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The Shock of the Old

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

A grotesque troupe of prostitutes--Five Dollar Billy, Miss Cherry Delight, Cockeyed Jenny, a Lady Named Zoa and Dianna Poole, Miss Universal--has moved into the Museum of Contemporary Art. Fashioned of everything from dolls, mannequins and women’s underwear to a bedpan and a trash can, these sculptural figures inhabit “Roxys,” a brothel-like installation in “Kienholz: A Retrospective,” which opens today at the museum’s California Plaza building.

Seen through large, open windows along one wall of the room-size artwork, “Roxys” is an intentionally revolting sight--a brothel as chamber of horrors. The “working girls” are portrayed as burned-out sex machines, bloody carcasses, grinning zombies or, in the case of Miss Cherry Delight, a head spinning in front of a dressing table mirror. Their employer, who may be the world’s ugliest madame, is a matronly sentry whose oversize head resembles a cow’s skull.

The women ply their trade in a dingy parlor furnished with Oriental rugs, upholstered couches and chairs, wood tables, fussy lamps and enough dated bric-a-brac to stock a small thrift shop. A photographic portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur hangs by the door, next to a jukebox playing music from the 1940s. Maxfield Parrish prints of Greek temples and a June 1943 calendar decorate other walls. On the tables are crocheted doilies, dirty ashtrays, dishes of candy, metal cigarette cases and--in refreshing contrast--a fishbowl containing two live goldfish.

Ambitious as it is--in both physical form and social message--"Roxys” is only one of 150 works in a 40-year survey organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The exhibition provides an overview of the late Edward Kienholz’s solo enterprise and his collaborations with Nancy Reddin Kienholz. The artist met his future wife and working partner, the daughter of former Los Angeles Police Chief Tom Reddin, in 1972. Her professional status became official in 1981, when Kienholz declared, “My life and art have been enriched and incredibly fulfilled by Nancy’s presence” and said all works made from 1972 onward would bear both of their signatures.

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Edward Kienholz was born in 1927 in Fairfield, Wash., and grew up on his family’s farm. He came to Los Angeles for the first time in 1952, returned the following year and lived here until 1972. During his 20-year sojourn, he established himself as an enormously energetic, socially conscious assemblage artist who found most of his materials among other people’s castoffs.

Kienholz was a major figure on the local art scene. He co-founded the legendary Ferus Gallery with art historian and curator Walter Hopps in 1957, and his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966 was a highly controversial affair. County supervisors threatened to close the exhibition on the grounds that one work, “Back Seat Dodge ’38,"--which depicts a couple making out in the back seat of a truncated car--was obscene. The show went on, with bigger crowds.

Kienholz also gained recognition in New York during the 1960s, showing his work in “The Art of Assemblage,” a seminal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Alexander Iolas Gallery. But his working class mentality and fierce aversion to the art world’s machinations propelled him away from glittering art centers.

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“Ed had a real distaste for the art world’s ratio of phonies to real people,” says David A. Ross, director of the Whitney. “He had nothing but disdain for people whose commitment to art was less than his. They played in art; he worked in art.”

Kienholz won a grant from the German government to work in Berlin in 1973. He and Nancy subsequently divided their time between Berlin and Hope, Idaho. But after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he found the city a far less interesting place to work. The couple bought a house and studio in Houston in 1991 and began spending three months of each year there, three months in Berlin and six months in Hope.

He died of a massive heart attack in 1994 and was buried in his 1940 Packard, with a dollar in his pocket, a bottle of Italian red wine, a deck of cards and his cremated dog Stash, who had died 10 days earlier. The Kienholz retrospective was already in advanced stages of planning, with Hopps as guest curator, so there was no need to cancel it.

“There’s nothing here that Ed wasn’t aware of, or that we didn’t talk about,” Hopps says, looking around the galleries at MOCA. “But I miss him enormously.” Hopps says he had to persuade the artist to have the show, but he became excited about it as plans took shape.

Ross agrees. “Ed was totally into it. He was having a blast, thinking about how it was going to work. He was very pragmatic, so he didn’t allow himself flights of fancy and he didn’t shy away from twisting arms or raising funds,” Ross says. “I really miss the guy.”

The exhibition debuted this spring at the Whitney and had “a gratifying response,” Ross says. Attendance ranged from 6,000 to 7,000 on peak days.

“People in New York don’t expect anyone to have the kind of integrity he had throughout his life,” Ross says. “It’s hard in New York to be respected for being consistent, and Ed was a deeply moral artist who managed to maintain an uncompromising commitment and vision. But New York isn’t all jaded cynics. An enormous number of people responded. Those who buttonholed me said they had no idea of the magnitude and power of his work.”

For the public in Los Angeles, the exhibition is a rare chance to see a wide range of works by a highly revered maker of hard-hitting assemblages and tableaux, including “Roxys,” Edward Kienholz’s first artwork-as-environment. He built the piece in Los Angeles in 1961-62 and staged its debut at the Ferus Gallery in 1962. “Roxys” has been reassembled for exhibitions since then. But it belongs to Berlin collector Reinhard Onnasch--who bought it in 1970 and now owns 30 Kienholz works--and most MOCA visitors will be getting their first look at it. Much the same can be said of many other pieces, gathered from public and private collections in the United States, Europe and Japan.

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For people behind the scenes, however, the Kienholz retrospective is the culmination of an enormous effort. “We talk about two-truck shows or three-truck shows,” says MOCA registrar Rob Hollister, referring to the number of moving vans required to deliver a traveling exhibition. “The Cy Twombly show used three trucks. This one has 11.”

Although “Kienholz” doesn’t occupy as much square footage as some of MOCA’s sprawling exhibitions at the Geffen Contemporary (formerly the Temporary Contemporary) in Little Tokyo, it is by far the biggest exhibition in the museum’s history in terms of transport space. The closest contender is the Claes Oldenburg retrospective, which moved from one museum to another in a measly eight trucks. The components of “Roxys” alone were packed in about 50 crates. After the show closes in Los Angeles, on Nov. 3, it will require two 747 air freighters to take it to the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin for its final appearance, Feb. 14 to April 20, 1997.

For several days during the show’s installation in Los Angeles, electronically climate controlled trucks from Atlas Van Lines pulled into the museum’s loading dock on lower Grand Avenue. Nancy Reddin Kienholz kept a close watch as MOCA’s crew and six members of her staff unloaded wood crates, eased them up on dollies, tagged them with numbers corresponding to galleries where they would be displayed and rolled them into the museum.

Inside, the show took shape as the crates were opened and every last lightbulb, stuffed animal and miniature American flag was put in place. The final touches were live components: a parakeet, fish and what Nancy calls “a whole ecosystem.” The parakeet sits in a cage by a shriveled old woman in “The Wait.” The fish are installed in “Roxys” and “The State Hospital,” a tableau featuring two emaciated figures with fishbowls for heads who are strapped to metal bunk beds. The ecosystem--including water, aquatic plants and young frogs--fills the inside of a metal piano in “The Tadpole Piano Pool With Woman Affixed,” while a pregnant female figure reclines on the keyboard,

“It’s like moving a circus,” Hopps says of the complicated process.

Tom Preiss, a longtime member of the Kienholz staff, takes the complexities in stride, but he fusses when too many technicians crowd into “Roxys” to check out a smoke detector. “The main challenge is sweating to make sure nothing breaks,” he says while tinkering with the motor that rotates Miss Cherry Delight’s head.

“It would be easier to move a show of Meissen china,” Hopps says. “At least the parts would be compatible.” He illustrates his point with Five Dollar Billy, a sculpture composed of a mixed-media woman’s body lying across the base of a treadle sewing machine, attached by springs. As Hopps works the treadle, the nude figure moves up and down, simulating sexual intercourse. “This metal base would crack if it were dropped or had a shock, but you can pick it up,” he says. “The opposite is true of the figure. It can take a shock but you can’t [safely] pick it up.”

No wonder Ross opens his catalog essay by saying, “Nothing about the work of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz is easy.” It’s tough to look at, tough to maintain, tough to move and tough to show. Nonetheless, their art has gained a wide audience, critical respect and--over the years--private collectors and public museums willing to use their resources to acquire a Kienholz.

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Prices for the work currently range from $25,000 for a small piece to about $1.6 million, paid recently by the Berlinische Galerie for “The Art Show,” a satirical tableau in the form of an art gallery. Purchased with lottery funds, the large installation commanded the top sum ever paid for a Kienholz, says dealer Peter Goulds, who has represented the artists since 1981 at L.A. Louver in Venice.

The retrospective has sparked several other sales and pending negotiations, Goulds says. In the past few months, two works have gone to museums in Houston at undisclosed prices. The Menil Collection purchased “John Doe,” a 1959 piece depicting an American hero as a disabled victim, while the Museum of Fine Arts acquired “Feedin’ the Hog,” a 1993-94 work in which a pig eats a fish that symbolizes Christianity.

Goulds first encountered Edward Kienholz’s work in 1971, when an international traveling exhibition of his tableaux--organized by Pontus Hulton, then director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm--appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. At the time, Goulds was a student, planning a career in arts education. “I hadn’t even the remotest idea of organizing a gallery or representing him,” he says, “but the power of that show remains with me today. I can close my eyes and see the whole thing.”

A decade later, when Goulds persuaded the Kienholzes to join his gallery, their work was well represented in European museums but not in this country. The only major works in American museums were “The Wait” at the Whitney and “The Friendly Grey Computer--Star Gauge Model 54" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Both were gifts of Howard and Jean Lipman. “You could find a number of early paintings in museum collections around the country, mainly donated by private collectors, but that was it,” Goulds says.

Today, however, “there’s a pretty even distribution,” he says, with about equal representation in American and European museums. As for Kienholz works in private collections, America now has more than Europe.

Loans to the retrospective come from public and private collections in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Japan and the United States. Among American museums represented are the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Walker Art Center and the Frederick R. Weisman Museum in Minneapolis, the Menil Collection and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and New York’s Whitney and Museum of Modern Art.

In addition, four works--including “Back Seat Dodge ’38"--are from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Lannan Foundation has provided “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps,” a humorous likeness of the curator, and the Norton Simon Museum has loaned “The Secret House of Eddie Critch.” More than dozen other works are from local private collections.

Goulds says exhibitions have played a key role in developing the Kienholz market. “Most important in opening up the public domain,” he says, was “Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz: Human Scale,” a traveling show organized by Henry T. Hopkins in 1984, when he was director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition gathered steam and works were added to it as it moved across the country, and several museums made Kienholz acquisitions.

Various gallery shows have spread the Kienholz word during the last decade both in Europe and the United States. And in 1989, Jurgen Harten, director of the Stadtische Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, whose support of Edward Kienholz dates back to the 1960s, organized “Edward and Nancy Kienholz: 1980’s” which traveled to the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna.

Edward Kienholz often grumbled about what he perceived as a lack of interest in his work in the United States, but Goulds says that was largely a matter of circumstance. “After 1970, Ed himself didn’t allow his work to be seen in the United States, not because of a judgment against the country but because he found the working environment so favorable in Berlin,” he says. “It suited a certain language of form and substance. Therefore that’s where the work was seen.”

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“Kienholz: A Retrospective,” Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown. Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Through Nov. 3. $6. (213) 626-6222.


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