Born: Fairfield, WA
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An American artist of unwavering originality, critical insight, and notoriety, Edward Kienholz created powerful work that reflected upon contemporary social and political issues of late twentieth-century America. He created life-size three-dimensional tableaux and immersive environments, composed out of the discarded detritus he found at yard sales and flea markets. Although he is best known for his contributions to the development of postwar sculptural practices, Kienholz was also a key promoter of the Los Angeles avant-garde as the founder of the NOW Gallery and cofounder of the Ferus Gallery, a pivotal venue and gathering place for the era’s emerging poets and artists. From 1972 onward, he worked almost exclusively with his fifth wife, the artist Nancy Reddin Kienholz, who played a significant role in the conceptualization and fabrication of his later works.
Edward Kienholz was born in Fairfield, Washington to a conservative, working-class family of Swiss descent. He grew up on his parents’ wheat farm, where he learned the crafts of metalwork, carpentry, and automobile mechanics. The skills that he acquired as a farmer and the surrounding environment of the rural Northwest would come to inform his later artwork, which incorporates themes of working-class America and displays his deft technical ability.
After earning his high school degree, Kienholz pursued undergraduate studies at the nearby Eastern Washington College of Education and briefly attended Whitworth College in Spokane. As a young adult, Kienholz made a living working various odd jobs. After dropping out of college, he continued to live in Washington and was diversely employed as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, a manager of a dance band, a used car dealer, a caterer, a decorator, and a handyman. In 1953 Kienholz moved to Los Angeles and began to develop his interest in art, transitioning from his initial fascination with painting to woodwork, which resulted in his first large-scale wooden relief in 1954. His first one-person exhibition took place at Los Angeles’s Vons Café Galleria in 1955, followed by a solo show at the Coronet Louvre Theater later that year.
Just after his arrival in California, Kienholz quickly became embedded in the burgeoning Los Angeles art scene, acting not only as a prominent visual artist but also as an art dealer, gallerist, and curator. In August 1956, he founded the short-lived NOW Gallery in the Turnabout Theater, where he organized exhibitions of work by local artists. In 1957 he cofounded the Ferus Gallery with curator Walter Hopps, who would later become the director of the Pasadena Museum of Art. According to their official contract, written out on a hotdog wrapper, Hopps selected the gallery’s artists while Kienholz oversaw the space’s day-to-day management. The artist and poet Robert Alexander was also a central, although unofficial, collaborator in the gallery’s programming and administration. From its founding in 1957 through its closing in 1966, Ferus (whose name derives from the Latin word for “wild beast”) held a reputation for showcasing new and provocative art. It attracted a diverse following from various facets of the Californian avant-garde, acquiring a reputation as a gathering place for Beat poets and emerging artists including Richard Diebenkorn and Ed Ruscha. Two artists whose ideas and whose work in assemblage had a particularly strong influence on Kienholz were Bruce Conner and Wallace Berman. In 1957, Ferus was raided and temporarily shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department due to the “obscene” content of an exhibition of Conner’s art. Kienholz left his post at Ferus in 1958 to devote his attention to his artistic practice and was succeeded by the important Pop art dealer Irving Blum (under whose stewardship Andy Warhol‘s soup-can paintings were publicly exhibited at Ferus for the very first time in 1962). Kienholz would continue to participate in Ferus’s events, showing his work on several occasions before it closed down in 1966.
In the early 1960s Kienholz moved from his practice of creating wooden reliefs to constructing the large-scale assemblage-based sculptures for which he is best known. These installations, or tableaux, were immersive, stage-like environments including life-size figures, found objects like furniture and household appliances, taxidermied animals, and other everyday objects that he had salvaged and repurposed for his art. His pioneering approach to assemblage garnered him a reputation as key practitioner of Funk art, a style prevalent among a loosely knit group of artists working in San Francisco and other areas of California.
Kienholz’ radical technique of integrating found detritus into immersive installations would influence the next generation of sculptors who used readymade materials in complex and oftentimes subversive ways. Such artists as Damien Hirst and Paul McCarthy would draw upon Kienholz’ aesthetic, themes, and techniques to carve out their own unique practices of assemblage and installation. Although they implemented drastically different aesthetics, the Photorealist sculptor Duane Hanson and the Pop artist George Segal were also informed by Kienholz’ large-scale arrangements and life-casting practice. Other artists, including Leon Golub and Sue Coe, have been inspired by Kienholz’ confrontational and often jarring use of social and political themes, while artists Michael McMillen and Roland Reiss were directly influenced by his tableaux compositions in the creation of their own sculptures. As one of the best-known proponents of Funk art, Kienholz had a lasting effect on the development of late twentieth-century sculptural practices, as he veered away from the self-reflexivity of abstraction towards the critical engagement of Conceptualism. Lastly, in their frequent collaborations and shared authorial credit, Kienholz and his wife Nancy Reddin Kienholz are very much contemporaries of Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, two other couples that emphasized the shared creation of their art.