays will consider the work of Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz.  The first essay focuses on examples of Ed Kienholz’s work before his collaboration with Nancy Reddin Kienholz and the second and third deal with their collaborative works. The three essays, in their own ways, deal with the question of literature as it operates in the Kienholzes' work.

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2.1.1:  Locating the Literary:  Reading the Work of Ed Kienholz, 1955-1972

A. Preliminary Note
B. Locating the Literary
C. Narrating War From Home
D. State Hospital
E. The Illegal Operation
F. Back Seat Dodge, '38
G. Five Car Stud
H. Committed Writing
I. Postscript

2.1.2:  Well Those Passions Read:  Ozymandias, the Kienholz Parade, and the US Constitution
2.1.3:  Passenger Seat Packard, ’94

2.1.1. Locating the Literary:
Reading the Work of Ed Kienholz, 1955-1972


In the following pages I will try to locate the literary as it operates in Ed Kienholz’s work by conducting an experiment in "reading" several examples of his art.  I will argue that this literary characterization is not only accurate, but it is unavoidable.  My first hypothesis will be to recognize that many (but not all) Kienholz works display a narrative impulse and elicit a narrative response such that to avoid this impulse and to respond only to the formal properties of the work seems more labor intensive than accepting the narrative and at the same time arguably psychosocially suspect.  For example, if an American viewer entering Five Car Stud talks only about how pretty the letters floating in the motor oil are or the way the colors of the shirts on the cast figures play off the colors in the masks, then the reader, it could be said from a psychoanalytical perspective, is either unconsciously repressing guilt or consciously advocating an aesthetics of racism.  The narratives are that strong, so strong that even when the viewer resists the narrative impulse s/he is still complicit in them.  Built into the narratives and into the works is a co-optation of this resistance.

From this beginning I should first make two clarifications in order to explain my method for conducting this experiment.  The first will be to reiterate my explorations in Towards a Three-Dimensional Part I where I argued that the presence of a narrative does not ipso facto satisfy the definition of literariness nor, by extension, does the classification of something as literary require the presence of a narrative.  The second clarification is to say that while the reader might conclude from my first hypothesis that the appropriate approach for me and the viewer/reader would be to give in to the narrative and run blindly in the direction it points, this will not be my approach.  Unlike Pascal, I have not made a wager whereby taking the leap of faith into narrative and forgiving the anthropomorphism I have nothing to lose but everything to gain.  Even though Nike, too, would have me "just do it", I, sharing Kienholz's atheism, do not condone blindly suspending disbelief.

Instead I will follow the lead of Umberto Eco who recognized that while we cannot say that interpretations are right or wrong, we can compare more economical ones to more excessive ones.  Since “misinterpretation” invariably posits both a mistake and a yet-to-be-struck bull’s-eye, I will instead use Eco’s terminology of “overinterpretation” to name those interpretations that go beyond the interpretive limits the work of art elicits.1  My motive is not to establish rules for viewing and reading, or writing and making, since establishing an ethics of interpretation would be antithetical to interpretation itself.  Instead, I agree with Eco that the limits of interpretation can be identified case by case based on the internal coherence of a work.

My introduction of these parameters leads to a second hypothesis:  an over-reading (which includes an under-reading)2 of the Kienholz narratives could be used as a means to flee from their difficult themes.  For fear of reading what the work says or does not say, interpreters often write in favor of their own self-expression and end up seeing what they want or expect to see rather than what is there.  To explore this second hypothesis, I will compare interpretations of Kienholz’s works to the works themselves.

With both of these hypotheses it might seem unfair that I posit the viewer/reader/interpreter as prone to looking for a way out.  But considering that many studies have shown that the average length of time a museum-goer spends looking at a work of art is under thirty seconds, my characterization might not be so unfair.  Works of art are built to be far more patient than their viewers.  Their physicality and presence alone should make this apparent.  The role of the interpreter/critic – in my opinion and according to the strategy I will follow – is not to say whether a work is good or bad or whether it succeeds or fails.  It is instead to criticize the critics as a means to restore the physicality and/or the voice of the work itself.  Criticism should always force the reader/viewer’s gaze back at the work of art and not into any old prairie a critic might point to.  Criticism is a process of restoration, and once a work becomes available for interpretation there can be no stopping it.  With this understanding, I offer the following as only a contribution to the critical literature that surrounds Kienholz’s early work.

1 See Eco, Umberto.  Interpretation and Overinterpretation.  MA:  Harvard University Press, 1992.

2 “Over” here should be read as excessive in either direction.


Many critics have commented that Ed Kienholz’s work and his work with Nancy Reddin Kienholz is closer to literature than to art.  Some cite the narrative aspect as the explanation while others cite the satiric aspect.  Whatever the aspect, most writers never fail to situate the Kienholzes’ art in an interdisciplinary version of art history by finding their place next to writers in literary history.  Frederick S. Wight compared Kienholz and his work, in 1965, to Eugene O'Neil and Jean Genet and recognized his “case history as more that of an American writer than of an American sculptor.”  He cited Kienholz characterizing himself as Kerouac as he described his nomadic, blue-collar-to-blue-collar job-hopping lifestyle.[Wight, 71] Robert L. Pincus, in his monograph on Kienholz, offered the suggestion that the Kienholzes’ work “aspires, in some part, to the condition of literature.”[Pincus, xvi].  Citing Philip Lieder who fit Kienholz into the history of Walt Whitman, the Beats, and Lenny Bruce, Pincus, throughout his monograph on Kienholz, fleshes out these comparisons to Whitman, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer.[Pincus, 6, 12-29] Claes Oldenburg has been recorded as saying Kienholz is “more a literary type.”[Willick, 42]  Michael Duncan called the Kienholzes’ voice Ed Kienholz booksmythic American in the mode of Herman Melville.[Duncan, 2] And the often drawn comparison to Samuel Clemens seems closest to the mark as Twain is the other great master of American satire.[Pincus, 33] And as recent at 2005 David Anfam reiterated all of the above and pointedly added Kurt Vonnegut, John Hawkes, and Flannery O’Conner to the list.[Vincentelli, 10]  In the end, the debate finds its place in the question of which literary history Kienholz belongs to since there is little argument over the fact that he belongs to literary history.

Although these literary aspects are recognized almost universally in the Kienholzes’ work, they have inspired another debate: while many art critics have viewed this literary tendency as a positive contribution to art history, others have viewed it negatively as an infiltration.  By calling Kienholz a literary artist in an essay contributing to a definition of Three-Dimensional Literature I reveal my hand from the outset.  My adversaries in the camp who consider the literary as it appears in Kienholz negative include Michael Fried who, writing in the same year as Frederick Wight, sequestered Kienholz and his literary impulse to the corner of theatricality.  In 1996 Mario Naves echoed this sentiment thirty years later by calling his work a form of theater.[Willick, 44]  Barbara Rose, also writing in 1965, said of Kienholz, "…here was someone who used things like words, since modern life, unlike the nineteenth century, would not afford him the time to write novels,"[Hopps, 45] and she further clarified her irritation with Kienholz's language by expressing the more common sense sentiment that, "Kienholz obviously has something to say, but why has he chosen to express himself visually and not verbally?"[Pincus, xvi]  Forty years later these negative criticisms still ring through museums and magazines.  For some critics and artists alike the idea that artists should only make art while the critic, in his/her capacity as writer, can speak/write about art, stands as a steadfast division of labor.  At the same time, the idea that verbal language can speak of things outside itself — social, political, scientific, economic, and etc. — but visual language cannot, or worse, should not, is just as steadfast.

In literature the time-worn adage, "the pen is mightier than the sword" demonstrates the tradition that expects writing to fight battles other than its own.  Although the visual arts don't have a parallel adage, the sentiment, "the paintbrush is mightier than the hairbrush," expresses just as time-worn of a traditional conception.  It has only been seriously challenged since the early 20th Century, and the attitude behind it is nowhere near eradicated.  While literature was busy fighting kings, tyrants, and censors, visual art was busy fighting beauty, both its own and that of "reality".  We are far more anxious and forgiving of writing which speaks about anything but writing, and most of us, with the notable exception of Jacques Derrida, prefer it that way:  a novel speaks about love lost or found, deceit and redemption; a philosophical text about Knowing, Being, Beauty, or History; an Astronomy book about the universe; and a computer manual about fixing or setting up a computer.  But the moment a work of visual art takes a stand on an issue outside of itself, or outside of the only Other subject it is granted permission to speak about, Aesthetics, the right wing (or maybe it's the left, too) of the art world, represented by both artists and writers, screams, "Silence," as loud as it can.

Part of this scream comes from the muscled diaphragm of the post-war American art period which demanded Art-for-Art's-Sake and — in spite of his better intentions — Ad Reinhardt's (and Joseph Kosuth's later co-optation of) Art-as-Art.  While Reinhardt never failed to express his political opinions, he parsed out this task to his cartoons in order to leave his art pure.  Especially true in the early 1960s, this notion that art only speak about itself became double-edged.  At the same time as it freed artists to focus strictly on art, it also passive aggressively discouraged artists from speaking of other things.

Ironically or not, this is the moment that Kienholz takes the stage.  Arthur Danto marked the end of the biographic history of beauty in art, a period from 1865-1955, from Manet to Kienholz with Kienholz's use of a broom as an improvised paintbrush.  Ed Kienholz Untitled 1955 In 1955 Danto still sees the Modernist in Kienholz when he recognizes that his broom strokes were motivated by his need to "make something really ugly" in order to better understand beauty.  But once Kienholz discovered his mission as a "moral critic," beauty for him became "the enemy to be defeated in order to defeat the political and moral outrages he exhibited in a medium composed of untranscendable squalor."[Danto, 33]  For Danto and Kienholz the broom became a mighty sword.

When Kienholz was at the height of his moral criticism Joseph Kosuth was at his height of nominating a conceptualism in which art spoke only of art.  Following Wittgenstein,3 he advocated the position that all that art cannot speak about it must pass over in silence.  Kienholz represented the antithesis of this philosophy, both the co-optation of high-flown theories and theorists to art as well as the suggestion of being silent on matters other than art.  Other artists and theorists caught up in the political turmoil of the 1960s which set the stage for the civil rights movement and the granting of voices to the previously silenced stood screaming beside him.  In this climate many artists found themselves standing in front of a mirror with a pen in one hand and a paintbrush in the other striking battle poses unable to decide which adage to wear.

Although there are many examples to choose from, I will stay within the bounds of artists who made strides toward infusing literariness into visual art.  I will begin with a comparison between Duane Hanson's War, 1967, George Segal's The Execution, 1967, and Kienholz's Non-War Memorial, 1970.4

3 At the time, citations of Wittgenstein and Ayer were popular among some of the founders of conceptualism.  Other founders of conceptualism saw these citations as coming from a misunderstanding or a generalization of the philosophers’ ideas.  Most notably, Adrian Piper reacted by dedicating her artistic life and academic life to philosophy. See Piper, Adrian.  Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1967-1992  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996, p. xxxv. Brian O’Doherty’s work Wittgenstein 7H to 7B also, in a humorous way, takes a jab at this kind of name dropping. See Alberro, Alexander and Nora M. Alter, "After the Senses," Beyond the White Cube: A Retrospective of Brian O'Doherty/Patrick Ireland, Dublin: Hugh Lane, 2006, p. 50.

4 The Portable War Memorial and The Eleventh Hour Final both of 1968 would have coincided more conveniently with the time frame, but The Non-War Memorial suits the comparison better.


Duane Hanson’s War and George Segal’s The Execution were both products of the fervor over the war in Vietnam.  Hanson, on the one hand, as a young artist caught up in the moment when "the times they were a changin'" made a series of work based on social injustices at the time: Abortion, Race Riot, Gangland Victim, Trash, and Bowery Derelicts. George Segal, on the other hand, more established in his practice, took on political content only because he was invited to show in an exhibition entitled, "Protest and Hope".  For Segal the experience of making The Execution would turn him away from social protest art altogether.  Hanson, too, after the times had changed, would turn away from social criticism and turn to a more Pop-inflected commentary by producing football players, cheerleaders, rock stars, and grocery shoppers.  Kienholz, who took satire and social criticism on in the early 1950s, took it with him to his grave — literally — in 1994.

Duane Hanson War 1967The dominant effect of Hanson's War was shock and awe at the depicted realism.  His skills in verisimilitude and mimesis gave the effect that the viewer could experience the damage of war first hand.  By hyper-realistically rendering blood, amputation, and death, he took on the strategy of making a still life of war death, a documentary photograph in three dimensions.  The piece was exhibited, or at least photographed, outdoors on the grass and not in a gallery. By choosing hyper-realism and this setting, Hanson put the viewer in a position of seeing him/herself standing, walking (dressed well with a lunch basket, we guess) through this battlefield, seeing him/herself as a "survivor" of the scene, safe at home.  By confronting the viewer in three dimensions, Hanson challenged the viewer's sense of space and forced him/her inside the narrative.  Rosetta Brooks' insightful note on Kienholz's art, that it "denies us the role of impartial observer and makes us complicit in the brutal drama," holds true for Hanson's War.

Jan Van Der Marck narrates George Segal's thought process for undertaking The Execution: "While he knew [war] was out of his realm of experience, he sympathized with the organizers [of the exhibition], for this was the heyday of protest against the war in Vietnam."  Although Segal tackled the piece successfully he found himself leery of the power of art to change the world.  "Confusing a work of art with the real running and manipulation of the world can be appalling," George Segal The Execution 1967 Segal said, "— there are basically different processes involved."  Van Der Marck adds, "It is not likely that [Segal] will get into protest art again, for it suits neither his philosophy nor…the nature of his medium."[Segal, pg. marked fig. 86]  Kienholz would show us that the nature of their shared medium provided no restraints.

Unlike Hanson, Segal, who was discomfited by confusing the work of art with the real world, stylistically approached the subject matter leaving an out for the viewer.  Although he cast real bodies — live ones since casting corpses seemed to him too gruesome[Ibid] — for an effect of realism, he chose not to paint them — a decision guided by his signature aesthetics more so than anything else — and therefore maintained a protective distance from verisimilitude.  In creating this distance for himself, he also granted the viewer safe distance from reality by positioning them Other to the scene.  The viewer walking outside of and at, not, in Segal's sculpture — it is designed as a front-view tableau — could more quickly contemplate the work as "art" and feel less threatened.  If the narrative content became too strong, the raw plaster bandages, as vestigial signifiers of its "artiness," allowed the viewer to escape into ruminations of form and aesthetics.  Segal's original vision was to include casts of sixteen corpses in a pile representing concentration camp victims.5  But he, as Van Der Marck praises, "…as always, reduced his grandiose vision to a simpler and more realistic one…"[Ibid]  We must read "realistic" here to mean "practical" since any realistic representation of a pile of concentration camp victims would far exceed sixteen.  And although Van Der Marck believes this solution "invariably improved the resulting [art]work," it also invariably diminished its ability as social criticism.Ed Kienholz The Non-War Memorial 1970

In considering Kienholz's The Non-War Memorial, one can see how different his thought process is from Segal's.  Considering Kienholz's Concept Tableau format, one could, by contrast to Segal, say that Kienholz made a habit of expanding his simple version, expressed in just a few sentences, into a more grandiose reality, in installation.  Kienholz, like Hanson and Segal, originally conceived of an environment that the viewer would walk through.  Opting away from the tricks of mimesis and verisimilitude, Kienholz's concept relied less on the shock of the look of death, but more on a thoroughly conceived concept of war death.

Walter Hopps described the concept this way: 

"In the final realization, 50,000 surplus uniforms were to be pumped full of slurred clay and laid at random, corpselike bodies on a 75-acre meadow…  Kienholz conceived that artists, students, and peace activists would spend the summer donating labor to build this work.  In time, the uniforms would rot, bodies melt away, and wildflowers grow on the site.  Eventually the land would revert to alfalfa fields." [Hopps, 144]

Although the concept tableau was never bought or brought to fruition, and only a weak gallerized version of it appeared, Ed Kienholz The Non-War Memorial 1970by this brief narrative, we can see the complexity with which Kienholz tackled the issue.  The elaborate narrative, the thorough consideration of the cycle of life — the remembrance/forgettance ratio of war death — and the emphasis on the scale (50,000 clearly exceeds Hanson's five or even Segal's sixteen) demonstrates how Kienholz's project would live beyond the moment of a snapshot.  Time and narrative time play a major role in Kienholz's conception and move it beyond Hanson's and Segal's stills.  Had the piece been realized, the viewer, like Hanson's, would have confronted his/her own standing, living, vertical position in relation to the lying and horizontal positions of the dust-to-dust bags s/he would have walked through.  S/he would also be forced to contemplate the ground where the bags were not, remembering the war dead from decades and centuries gone-by buried in the ground that these "new dead" now lie on.  Certainly, this piece could have "denied us the role of impartial observer and made us complicit in the brutal drama."  Unfortunately, it did not.

Since the work exists only as a Concept Tableau, like Segal's, its "artiness", albeit within the new aesthetics of Conceptual Art, puts the viewer at a safe distance away from and Other to the scene.  The reader can contemplate the scene just as any reader can imagine a narrative, but a viewer cannot experientially become complicit in this brutal drama through the act of reading.  Ed Kienholz Non-War Memorial 1970In this case, the advantage a literature in three dimensions has is that it prevents the reader the escape route of closing the book when things get too uncomfortable.  We could say, here, that Hanson's and Segal's physical manifestations of their protests, both displayed in an outdoor setting, surpass Kienholz's gallery version, which feebly puts only five dust-to-dust bags on the varnished hardwood floors of the gallery and makes visible only, under Plexiglas, six and two half pages of a book documenting the 50,000.

At this point at the end of Modernism and the start of Conceptualism, straddling a new dialectic between Art-for-Art's-sake and Art for the sake of something other, all three artists came to a clearer understanding of his own practice.  Hanson matured from his youthful beginnings in social protest art to develop both his Pop hyperrealism and his positioning of the viewer in space in relation to the art object; Segal grew away from social protest art and recommitted himself to Modernist aesthetics while taking on some of the formal properties of installation practices; and Kienholz added this piece to his ever-developing articulation of a satiric voice and his exploration in creating installation environments which deny viewers the role of impartial observers and make them complicit in brutal dramas.

While The Non-War Memorial, like many of the Concept Tableaux, never evolved from concept to installation, The State Hospital, as a notable exception, did.  As such, it provides a first example of how the literary operates in three-dimensions in Kienholz's work.

5 Segal would make this piece much later in 1982, The Holocaust.


Ed Kienholz The State Hospital 1966The Concept Tableau for the The State Hospital reads:

"This is a tableau about an old man who is a patient in a state mental hospital.  He is in an arm restraint on a bed in a bare room.  (The piece will have to include an actual room consisting of walls, ceiling, floor, barred door, etc.)  There will be only a bedpan and a hospital table (just out of reach).  The man is naked.  He hurts.  He has been beaten on the stomach with a bar of soap wrapped in a towel (to hide tell-tale bruises).  His head is a lighted fish bowl with water that contains two live black fish.  He lies very still on his side.  There is no sound in the room.

Above the old man in the bed is his exact duplicate, including the bed (beds will be stacked like bunks).  The upper figure will also have the fish bowl head, two black fish, etc.  But, additionally, it will be encased in some kind of Lucite or plastic bubble (perhaps similar to a cartoon balloon), representing the old man's thoughts.

His mind can't think for him past the present moment.  He is committed there for the rest of his life."[Hopps, 130]

As one of the few Concept Tableaux that Kienholz executed in its entirety, The State Hospital exemplifies his ability to translate from textual dimensions into three dimensions.  In Kienholz's case, his tableaux serve to illustrate the text: the text comes first, and the installation comes second.  In some works he varies this and creates tableaux first and later explains them in text.  In both directions, either the text or the visual serves to illustrate the other; one is the source and the other a product of the source.

In executing a work in this primary/secondary way, translation is crucial in that what is lost is often more interesting than what is not.  As one example, in the concept text there is a bar of soap wrapped in a towel, but there are no bruises.  In the tableau there is no towel containing a bar of soap, and there are still no visible bruises on the stomach.  To render either the towel with soap or the bruises in three-dimensions would have denied the narrative its import:  if the viewer could see the soap in a towel or the bruises they would be tell-tale signs of themselves.  The choice to name them in the text but not show them in the sculpture demonstrates an act of narrativity, the coherent demonstration of the gap between words and objects.

In another example, to demonstrate a disjuncture in the coherence between the words and objects I will focus on the cartoon balloon and the suggestion that "There is no sound in the room."  The textual narrative tells us that the figure in the upper bunk will be "encased in some kind of Lucite or plastic bubble representing the man's thoughts.  Ed Kienholz The State Hospital 1966His mind can't think for him past the present moment."[my italics]  The uncertainty at the point of the concept text, expressed in the "some kind of" signals us to look to see "what kind of" bubble was decided on.  Following the conventions of cartoon signification, the comic reader will easily recognize that the bubble that was executed is a speech bubble, distinguished by its pointed end and continuous connection to the entire bubble.  A thought bubble, on the other hand, would be represented by one large bubble above two or three significantly smaller bubbles.  These broken bubbles might be thought to represent the development stage of thoughts versus the consistent and coherent whole of a speech act.  Following these conventions, the viewer of this work, when comparing it to the narrative text, sees a difference.  If these are "the old man's thoughts" of himself in the present moment, then he must be speaking them since they are contained in a speech bubble.  If that is the case, then it is not possible for there to be no sound in the room.

One explanation for the decision to represent a speech bubble in place of a thought bubble would be a practical one suggesting the complications of constructing a thought bubble in neon.  Or we could create other explanations that fit in with the narrative since there is no information leading us to the choices the artist made while twisting the tubes.  Possibly the character is speaking to himself.  Considering the isolation he is contained in, the loneliness, and the fact that the only companion who could console him would be one who understood his pain, we could say he is speaking his doppelganger into existence.  The common occurrence of patients in state hospitals having multiple personality disorders or hearing voices and speaking to themselves makes this speech-act interpretation all the more plausible. 

The significance of pointing out this subtle structural difference between the thought bubble created by the text and the speech bubble created by the object is to emphasize the fact that objects speak.  If we are to follow the text's lead that there is no sound in the room, then we can only conclude that that which is speaking is the object itself.  While the one figure speaks to the other — make no mistake, in the sculpture there are two figures, one is not "imagined" by the viewer, for the imagined figure only appears in the text — the bedpan speaks to the bed; the leather straps speak to the figures; the absent soap, towel, and bruises speak to the text; and the piece as a whole speaks to the viewer/reader.  All tolled, silence has gotten pretty loud. 

But do we jump too quickly by assigning the viewer/reader the position of the addressee?  Must we always position art in relation to ourselves or can we think of the piece as speaking to itself?  The position and point of view of the viewer/reader is also significant.  The viewer/reader must view the scene only through the barred window of the door that prevents him/her from entering the room.  Ed Kienholz The State Hospital 1966The work clearly commands the viewer into one, and only one, viewing position.  This speech act fixes the viewer outside the scene even more unable to verify the bruising, to touch the imagined figure, or to immerse him/herself in the thought of another.  The viewer is left outside, a voyeur to the character's pain, neither unlocking the door or offering to empty the bed pan.  The viewer/reader/voyeur can only look, read, and forget.  This too is the character's pain:  he is the only one who can listen to himself. 

As an addition to the list of comparisons to writers, I will suggest that the viewer of The State Hospital is put in a similar position to the one in which Samuel Beckett puts the reader of his trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable.  The reader reads on watching the character’s suffering to the point of egging him on toward his death.  Each word read is a cheer driven by the reader’s desire to know how it ends.  The reader stands at the door watching, laughing, feeling pity as the characters suffer.  The moment one looks in, whether at Kienholz’s characters or Beckett’s, s/he becomes a participant in the scene.  By observing and doing nothing else, the reader (in both cases) contributes to the character’s suffering, helplessness and impending death.  Much like the documentary filmmaker who must make a decision to capture a death on camera for others to witness or to save the dying man by setting the camera down, the readers of these two pieces choose to keep the camera eye on the dying subject and encourage rather than put an abrupt end to the suffering and death. Both works offer no way out.

The narrativity as well as the literariness of a Kienholz tableau lies in communication and in the speech acts of and between objects.  The certainty of speech acts as opposed to the vague half-formed essence of thoughts guides the viewer/reader to economical interpretations.  When the viewer/reader thinks too much, imagines too far, and talks over the silently speaking objects, s/he overinterprets for reasons other than those authorized by the piece.  To listen to objects speak in juxtaposition is the act that Kienholz sets in motion for his viewers/readers.

I might agree with the argument that in every Kienholz sculpture there is a base, common sense, reading that it solicits, and to read beyond this "obvious" reading is to do more work than the sculpture asks.  If I second-guess my interpretation and consider the distinction between a thought bubble and a speech bubble as hair-splitting, and therefore an overinterpretation, and try to knock my reading back down to the base digestion of the narrative, that of empathy or sympathy for the trapped man, what have I accomplished?  More relevant:  what has the sculpture accomplished?  In Kienholz's sculpture we trust the structure of the objects to guide our interpretation at the same time as we trust the textual narrative to guide our interpretation.  When a disjuncture occurs between the two, the piece has not failed, it has only given us another guide from which to interpret.


The Illegal Operation provides another insight into this literary interpretation of objects.  For this analysis, instead of beginning with Kienholz's text (which there doesn't appear to be one) I will begin by quoting a text, in its entirety, by one of his interpreters, Rosetta Brooks.

"One of Ed Kienholz's earliest tableaux, The Illegal Operation, is also one of his most vehement and horrific.  There is an almost unbearable, desperate intensity about it.  The tableau presents a room in which a back-street abortion has occurred.  A lopsided domestic lamp with a naked light bulb as a makeshift surgical light is bloodied with a handprint.  A blood-red milking stool stands ominously alongside an old, battered shopping cart which has become an operating table.  On a cheap, grubby rug are an enamel cooking pot and a hospital bedpan cluttered with rusting medical instruments.  A bucket filled with soiled and dirty rags completes the picture.

"The tableau has a sleazy feel to it and an aura of death pervades the whole scene.  Lying on top of the makeshift bed is a bag with hardened concrete oozing from the bottom, violently and brutally incised by a phallus shape.  Through just concrete and sacking, we mentally transform the shape into that of a female body lying useless, abandoned, lifeless.  It looks like the after-image of a body that has been violated both by the "doctor" and by the politics of a society that can reduce a woman's body and its living organisms to such waste.

"Kienholz consolidates the drama by using anthropomorphism to evoke subliminal reactions, thus denying the viewer automatic distance from the scene.  The shopping cart, for example, is attached to the lamp as if clinging in white-knuckled pain.  Or is it simply illuminating the act itself?  The wheels of the shopping cart are pigeon-toed, as if to steady itself against the onslaught of unbearable anguish.  These are just some of the ways Kienholz denies us the role of impartial observer and makes us complicit in the brutal drama."[Hopps, 104]

Ed Kienholz The Illegal Operation 1962Although this kind of anthropomorphism and narration is the kind that Kienholz's work pushes the viewer into, his work does not do so without setting limits.  The style of literary play that Brooks displays in this caption exemplifies the form of overinterpretation that cares to speak more than it does to read or listen and results in seeing too much of what it is looking for (as opposed to what is actually there).  Without question, the title The Illegal Operation is the signifier that directs the interpreter toward the theme of abortion.  Yet, unlike Duane Hanson's Abortion, three years later, Kienholz does not name the operation or the illegality. 

The scene is neither as vehement nor as horrible as Brooks makes it out to be; nor does it take place in either a room or a back-street.  Structurally the sculpture has no walls like Roxy's or The State Hospital have.  It is a sculpture in the round, or at least 270 degrees.  There are no indications of a street or alley, and the setting of the indoor electric lamp, the carpet, the stool, and the white square of linoleum betray any tendency toward a back street.  The gallery or museum walls clearly mark the scene.  Had he wanted to simulate a back-street, Kienholz had shown us already in Roxy's how he might have.  And much later in The Hoerengracht, he and Reddin-Kienholz showed us how he would have.  He chose not to make a Total Installation, to borrow a term coined much later by Ilya Kabakov, but instead to make a tableau.

If we accept the narrative the sculpture elicits, we must accept that an illegal operation has been depicted.  Certainly abortion is one operation that was particularly tied to the law at the time, but weren't and aren't there others?  If this operation is illegal we can economically speculate that it does not occur in a hospital by a doctor certified to perform this operation.  We could also assume that either this operation did occur in a hospital but by someone other than a doctor, or, also, outside of a hospital by an uncertified doctor.  Any of these scenarios would present a case of an illegal operation.  What evidence in the tableau tells us that this operation is an abortion?  Brooks suggests that you and I mentally transform the bag of concrete, oozing from the bottom, into a female body.  As Kienholz has shown us, if he had wanted to represent the female figure, he could have done it by way of mannequins, dolls' heads, animal skulls, or cast figures. 

But, if (even if only by our generosity) we consent and leap to anthropomorphize the concrete sack then what incites us to feminize it?  Couldn't the phallic zone in the concrete bag marked by Brooks also show evidence of an illegal castration?  Couldn't the hole, rather than be read as a vagina, be read as the absence of a penis or testicles?  What is to prevent us from reading the cement bag as a seat cushion for a woman, or a man, who fled the scene in order not to be arrested?  Did two characters perform theDuane Hanson Abortion 1965 operation or just one?  Ultimately, the viewer encounters an abandoned site and has to fill in the narrative blanks, fill in the missing players, the missing action, and — if it were the case — the missing fetus.  The mysterious "offal" (in Arthur Danto's characterization) that lies in the bucket is so unidentifiable it offers no direction supporting or denying a reading of abortion.  Actually, its unidentifiability could contribute to its interpretation as an illegal abortion since most illegal abortions, we imagine, would leave behind a similar unidentifiable offal.  Here we have to interpret the meaning of absence, and, by nature, this remains ambiguous.  But nothing like the literary clues that Kienholz left in The Birthday ("Dear Jane… I couldn't come down now because Harry needs me here.  Ma says she might make it later.  Keep a stiff upper lip Kid. (ha-ha)…Dick"), or much later that the Kienholzes left in The Bear Chair ("If you ever tell, I'll hurt your mama real, real bad,") exist in The Illegal Operation to help specify the crime.

My motive in analyzing Brooks' interpretation is not to suggest that the piece is not exploring the theme of abortion.  I only mean to show that it is, on the other hand, exploring the theme of illegal operations, abortion being one example which was on people's minds in 1962 when the work was made.  It could be argued that timeliness made it unnecessary Ed Kienholz The Birthday 1964to make the theme explicit.  It is also worth noting that in most of the Kienholz critical literature, and likely in Kienholz's intention itself, the piece is interpreted in the way Brooks describes it.  But this consensus or assignation of authorial intention does not change the fact that the internal coherence of the piece does not point exclusively to this singular reading.

The illegal operation might in fact lie in the feminizing of the concrete sack or in the overinterpretation or excess of anthropomorphism displayed in interpretations like this one.  Brooks' decorative writing, her aesthetic garnishing of the physical objects and narrative, is in fact solicited by Kienholz's work.  But the interpreter goes too far, breaking the laws established within the piece itself, by elaborating what she expects to find rather than what is there.  To then inscribe this interpretation in the caption for the piece in the retrospective catalog and officially "authorize" it is to push the operation one step further.  The photo and text presented in the catalog in this way creates another disjunction between word and object, not unlike that we saw in the analysis of The State Hospital.  Since the text is as singularly motivated as the tableau, the result is two separate and isolated works.  The text sets out, in a service capacity, to describe the object but ends up dominating it by speaking over it.  The contrast between the object as an open work, open to multiple interpretations, and the text as a closed work, limited to one interpretation and armored by the garnish of decorative language, makes its presence known in the binding of the book which, ironically, marks the gap which separates them.

Although I agree with Brooks that the Kienholzes' sculptures "deny us the role of impartial observer and make us complicit in the brutal drama," I see The Illegal Operation as one of the weaker examples.  Structurally, as a tableau, it already sets up a separation between viewer/reader and object.  Its objecthood frees the viewer from feeling complicit in the drama (s/he cannot walk onto the linoleum, sit on the stool, or adjust the lamp).  Secondly, the absence of the human figure puts the sculpture on a different scale with the viewer.  If the concrete bag is to be read as a female figure, the female viewer will not see herself reflected in it.  And lastly, the viewer is given an out by way of the semiotic flaws and leaps I have already discussed.  Just as casually as the viewer/reader encountered the scene, so too can s/he flee the scene.  S/he can leave it behind, without indictment since, in the ambiguity, it is hard to tell what may have happened.  This ambiguity may work against Kienholz's moral intention.  Without question, Kienholz's The Illegal Operation marks a decisive step into what his work will become, but Brooks', in my opinion, illegal interpretive operation jumps the gun and speaks in retrospect knowing what Kienholz's later work will accomplish.


As I argued in the case above, interpreters in recent years having become overfamiliar with Kienholz's work in representations of social injustice and sometimes go too far. As a result, they end up finding what they expect to find rather than what the physical work shows them.  William Wilson, in a hasty essay included in The Hoerengracht catalog, makes at least one observation which is interesting, even if only for my purpose in expressing this point.  Wilson thematically describes Back Seat Dodge '38 as a work about date rape.  Kienholz, when asked why the two characters in his tableau share the same head, has been quoted as saying, "because they have the same thing on their minds."[Pincus, 43]  Here is an example of two interpreters coming up with two opposing interpretations.  The fact that Kienholz is one of the interpreters does not value his interpretation over the other.  What should guide our assessment of the value of one interpretation against another should be our understanding of the objects, their juxtapositions, and their conversation.

While Kienholz's interpretation is based on a careful consideration of the way the objects and materials are assembled, Wilson makes his assessment in a casual assuming sentence and never returns to explain his reasons.  I find the issue less resolved and harder to pass by than Wilson does.  In their absence, one possible explanation I will posit for Wilson's (and likely many other viewers') reading is that it comes from a familiarity with Kienholz's other works and their subsequent interpretations.  By the time Wilson writes this Kienholz is well-known for his reputation of making works about social issues.  Wilson adds Back Seat Dodge '38 to the list.  In doing so, he ignores the work where Kienholz responds to personal experiences, satirizes himself, or develops characters whom he doesn't satirize as in The Wait, Sollie 17, Mother With a Past Affixed Also and Mine Camp.  Wilson has a format for reading a Kienholz work: first find the social issue, then evaluate the attack.  In this way he sees date rape before he sees the budding teen love affair that Kienholz saw.

Ed Kienholz Back Seat Dodge '38 1964But what makes this interpretive problem an exemplary conundrum for my purposes comes from our understanding in daily life that every interpretation of a sexual encounter as date rape faces the same challenge:  once the accusation is made, it must be considered in earnest, otherwise, the date — more often the woman — is victimized again.  So how do we decide which interpretation is accurate?  If this were a court case, we would listen to witness testimony, hear both sides of the story, and a jury of peers would be forced to make a choice and then decide someone's fate.  With an artwork we don't have to be so definitive since court cases are Closed works which require one and only one conclusion, and art works are Open works which allow for multiple interpretations.  But, in this case, following a courtroom analysis might be a useful strategy.

On Kienholz's side, Rosetta Brooks notes that for Back Seat Dodge '38 Kienholz chose a 1938 Dodge because it resembled his father's car which he had borrowed for a date in 1944 and used for the same purpose.  We are to understand that in that case Kienholz and his date "had the same thing on their minds."  Brooks further refers to the two characters as lovers.  Arthur Danto, in discussing the piece, remarks on its humor:  "… they share the same head, his body is made of chicken wire, and the male seems to have a spark plug for a penis."[Danto, 33]  This hollow chicken of a boy with a tiny spark plug is hardly like the aggressive males Kienholz portrays later in Five Car Stud.  Also, the stretch Dodge has been reduced to only its backseat because, as Danto remarks, at the time "the whole point of a car for young people was its backseat."

Although Danto is addressing the critics of the piece who tried to censor it at the LA County Museum in 1966 when he says, "Beauty and humor alike serve healing functions, and the moralist in art is not interested in healing the viewer but in healing the world by arousing one to its moral blackness,"[Danto, 34] his observation lends fresh light to Wilson's interpretation.  If Kienholz opposed beauty with a broom, as we saw earlier, and displays moral criticism by harshly confronting the viewer, then the humor in this piece shows that it is anything but dark.  Instead it is a nostalgic, romantic, even if adolescent fumbling, self-satirizing comedy written in three dimensions.

From the prosecution side, credibility lent to Wilson's reading comes across almost subliminally in Brooks' description of the piece.  Her text is riddled with crime scene imagery.

"The low side lights…create a forensic quality, as though we are looking at the scene of a crime.  Scattered beer bottles…seem to echo and reinforce the sense of a police crime scene.  They put us in mind of objects that might have been left behind after bodies have been removed from the scene of a car accident.  The lovers in the back seat…seem to be frozen in a moment of death, as if the sculptural elements in the tableau represent a rigor mortis…The choice of the car model, too, creates a perfect counterfoil to the sleaziness of the scene."[Hopps, 115]

Impressions like these could be a result of the voyeuristic position that Kienholz forces the viewer in and also the construction and arrangements of the objects.  But the interpretation remains questionable.  If Duane Hanson had depicted this same scene, our reading could be assisted by, for example, the facial expressions and the goosebumps, or lack of, on the flesh of the characters. While facial expressions and goose bumps could never bring a conviction of date rape or mutual consent, these and other details of realism would factor into our judgment.  In the absence of this kind of realism, we have to consider other means.  If there are signs of death, or a crime scene, even in Brooks' elaborate reading, both characters are victims of death:  both lovers are frozen in rigor mortis not just the girl.  And the fact that the lovers remain in the car betrays the overimaginative, and contradictory, reading that the scene puts us in the mindset of "objects that might have been left behind after bodies have been removed from the scene of a car accident."

Without a doubt, Wilson, Brooks, and the would-be censors of Back Seat Dodge '38 in 1966 all received the impression that an "illegal operation" had taken place here, so there might be something to the reading, or at least something within the piece that is provocative in this direction. But Danto and Kienholz both make valid cases based on the structure of the piece as well as the use of comic self-satire rather than dark moral criticism.  Because this is an artwork and not a court case, we don't have to firmly fix one interpretation as correct and the other wrong.  Both interpretations have validity but some aspects of one may cross out aspects of the other.  What is probably most Kienholzian about this piece, though, is that this debate over interpretation, over date rape vs. mutual consent, is one that the narrative elicits and the piece is richer for it since the debate is consistent with the internal coherence of the work. We walk away with the question, What happened?


While The Illegal Operation and Back Seat Dodge ’38 offer some ambiguity in interpretation, Five Car Stud is possibly the best example of a work which “denies us the role of impartial viewer and makes us complicit in the drama."  It also provides an example of Kienholz making use of these often ambiguous or contradictory readings to the work's benefit.

Pointedly, the photographs of Five Car Stud, the only ones I have seen, are represented in black and white.  The Ed Kienholz Five Car Stud 1969-72installation in its first public showing at Documenta 5 in Kassel Germany in 1972 was housed in its own space under a large tent.  The scene depicts six white men in the process of castrating a black man.  Two white men pin the black man down by his arms, one with a rope tied to his ankles restrains a leg, two others casually holding shot guns (not trained at the victim's head, in contradiction to Pincus' and Brooks' narration) restrain him with the threat of firearms, while a lay-surgeon (performing an "illegal operation") takes to cutting off the man's balls (made of steel)[Pincus, 82] and penis with a metal instrument.  Four cars and a pickup truck representing the makes and models of the current moment (1972) surround the scene, illuminating it in their headlights.  In the pick-up truck (the odd car out, the mysterious face-down card in this hand of poker) a white woman who the narrative clues indicate is the black man's date/friend, has her hand to her mouth gasping or holding back vomit.  In one of the other cars a young white boy, most likely the son of one of the attackers, watches the scene with impressionable innocence.

While the faces of the woman and child are rendered unmasked, the faces of the attackers are shrouded in costume masks – the signs of masking are not masked, reminding us, for example, that the KKK also wear hoods.  Ed Kienholz Five Car Stud 1969-72The victim also has two faces, an inner one with a still expression encased in a plastic mask that depicts a scream.  And as if to clarify any ambiguity over the racial motivations behind the scene, the victim's torso is made from an oil pan with the letters floating in black oil, which in one configuration — the only one we are intended to read — spell and misspell N-I-G-G-E-R.

Once the viewer enters the tent, s/he enters this poker game.  S/he becomes an insider, a participant in the scene.  In accepting the role of the voyeur, as every art viewer does, s/he is implicated in the scene.  The act of looking at a piece of art is a commitment to responsibility:  once s/he has looked, the choice and act are irreversible.6  Once a citizen knows this kind of violence occurs, s/he can no longer feign ignorance.  To ignore the scene and escape the tent to view the Frankenthaler in the next room implicates the viewer with turning his/her back on the issue; to stay forces one to take a position in relation to it.  In this scene of a suspended moment, where what narratively happened before and what will inevitably narratively happen after, the viewer confronts his/her own potential actions.  Would s/he protect the girl from being the next physical victim or rape her while the others are busy; pull the little boy away from the scene or give him a knife to jab with; fight off the men to free the black man or personally finish the job?Ed Kienholz Five Car Stud 1969-72

My provocative double-edged narration leads to the next question: What kind of poker game is Kienholz playing; what does his pun gamble with?  The title is literary in its motivation in that it sets up a linguistic juxtaposition.  Is it only that the stud is the character of the black man, with balls of steel, a white woman for a date, and four cars the measure of his studliness since it takes that many loads of white men to bring him down?  Is the gamble the risk that the black man took during the time and place of the scene by dating a white girl, a gamble he lost?  Or is the gamble an indictment that, as a society, we're not playing our cards right?  Or are the stakes higher for Kienholz?

By extending the metaphor, we can read the scene as one dealt by an omniscient narrator viewing the scene from a satiric position watching us as we enter.  While this narrative strategy often posits the narrator above and outside of the scene and therefore free of implication, there is little to imply that this omniscient narrator isn't implicated as well by the mere act of staging such a scene.  In fact, one could fathom the possibility – and this is the gamble that this sort of ironic, satirical, artwork takes – where the irony and satire miss the mark.  Imagine a racist viewer who, favoring the scene and depiction, senses that the stud got what he deserved; that the woman should vomit as repentance for her sin; that the boy should learn from papa; and that the scene serves as a public service announcement for black men to not fraternize with white women.  Has the scene been constructed to prevent this interpretation?  If so how?

As an artist, this is Kienholz's gamble.  He plays his hand, which he thinks is the upper one, without seeing the hands of the other players.  If he has judged his challenger accurately, calculated the odds correctly, his opponents will either fold from his confidence or lose all they have.  If he has misjudged these factors, he will go down with it.  As Arthur Danto Ed Kienholz Five Car Stud 1969-72notes in discussing another work by Kienholz, "If the work fails, it is not just an artistic failure:  It is a moral failure in its own right.  If, for example, a work has an effect the opposite of what was intended, then it is probably true that it would have been better not to have been made in the first place."[Danto 34]  Kienholz is playing the race card without a net, under a tent, and the viewer/reader/interpreter is his challenger. 

This strategy reveals part of Kienholz's trump card.  In forcing the hand of the viewer to confront the issue and either fold or challenge him he further presses the viewer's responsibility.  How the viewer/reader chooses to act will then be the hand they have to defend, and automatically, they are in the game.  Another piece of the trump card is in the design of constructing the viewer as omniscient as well.  Although the viewer is inside the scene, s/he looks at it from an outside position — the viewer is living and the characters are made of construction materials.  And just as the viewer is a contemplative participant in the scene, as if s/he were watching it on the news with commentary (in this case Kienholz's), s/he maintains a hypothetical position in relation to it.  The viewer forced into this omniscient circumstance will retain the memory of all of its parts when confronted with an actual parallel circumstance.  From this first look, s/he can no longer claim ignorance the second time around.

In order to demonstrate other ways in which the work guides the viewer's interpretation, it will be productive to stage a comparison with Duane Hanson's Race Riot of 1967.  Five Car Stud is not depicted in the hyper-realism with which Hanson constructs Race Riot.  It does not attempt to make an exact copy of the physical world (at least I've never seen a man with a chest made from an oil pan, full of motor oil, with the letters G-R-G-N-I-E floating about at random).  Instead we could say that while Hanson's technique is to create a hyper-realism of physical reality, Kienholz's is to create a surrealism of social reality.

Duane Hanson Race Riot 1968The first version of Hanson' Race Riot, 1967, depicts seven figures, black and white, fighting in the street.  Photographs of the work were taken in situ, presumably in Florida, with the scene taking place outside of a closed building across from a deli.  A white character braces a black character's neck with a stick from behind while another black character approaches from behind him with a sickle.  Two other characters, one white, one black are engaged in hand-to-hand combat, the black one holding a machete.  Finally, the character of a lone white policeman, ironically considered a "peace officer," wearing a helmet and full police uniform, not taking the time out to lose the cigar between his teeth, holds a billy club above his head, ready to strike, as he kicks a black character in the stomach lying at his feet.[Buchsteiner, 73-4]

While both Hanson's and Kienholz's works are set in context, they are so in different ways.  In Hanson's scene he constructed only the characters but not the setting.  The setting was the actual urban environment he/we live in.  The boundaries of where the viewer enters or exits are unclear.  Hanson pulled his scene out into the open, shed light on it, so we could stumble upon it – so it could trip us up – witness it, and then compare it to the placid scene of our everyday existence.  Kienholz, on the other hand, set his installation inside a tent and constructed the entire scene.  Technically, everything under the tent is considered part of the work.  While Hanson couldn't claim the deli, the building, the street, or the ground below as part of his work, Kienholz could since the defined area of the gravel ground under the tent acted as a pedestal and also since the automobiles made tire tracks on it, drawing artistic marks on the narrative.

Minus the social injustice commentary, while still maintaining a social consciousness, this technique of putting hisDuane Hanson Race Riot 1968 characters in context, without constructing the context, would remain consistent throughout the rest of Hanson's career as he put custodians, tourists, and security guards in the rooms of museums.  While he learned to use the context of the white cube to his advantage, Race Riot suffered severely in the transition.  He considered the characters too wooden and destroyed five of them making the problematic decision to exhibit only the white police officer kicking the black man on the gallery floor.[Buchsteiner, 74]

Both artists constructed scenes which we know occur in daily life yet only happen behind our backs.  We only see scenes like these in the media.  Forty years ago, when Race Riot and Five Car Stud were made, when racial violence was at its most public, opportunities like George Holliday's were not possible.  The opportunity to videotape Los Angeles "peace officers" beating Rodney King only became possible after consumable — relatively inexpensive, technically easy to use — personal video cameras became popular, and even then the odds of Holliday being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment in good working condition were slim.  Kienholz's work subverts these odds by isolating and tenting off the dark corners and remote areas, the privacy of our homes and work places, and takes us to the open fields or parking lots at night, staging the right-place-right-time to witness this violence.  Five Car Stud grants us access to a dark private spot under the big top of our social ills to witness the freak show in the background of our daily lives.

Ed Kienholz Sawdy 1972This aspect of denying the viewer the role of impartial observer and making us complicit in the brutal drama is so thoroughly articulated in Five Car Stud that it carries over into the limited edition of "drawings" titled Sawdy, that Kienholz made for it.  The edition was made from fifty doors from Datsun pickup trucks which served as framing devices for a photograph of a scene from Five Car Stud.  Robert L. Pincus narrates,

"To view the image…one had to roll down an outer plate of mirrored glass engraved with its serial number within the edition.  Thus, one's own reflection was the first of two images integral to the Sawdy wall sculpture; the viewer's face was the third image as well, since one presumably had to roll the window back up.  The viewer's role as detached voyeur was clearly undermined; he or she was an accomplice to this cruel action within the depicted scene."[Pincus, 83]

6 Jean Francois Lyotard described the effect of Five Car Stud as luring the viewer into the tent to approach the scene such that once you got close enough to make out what was happening it was too late since you were by then part of it.[Willick, 1]


Another literary figure who bears comparison to Kienholz comes to mind in relation to the viewer’s loss of innocence and art’s role in making that contribution.  Jean Paul Sartre, like Kienholz, was committed to the moral, social, and political condition of his time.  His motivation for writing seems to be mirrored in Kienholz’s.

"It is assumed that no one is ignorant of the law because there is a code and because the law is written down; thereafter, you are free to violate it, but you know the risks you run.  Similarly, the function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it's all about."[Sartre, 24]

Sartre, preceding but in-line with Reinhardt and Kosuth, supported – if not preached – the division of labor between poetry and prose.  He defended poetry, the visual arts, and music from the necessity of being "engaged" because they are "free of signification" and claimed that only prose, as the "empire of signs", must be committed to one’s time and place socially and politically.  By this distinction one could fairly claim that Kienholz, in Five Car Stud and in many of his works and those with Nancy Reddin Kienholz, is, at least, "functioning as" a prose writer.  It is no stretch to claim that Kienholz's work fits the definition that Sartre reserves for "prose":  that it must be committed to one's time, place, and social condition.  Sartre also recognized that historically "poetry creates the myth, while the prose writer draws its portrait."[Sartre, 35n4]  Clearly, Kienholz is far more a portraitist than a mythmaker.  His portraits reveal the seedy, dark, and wounded side of our existence and of behavior witnessed in his own time, place and social condition.  To this day, Kienholz’s portraits are far from the stuff of myths since we can still witness them in our everyday lives. 

Kienholz is not only committed to narrative portrayals and to a prose style of depicting scenes, but his commitment to social and moral engagement with his time and place might have served Sartre well in his search for the answers to his questions, "What is writing?", and ultimately, "What is Literature?".  Rather than attempting to develop a prosaic definition of writing and literature which is bound to miss the mark, it might be more prudent to offer Kienholz's work, from the moment he put his broom to canvas, as one example and begin to let the examples expand and contract the definition of the possibilities of literature.


In an essay about the Kienholz drawings, Marco Livingstone offered the comparison that “If the tableaux are akin to the narratives of short stories or plays, the drawings suggest instead a literary parallel with poetry.”[Livingstone, 95]  Ed Kienholz was very comfortable redefining the terms of his own art forms, always hoping, as Livingstone put it, “to free himself…from expectations and from the weight of history.”  He with Reddin-Kienholz used the word “tableaux” to signify what would traditionally have been called “sculpture.”  His work – and his coinage – preceded “installation art” which we use comfortably today to define works like the Kienholzes’.  What he called “drawings,” conventional parlance would call “wall sculptures,” “collage,” or “assemblage.”  Before Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth were credited with the coinage “conceptual art,” Kienholz had already been making what he called “idea art” since 1963 with his Concept Tableaux. 

While Kienholz was inventing himself beyond conventional terminology and freeing himself from the weight of history, he was also being passed over theoretically once other artists and writers found their own comfortable terms to define what he had shown them could be done.  Clearly the most respect would be paid to Kienholz’s work by calling it by the terms he himself used to define it.  This might sound awkward coming from an essay that attempts to situate his and Reddin-Kienholz’s work in the “new” terminological fabric of Three-Dimensional Literature, but it seems to me well within the spirit of Kienholz to do this.  Surely, Kienholz, if anyone, would appreciate my attempt as an artist to coin the terms that define my production.  Unlike histories of Conceptual Art and Installation Art which either skip over or at best glance at the Kienholzes' work, my coining of Three-Dimensional Literature positions Ed and Nancy Reddin-Kienholz, and their work, as primary precursors.  Rather than overwriting them with my new terminology, by acknowledging them I demonstrate that, once again, Kienholz knew what Three-Dimensional Literature was before anybody had given a name to it.

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