ART : Putting Things All Together : Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, talk (a bit reluctantly) about life, art, love and all those changes

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

In 1961, assemblagist Edward Kienholz completed “Roxy’s,” the first of what was to be an ongoing series of life-sized tableaux that established him as one of the most significant American artists of the 20th Century. Inspired by a notorious Las Vegas bordello, Kienholz’s dark homage re-created Roxy’s as it might have been in 1943, transforming the shabby cathouse into a bleak meditation on time, loneliness and memory.

Now working in tandem with Nancy Reddin Kienholz, his wife and collaborator of the past 21 years, Kienholz returns to the world of Roxy’s with the unveiling this week of “The Hoerengracht,” on view through Jan. 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. A re-creation of Amsterdam’s red-light district, “The Hoerengracht” (Dutch for “the whore’s canal”) is an epic tableau that includes photographs, 11 figures and highly detailed interiors, all awash--as is the environment that inspired it--in dramatic light. Begun in 1984 and four years in the making, the piece offers a clear reading of shifts in the artist’s sensibility when measured against “Roxy’s,” and throws Reddin Kienholz’s contribution to the couple’s collaborations into high relief.

This huge, complex piece comes together with remarkable ease; the entire San Diego installation, in fact, took little more than a day, and the handful of workers assisting the artists proceeded without a hitch. Oct. 23, the day the bulk of the installation took place, also happened to be Edward Kienholz’s birthday (he’s 66), and midway through the afternoon everyone took a break for birthday cake and a few laughs.


Kienholz seemed pleased with the way the installation is coming together, but less than thrilled at the prospect of being interviewed and photographed (the Kienholzes adamantly refused to pose for the camera). “Where are we gonna do this miserable thing?” he grumbled good-naturedly prior to being led into a museum conference room with a view of downtown San Diego. Though the artist agreed with considerable trepidation to be interviewed, he spoke with candor once he got going and quickly revealed that beneath his gruff exterior is an open-minded and sensitive man; Kienholz’s sensitivity is particularly evident in the deeply respectful and affectionate way he treats his wife.

En route from their home in Hope, Ida., to their second U.S. home in Houston, the Kienholzes weren’t too thrilled to be stuck in San Diego for a week because their stay required that their two beloved golden retrievers be exiled to a kennel for the duration of their visit. Edward Kienholz kept threatening to skip the opening and “get my dogs and leave town” as soon as the installation was completed. After returning to Houston for a brief stay, the couple will travel to their third home in Berlin--a city he says he wouldn’t mind leaving for good (“it became virtually unlivable after the wall came down,” he says), but that she still enjoys. “It’s nice to live in a place where artists are respected,” says Reddin Kienholz of the city where “The Hoerengracht” was conceived and executed.

What drew you to Amsterdam’s red-light district as the subject for an artwork?

Edward Kienholz: This will be disputed by Nancy, but the truth is that I was fascinated by the color and the lights in the red-light district.

Nancy Reddin Kienholz: (laughing) If anybody falls for that--that’s a lie.

E.K.: No, really, I can remember very vividly the first time I was in Amsterdam in 1970 how beautiful I thought it was--the streets are exploding with color. The girls wear white clothes and stand next to black lights and they glow like little jewels in the windows. You walk along, you smile, they smile back--it’s terrific.

N.R.K.: What he’s describing is totally a male fantasy--Amsterdam’s red-light district looks like a tough day on the job to me.

E.K.: Obviously we weren’t completely in agreement about this, but she said, “If it really interests you we’ll do the piece,” and we spent the next four years working on it. Another reason I wanted to do the piece was that I simply like whores. You can learn more from them than you can from most people because they’ve experienced a hell of a lot more than the average person, and I respect them for how direct and honest they are--their attitude is “you want it, I’ve got it and it’s for sale.” And of course, the subject appeals to the voyeur in me. We’re all voyeurs in one way or another and the commercialization of sex is something I don’t know much about, so it interests me on that level.


How does your take on prostitution in “The Hoerengracht” differ from the reading you gave it in “Roxy’s”?

E.K.: The female figures are rougher in “Roxy’s” because they’re more abstract, and that allows you to read more into them. Take “Cock-eyed Jenny,” one of the figures in “Roxy’s"--she’s basically a garbage pail with the word love painted on the lid, and the viewer brings a lot of imagination to that setup. With “The Hoerengracht” the figures are immediately identifiable as girls.

N.R.K.: The girls in this one are a lot prettier.

E.K.: Well, it’s getting closer to closing time.


Did you make “The Hoerengracht” rougher or more lyrical than this world is in reality?

E.K.: It’s pretty accurate to the actual environment--the piece is a little shabby and homey, and so is the real place. I mostly wanted to communicate that this is a good, functioning business.


How much interaction did you have with the women as you were making the piece? Did you get to know some of the women of the red-light district?

N.R.K.: Not really. In fact, the figures in the piece are made from casts we made of our friends. We did spend quite a bit of time in Amsterdam when we were working on the piece though, and much of that time was spent taking photographs. We wanted to look at the interiors and get a feeling for the environment as a whole. The place operates 24 hours a day, and the women, who range in age from roughly 18 to 40, work in eight-hour shifts. The state takes care of them--they pay taxes and are protected by the police--and there’s also a black Mafia that keeps it a tightly running ship. You never see graffiti on the walls or trash in the streets, and it’s a safe place for tourists--nobody ever gets rolled there. It’s infinitely preferable to the situation for American prostitutes, who are always looking over their shoulder for the police and usually need a pimp for protection.


The faces of the women in this piece seem extremely sad; generally speaking, did you find the women of the red-light district to be unhappy?

E.K.: Yes, but they’re not unhappy about the work they do--they’re unhappy about the stigma society lays on them. This piece has been described as a plea for more civilized treatment of this work and the women who do it, and that was definitely one of our intentions in making it. Whose business is it what consenting adults agree to do together? And, I’d also like to point out that describing their faces as sad is an interpretation you’ve brought to the piece. We used stock mannequins for the faces and I doubt if you’d find these faces tragic if you saw them in Bonwit & Teller’s, despite the fact that they’re performing a similar function there: They’re selling clothes on a sexual basis. For some reason, this is acceptable in our society and whores are not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crusading for anything--all I’m saying is that I believe prostitution should be an open, free business. The police could then redirect the time and energy they spend chasing these girls down, throwing them in jail, collecting 50 bucks and putting them back on the street. It’s just a continuous shakedown and it strikes me as ridiculous.


What was the most surprising thing you learned about these women in immersing yourselves in their world?

N.R.K.: How normal their lives seemed.


Generally speaking, what’s their attitude toward men?

E.K.: Men are commodities to them, and that’s why in our piece the faces of the women are boxed inside a frame with a lid. Theoretically the box--i.e. the face, mind and head--can be closed off anytime, leaving the body available for anybody who wants to use it. These women tend to see men as rather silly and when you observe how men behave it’s easy to see why they feel that way. Say four men come out of a bar and one says, “Let’s go get some girls,” and they’re all joking and having a high old time, but once they go into a whorehouse and are separated from each other they turn into shy little boys and the girl has to be the aggressor. The men are really performing for each other and there’s a real homoerotic current to this behavior.


One could make the case that prostitution is about people paying money to avoid having to be genuinely intimate with each other; would you agree with that?

E.K.: There’s probably some truth to that, but so what? If you’re marriage-oriented, that idea probably seems like a travesty, but the same thing isn’t right for everybody and we don’t all need the same things. Some people want to lay down their $50, relieve themselves of a physical tension, then go to the movies or go sailing. They don’t want all that emotional baggage, and that’s the great lure of prostitution--people want satisfaction and don’t want the involvement.


It’s odd that you have such a pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts view of male-female relations, as most people who know you regard you as an extraordinarily romantic couple.

E.K.: I see us that way too, but it took me a long time and several wives before I got to the point where I was complete enough as a human being and as a man to be worthy of Nancy. I had to learn that life isn’t like the movies I grew up on where the hero kisses the heroine and they walk hand in hand into the sunset and it says “the end” where it should say “the beginning.”

Raising my two kids played a big role in helping me grow up about these things, too. I got custody of my kids in 1963 and suddenly I was both mommy and daddy. I was raised on a farm where there was women’s work and men’s work and never the twain shall meet, and it was a big breakthrough for me to realize that I could nourish two little kids and it didn’t diminish me as a man. That allowed me to expand the feminine part of my nature, which was something I’d always denied. Everybody has masculine and feminine in them and to exercise either one doesn’t make you more or less.

But getting back to your question about prostitution, everyone isn’t as fortunate as Nancy and I have been, and it’s not written in stone that man is a monogamous animal. There are animals who mate once for life, but man isn’t one of them. As to why we’ve been struggling for centuries to conform to that structure, I can only assume it started a long time ago in a cave when somebody said, “We need to go out and hunt and since I can’t kill the mastodon by myself, I want you all to come with me and maybe we can kill the mastodon together.” When you’re sticking your stick in the saber-toothed tiger you want to be sure the guy next to you is gonna stick his stick in too--it needed to be a cohesive effort and they discovered that it caused dissension in the group for one guy to be messing with somebody else’s old lady. Somewhere along the line that thinking led us into what we now call civilization, and all the “thou shalt nots” we try to obey in this puritanical culture. And unfortunately, this country seems to be moving even more to the right at the moment, and this shift probably has a lot to do with the economy. When people get scared about money they tend to get conservative and self-righteous.


“The Hoerengracht” has been exhibited three times in Europe, but this will be its first U.S. showing. Do you expect a different reading of the work here?

E.K.: I suppose that there will be the outraged matrons.

N.R.K.: I disagree--I don’t think you’ll hear complaints from women. I think men are more likely to have trouble with the piece.


Have you made works you feel are simply too abrasive to be exhibited?

E.K.: Sometimes we’ll have to live with a piece for a few months before we put it out there, and we have a couple in the studio right now that once we wash the vomit off them they’ll be ready to show. We have a piece about child abuse that’s called “The Bear Chair” that I’m ready to show, but Nancy still has mixed feelings about it. I’ve never regretted showing a piece either--the only piece that ever came close to bringing up feelings of that nature was “Illegal Operation” (a tableau completed in 1962 depicting a grisly backstreet abortion).


In the criticism of your work--and in the general public response to it--it seems that the formal aspects of your art are often overlooked, probably because the content is so volatile. Would you agree?

E.K.: That’s very true and it bothers me a lot. Yesterday I was talking to (San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art director) Hugh Davies while we were installing the piece and he was responding to the sections as if they were paintings--he was seeing the structure of the piece and the way color and design work in it. He was thrilled with what he was seeing too, and it was gratifying to me to have someone appreciate that part of what we do. What usually happens is the viewer will look and say, “Oh, it’s a war memorial or it’s a bordello,” then stop looking. They can’t seem to take the work in both as a totality and as an artwork, and figure once they’ve “gotten it” the experience is completed. Considering the amount of time Nancy and I spend working on these things, making adjustments that are a fraction of an inch and talking through decisions about how a piece will look--all that seems to be lost on the viewer, and it’s frustrating for us. Obviously there’s a lot of crap put out as art, but we never put a piece into the world casually and scrap about 10% of what we make. In fact, we just took a large standing sculpture with two figures, painted and fiberglassed, that we’d been looking at for about a year and finally decided it wasn’t good enough. So we had it smashed and thrown in the dump.


Last September you exhibited a large work at the L.A. Louver Gallery titled “The Merry-Go-World,” a piece you described as being about “the random accident of birth.” To what degree do we control our destiny once we get here?

E.K.: We have a lot of control once we get here and you can affect what happens to you. Say you decide you want to be a creative person--there’s no magic involved. You just put yourself in touch with the creative side of yourself and start doing it.


In researching “The Merry-Go-World” you traveled to countries of extreme poverty--which environment you visited disturbed you the most?

N.R.K.: India. Life there is unbelievably hard and that may be why the people there have such highly developed spiritual lives. You have to have something when you’re that poor, and what they have is the belief that things will be better for them after they die.


And what do you believe happens after death?

E.K.: I can tell you with absolute certainty that when you die you stop. You don’t dance off on the hand of God or come back as a mosquito--you stop and you go into oblivion, and that sounds great to me. I don’t have any expectations other than right now, today, and that puts a great deal of pressure on today--and I love the pressure. I have no proof of what I believe, of course, but I do know the world would be a much better place if people weren’t running around with fantasies of other worlds and other lives. I was recently asked what I’d do for the world if I had magic powers and my answer was that I’d eliminate all organized religions and all memory of organized religions. That would make everybody responsible for their own lives today .