Magazine article Newsweek

The Great Assembler

Magazine article Newsweek

The Great Assembler

Article excerpt

ED (NO EDWARD, PLEASE) KIENHOLZ was a bearded, big-bellied, self-taught artist who became famous in the 1960s for making angry assemblage sculpture in Los Angeles. When he died at the age of 66 in 1994, his body--along with his dog's ashes and a bottle of vintage Italian wine--was put into a shiny 1940 Packard and rolled into a grave in northern Utah. (Kienholz split his later years between there and Berlin, Germany.) Kienholz's raw, direct art has never been easy to take. He almost shut down the L.A. County Museum of Art in 1966 because the chicken-wire man making love to a plaster woman in "Back Seat Dodge '38" was thought obscene by politicians. With his best pieces sequestered in European collections, Kienholz is thought of, wrongly, by many people in the East Coast art establishment as merely an industrial-strength folk artist, a sort of Howard Finster with power tools. Kienholz's work is sometimes juvenile and mawkish, but he was really a great stylistic maverick--right up there with Francis Bacon--who cared as much about human folly as he did esthetics. A new retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum (through June 2) proves that point.

Kienholz started out as an unremarkable abstract painter. His titles were good: "Leda and the Canadian Honker" is one of modern art's all-time best. Kienholz's natural inclination was to load on thick paint, but he couldn't afford to. Instead Kienholz painted bright colors on pieces of wood and stuck them onto the surface of "George Warshington in Drag" (1957). From there, Kienholz eventually arrived at his first full assemblage in 1959: the haunting "John Doe," a dummy's head, dripping black paint, mounted on a stroller. Kienholz didn't actually invent assemblage; Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters were there way before him, back in the 1910s. But Kienholz practiced the art of assemblage with unequaled physical ambition (as in "Roxys," 1962, a Nevada bordello re-created with shriveled mannequins and a cow's skull) and moral ferocity (the deserted scene of "The Illegal Operation," also from 1962, with its scuzzy surgical chair and tilted floor lamp). …

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