ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

LACMA lands Ed Kienholz's 'The Illegal Operation'

In 1966, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art put up a retrospective exhibition of Ed Kienholz's work, the County Board of Supervisors threatened to shut it down.

The artist was a local hero, known for wrestling with tough social issues through gritty assemblages of cast-off objects. None of his art conformed to conventional standards of beauty, but the supervisors deemed one piece particularly offensive, even pornographic. “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” a sculpture of a drunken sexual encounter, had to go.

It didn't. Instead the show became a succès de scandale. But 15 years later, when the museum bought "Dodge," some members of a support group that contributed to the purchase resigned in protest.

This year, when an effort to buy another troublesome Kienholz gathered force, fundraisers had reason to worry. "The Illegal Operation," an indictment of back-street abortion, would appear to be a much harder sell.

So it came as quite a surprise when the mission was recently accomplished without ruffling feathers. Though the museum won't disclose how much it paid, sources close to the fundraising effort say the price was about $1 million. A coalition of 16 donors provided funds to buy it from its longtime Los Angeles owner, the Betty and Monte Factor Collection. The new acquisition will go on view in February at LACMA -- after returning from an exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

The 1962 tableau is a down-and-dirty disaster scene, laid out on a tatty old knotted rug. A floor lamp, with its shade askew, blazes over a metal shopping cart rejiggered into an operating table. A sack of oozing concrete sits on the table, like a lifeless body, above a bedpan littered with rusty medical instruments. Off to the side are a slop bucket, a cooking pot and a little red stool, apparently used by the "doctor."

"This was one of the most important postwar sculptures in L.A., and it really belonged at the museum," said Stephanie Barron, LACMA's senior curator of modern art, who led the campaign with Henry T. Hopkins, a veteran museum director and UCLA professor emeritus with close ties to the artist. "It still has the same ability to make us uncomfortable as it did when it was created. It's hard to think of works of art that continue to deliver that wallop."

Abortion is still a hot-button issue, she said, and Kienholz's take on the subject hasn't gotten any prettier.

But times have changed. So have sensitivities to "shocking" art as museum audiences have become accustomed to Paul McCarthy's scatological installations and Damien Hirst's vitrines of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde. And LACMA's new acquisition has been burnished by civic pride and art historical gravitas. The artist, who died in 1994, at age 66, established himself in Los Angeles before developing an international reputation. "The Illegal Operation" is widely regarded as a seminal early piece by a giant in the field of socially critical sculpture.

And so it is that the unlovely tableau has joined the museum's collection.

In today's art market, $1 million is a relatively modest sum for a major work by a big-name artist -- except for a museum that depends on private donations to build its collections. When Barron and Hopkins made a pledge to bring the historic artwork to LACMA, they had some work to do.

Their quest for the sculpture started a year ago, when they learned that Monte Factor, a retired Beverly Hills clothing retailer who built a contemporary art collection with his wife, Betty, had decided to sell "The Illegal Operation."

As Factor said in a recent telephone conversation: "I'm just a month away from 91. I could be departing any time. Betty has been gone for two years. I haven't amassed any great fortune, and it's very important to me to leave as much as I can for our four children."

The Factors scraped up a small amount of cash and threw in an old boat and some clothes to buy the artwork from their artist friend soon after he made it. When it landed at their home in Brentwood, it was displayed discreetly, in an upstairs dressing room.

"Many of our friends were not heavily into art, and they thought we were a little nuts anyway," Factor said. "Few other people went up to our dressing room, but I walked by the piece every time I went to the bathroom. I thought it was the most deeply affecting work of art I had ever seen. It struck very deep into me.

"Ed once told me that if he ever made a piece of art, that was it. I thought it was the essence of everything he had. It worked as a drawing, as a sculpture, even the colors. For me, it was also the extreme underside of beauty."

When the time came to sell "The Illegal Operation," LACMA was not the only suitor. With an international list of exhibition credits, the work was of interest to London's Tate Gallery and other European institutions, Factor said. But Barron's pursuit got his attention.

"Stephanie really does get the piece," he said. "It's something she feels in her heart."

The museum's effort to buy "The Illegal Operation" began silently last summer, when it went on view in “SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s From LACMA’s Collection.” Despite the exhibition's title, a few works were actually on the museum's wish list. Barron and Hopkins focused on the Kienholz.

"We made pitches to groups, individuals, took it out to the community," Barron said. "I didn't want one person to buy it for us. I felt that, given the content of the piece, it would be important, down the road, to show that there was a group of people in the community who were willing to step up to the plate to put their names and their money behind the acquisition of this for the museum. It would mean something."

When word of the campaign reached Carol Goldberg, head of the Art Museum Council, she asked Barron to make a presentation to the group -- the same one that agonized over the funding of "Dodge." The 250-member council contributes about $100,000 a year to curator-recommended acquisitions and exhibitions.

Barron made her pitch in January.

"Stephanie asked us for $250,000, and we came forth with $500,000," Goldberg said. "We felt it was a really important piece and the museum should have it. We wanted to be the lead donor."

What a difference 27 years makes.

Terry Bell, a LACMA trustee and longtime member of the mostly female council, attributes it to "time and the fact that we are better informed."

"This is such a hot topic for most women," she said. "Our members were absolutely adamant: We have to have this, whatever it costs."

In 1981, advocates of "Dodge" had "a real selling job to do," said Bell, who was on the council at the time of the purchase. "There were hard feelings about it. Some people were passionately against it; they thought it was dreadful. This time, there wasn't one 'nay' anywhere."

Upon hearing the news, Barron was "speechless," but she and Hopkins were soon passing the hat again. They reached their goal with the help of the museum's Modern and Contemporary Art Council, nonprofit organizations such as the Frederick R. Weisman Philanthropic Foundation and major supporters of the Museum of Contemporary Art as well as LACMA.

"Everybody kicked in," Barron said. "It transcended the institution. It's about keeping the artwork in Los Angeles."

suzanne.muchnic @latimes.com

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