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L.A.'s so aujourd’hui

Special to The Times

LYN KIENHOLZ may be the most important macher in the Los Angeles art world you’ve never heard of. She can seem innocuous in her sensible sandals and faded pink Chateau Marmont sweatshirt. But the names on the 3-by-5 cards she keeps in old library file drawers will make your eyes spin.

Attend one of her dinner parties and you’ll find yourself at a large oaken table, seated, perhaps, between actor Bob Hoskins and the director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, across from an opera producer and an 85-year-old Beverly Hills patron of contemporary music.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 05, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Gallery locations -- An article in Sunday’s Calendar section about art figure Lyn Kienholz said that the Huysman and Ferus galleries were on La Brea Boulevard. They were on La Cienega Boulevard.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 05, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Gallery locations -- An article last Sunday about art figure Lyn Kienholz said that the Huysman and Ferus galleries were on La Brea Boulevard. They were on La Cienega Boulevard.

From years of such gatherings, and the happy creative collisions that inevitably result, have come lifelong friendships, major art exhibits, book projects and even new institutions -- L.A. Opera was conceived here.

This artful matchmaking goes back to the days of her marriage to Ed Kienholz, the late Los Angles sculptor and assemblage maker, and it’s led her to a host of cultural “assemblages” of her own. She was advisor for the 1998 show “Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A., 1960-1997" at the UCLA Hammer Museum, and organized an exhibit about L.A. architects Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Fred Fisher and Koning Eizenberg -- “Architecture for the New Millennium” -- that traveled to Macao, Taiwan and mainland China.

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Most recently, she’s acted as “sherpa” -- part organizer, part facilitator, part innkeeper -- for “Los Angeles 1955-1985,” the upcoming exhibition of works by more than 80 Los Angeles artists at the Pompidou Center.

As the idea for the show took shape, say Pompidou officials, there was no question she’d be directly involved in making it happen. As Ann Goldstein, senior curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art -- a major contributor of works for the show -- puts it, “Museum directors from around the world call Lyn first when they come to L.A.”

Though Kienholz characteristically downplays her work on the show, saying, “I’m just the schlepper,” in fact, she recommended artists to consider, escorted the Pompidou curator during her trips to Los Angeles and smoothed logistics.It was just the sort of behind-the-scenes role she’s been perfecting for decades.

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Once, art was incidental

“LYN helped birth the L.A. art scene,” says Henry Hopkins, former director of UCLA’s Hammer and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who’s known Kienholz for “years and years and years.” They met in the late 1950s, when Hopkins opened the Huysman Gallery on La Brea across from Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz’s Ferus Gallery -- L.A.'s first avant-garde gallery to deal exclusively with West Coast art.

Lyn was gallery sitter at Ferus, a day job she took to help support her hoped-for career in theater and film. Art was incidental to her -- “I had been in a museum exactly once until I left home,” she says. She’d grown up in a “meat and potatoes family” in Evanston, Ill., then gone to school outside Washington, D.C. (Sullins College and Maryland College for Women), done some modeling and followed her attraction to the theater.

“I wasn’t so much interested in acting as I was in producing,” she says. “The producer gets control.” But that route was blocked in Hollywood, she says, by rules impeding women from the guilds. So she turned her attention to the nascent L.A. art world, starting with the Ferus artists."Many of the guys would come over to our house because my roommate, painter Marcia Hafif, and I knew how to cook,” Kienholz explains in her intense, high-pitched voice. “The guys” being the likes of Hopps, Hopkins, painter Richards Ruben and, of course, Ed Kienholz.

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“It was an interesting time for Ed and Lyn,” Hopkins recalls. “They seemed like a very unlikely couple. Ed was a big burly person and then there was Lyn, with all her interests. We all wondered if it would last.” For a while it did. Lyn and Ed got together and soon acquired a former Nubian goat farm and speak-easy at the top of Laurel Canyon -- where they set up a house and a studio for Ed.

More gregarious than Ed, Lyn actively championed his art, such as the infamous 1964 work “Back Seat Dodge ’38" -- a truncated car with male and female mannequins in the back seat engaged in heavy petting among empty beer bottles.

Their place, above the Chateau Marmont, was near the old, funky brown clapboard house in which the Byrds lived. The two Kienholz kids (from his previous marriages) went to Wonderland Avenue School, one canyon over, with the children of Carole King and Cheech and Chong. “It was a great time,” Kienholz says, eyes twinkling. And when she and Ed split up, she got her own place -- taking the rousing social scene with her.

Today, up in the Hollywood Hills, past the homes of Charlize Theron, Gore Vidal and David Lynch, Kienholz lives in a vintage L.A. house -- chock full of Ed Kienholz’s work, along with art by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney, among others. She bought the house in 1974, soon after she left Ed, and before long she was running an illegal restaurant -- akin to a Cuban paladare -- in her attic. Those in the know showed up (reservations were required) for a home-cooked meal and conversation while Lichtenstein’s son Mitchell bused dishes and Kienholz made some pin money. Hockney, Dagny Corcoran, Sam Francis, jazz great Don Cherry and conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Riccardo Chailly all came through her doors. David Rockefeller dropped by with Michael Newton, the late president of the Music Center. Fashion designer Rudy Gernreich said he loved to go -- it was the only restaurant in town where it was perfectly OK for him to smoke dope during a meal.

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The home office

FAMOUS or not, all visitors enter Kienholz’s house through a Dutch door that leads to a smallish kitchen whose dark brown woodwork gives it the cozy feeling of a mountain cabin. From a large adjacent “office,” Kienholz runs the California/International Arts Foundation, a nonprofit she began in 1981 to promote California artists here and abroad. “I kept hearing there’s no good art over there in L.A. when Ed and I traveled for international exhibitions,” she says. “That made me want to do something.”

The work space is cluttered but efficient, accommodating file cabinets, computers, shelves full of art books and catalogs, a washer and dryer, and a sitting area for her black Lab. A portrait of her hangs hidden behind the bathroom door. The shower is used for wine storage.

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From this quiet perch, for the last 25 years, Kienholz has phoned, mailed, shipped, faxed and e-mailed her energy into dozens of projects. The arts foundation has been involved with a range of ventures -- mounting the California Sculpture Show during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, which then traveled to five European countries; publishing “Memoria: Cuban Art of the Twentieth Century,” an encyclopedic 575-page volume covering 500 artists that was 11 years in the making; coordinating the production of “Mambo Mass,” composed and performed by Israel Lopez (Cachao) at St. Vincent Church in 2003.

Kienholz organized the first retrospective (and a handsome companion book) about the late Lee Miller -- model, photographer and protege of Man Ray -- at seven museums in the U.S., including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. “Lee Miller was a friend. She changed my life,” Kienholz says. “She taught me I could live on own and be myself. It’s rare to be able to pay a friendship back -- that’s what I did with that project.”

Kienholz works with her Macedonia-born associate Elizabeta (“Boom-Boom”) Betinski, who, sporting a full-color tattoo from shoulder to forearm, handles all of the technical and video needs for the foundation and its two websites, Artsconversations.org and Netropolitan.org.

Up the steep, narrow stairs from the office are two “apartments,” the former “restaurant” -- now a finished attic the width of the house -- and a sunny guest room where writers, artists, musicians and international arts personalities stay when they’re in Los Angeles.

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Hosting as she helps

GUESTS at Chez Lyn late last year included Alfred Pacquement, the director of Musee National D’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and his boss, Bruno Racine, president of Centre Pompidou -- along with their wives, Caroline and Beatrice. The two couples could have just as easily stayed in the best Los Angeles hotels. But they encamp here because this is where “it’s comfortable,” Pacquement says.

The French cultural leaders were in L.A. to wrap up details for their March show, and with Kienholz being their collaborating partner and point person on the ground, Pacquement and Racine wanted to coordinate their last-minute activities with her.

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Kienholz has been successfully promoting Los Angeles art abroad for many years, and as an unintended consequence, built an international profile for herself. She is the only “civilian” to be a board member of the International Committee of Modern Art Museums, whose directors and curators meet regularly to advance the thought and practice of modern art museums.

The invitation to join came about because she had built good working relationships with museums, and most of the members knew her. “I was fun and could drink,” she says. And with typical honesty, she adds, “It pays to have been married to an internationally known and respected artist. One gets known!

“I don’t approach anything intellectually,” Kienholz says. “I do it from the gut, and you can’t do that in big institutions. I wouldn’t last very long. I’m not very diplomatic. I’m very outspoken. I hate pretenses. I don’t stop to think about things, I just do them.”

Sculptor Betye Saar, who will have several works in the Pompidou show, notes, “Lyn has a knack for commingling people together from the arts, outside the context of their work. This actually personalizes their art in a special way. She’s a collector of people -- that’s her true art form.”

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Because Kienholz is in a position of power -- Pacquement calls her his “collaborator” -- she has to live with the consequences. “Artists or their friends would call asking to know why they weren’t included in the Pompidou show,” she says. “On the other hand, there are artists who should have been included that were not.”

It’s the stage manager in Kienholz that makes her effective. “I make a checklist and just follow it through. I keep going over it. Which is maybe the reason I can’t talk and drive at the same time,” she says, en route to Santa Monica’s Miles Playhouse for an event sponsored by LACMA’s Institute for Art and Cultures and the Santa Monica Cultural Affairs Division. She’s been asked to moderate a conversation with Pacquement while he’s in town.

On a stage that she’s helped decorate with large, comfortable chairs from home, Kienholz begins the evening with a PowerPoint presentation about Pacquement, whom she’s known since 1969 when he was associate curator for an Ed Kienholz show in Paris. Up comes a wedding picture of the Pacquements, looking very young. The audience -- arts and culture professionals, friends and Kienholz’s stepson Noah, among others -- giggles. Pacquement appears a bit disconcerted. But he is a good sport as Kienholz proceeds with a “This Is Your Life” biography.

“When I had been in Paris,” Kienholz says, “while staying with the Pacquement family, he asked me at breakfast one morning what I thought about the idea of this L.A. show. I said I thought it was a fabulous idea -- was I supposed to say it’s a bad idea?”

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Later that night, back at the house, Caroline Pacquement and Beatrice Racine throw together a light meal of salad, baguette, cheese and red wine from groceries they purchased that afternoon.

Bruno Racine sips a glass of red wine and looks out the picture window past the narrow garden at a carpet of twinkling lights that stretches to Long Beach. He picks up Pacquement’s earlier thought: “The art of Southern California is flourishing. We are very interested in West Coast artists and may try to keep some of their works once the show is over.”

“Ah,” he continues, remarking about the view. “Los Angeles. There’s nothing like this in France.”

“Yes,” Kienholz says, inhaling on the word -- her mannerism indicating complete agreement.

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The group is quiet as it takes in the panorama.

Kienholz breaks the reverie. “I have the best world in the entire world.”

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Koppelman is a filmmaker, screenwriter and author living in Berkeley.

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