When Ed Kienholz died Friday at 66 we lost more than a great American artist, as if that weren’t melancholy enough. We lost a leading avatar of the Beat Generation. In the ‘50s, tiny bands of bohemian poets and artists in Venice, North Beach and Greenwich Village rebelled against those homogenizing times, igniting a cultural youth revolution that altered the fabric of American life forever.
Well, maybe nothing is forever. Maybe the cut of Kienholz’s passing stings with such special smartness because it is the omen of the passing of an era as well as the loss of a hero.
He was part of a time of voracious artistic curiosity. Growing up on an isolated farm near his birthplace in Fairfield, Wash., Kienholz found life austere, his father strict, his mother a rigorous fundamentalist. He stared at the distant lights of Spokane and dreamed of a place he called, “Out There.” At 17, he hit the road where his picaresque exploits made Jack Kerouac’s later adventures look a little tame.
Where the later Beats would model themselves on black jazz musicians, European Existentialism, and Japanese Zen, Kienholz was magnetized to the rhythm of honky-tonk America. Dives like Barney’s Beanery and brothels like Roxie’s outside Las Vegas became subjects of later work. It was all basically autobiographical.
He was entirely self-taught and absolutely in the mold of the American rugged individualist and self-made man. In the end, no one category of endeavor could contain him, but one where he decidedly earned a place was in the annals of American folklore along with Paul Bunyan, P. T. Barnum and Billy Sunday.
He was a strapping Big Daddy type who ran his family like a clan and sported a Beelzebub goatee with eyebrows to match. He loved hunting, vintage cars and kids. He was married four times, finally to his art partner Nancy Reddin Kienholz, daughter of former LAPD top cop Tom Reddin.
A shrewd operator and ferocious deal-maker, the artist recalled that as a young man he needed a house so he bought a duplex, cut it in half with a chain-saw, sold one piece for the price he’d paid for the whole and lived in the other half for free.
As a gambler he was all but unbeatable. He could calculate odds in his head and shoot pool as if it were chess. He relished wiping out his friends but there were limits. Once, broke in San Francisco, he had a clean chance to roll a drunk who was literally bristling with $100 bills. Instead, he stuck him in a cab and intimidated the driver into taking him straight home.
His fundamental compassion fueled masterpieces like “The Wait,” and “Sollie 17,” which concern the blight of age and loneliness.
He settled in Los Angeles in 1953, having found it possible to swap a piece of his art to get a toothache fixed. Before founding the cradle of the L.A. avant garde with Walter Hopps in the Ferus gallery, he started galleries of his own, usually in theater spaces like the old avant-garde Coronet on La Cienega. It was prescient. His art would be intensely theatrical. In a world where the categorical membranes were more permeable, it would be easy to get Keinholz a spot along with Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter in the Theater of the Absurd.
Artistically, he invented the life-size tableau, rescuing the same 19th-Century form of polite entertainment that inspired the Laguna “Pageant of the Masters.” By the time of his controversial 1966 retrospective at the County Museum of Art, aesthetics were going minimal. Kienholz’s notion of using life-size spaces would serve art as different from his own as the austere California Light and Space, but for him the idea was to get everything in, sex and religion, comedy and tragedy, the cliche and the profound.
Kienholz and the museum faced down the vulgarian attackers on the County Board of Supervisors and won more than the battle to show “Back Seat Dodge ’38.” They won the museum’s political independence.
In 1973, the Kienholzes moved to Berlin. In Europe, where they have the distance to appreciate American vernacular culture, Kienholz was revered as an American original like jazz, comics, Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis. His influence shows in the work of Joseph Beuys and probably helped fuel German Neo-Expressionism.
I visited him and Nancy last summer at their idyllic summer compound on a lake near the little town of Hope, Ida. A bit leery at first of his reputation as a practical joker, I found him admirable and sensitive. Up there, Kienholz was the great patriarch, surrounded by the young artists he liked to help, his family, old friends like Monte and Betty Factor, and a little African American girl nicknamed Tank he and Nancy informally adopted as part of a foundation to help poor kids.
Ed was clearly planning to depart the planet. He said the studios would go to the University of Idaho as a museum and training center. He had diabetes and could no longer feel his feet, but commented: “I’ve had a good run, a marvelous life. If it’s time to go I’m not worried about it.”
Now he’s gone. His admirers worry that somehow he won’t get his artistic due since he has never had a major retrospective. One is planned for New York’s Whitney Museum in 1996 but lots could go wrong. Most of his major works belong to European collectors. Shipping costs will be enormous. What if there are changes at the museum?
Well-wishers should be inclined, I think, to share Kienholz’s serenity. If it’s time to happen, it will happen. And, more important: It is simply impossible to imagine a history of the American aesthetic without him.