IN 1962, the year Edward Kienholz made his devastating assemblage sculpture “The Illegal Operation,” newspapers and television screens were filled with the terrible story of Sherri Finkbine, cheerful mother of four and the popular “Miss Sherri” on the Phoenix franchise of the children’s television show “Romper Room.” Finkbine had learned that early in her fifth pregnancy, she had taken headache medication containing the drug Thalidomide, suspected of causing severe fetal deformities. Despite that, she was denied an abortion in her home state, where the procedure was illegal.
Amid a blaze of hostile publicity, Finkbine and her husband left for Sweden to have the operation. She was vilified by politicians, humiliated in the media, condemned on Vatican radio, threatened with death by anonymous telephone callers and fired from her television station. Her husband was suspended from his teaching job. After the abortion, Swedish doctors confirmed that the fetus had no legs and just one arm.
Kienholz’s sculpture, on view in a new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, exemplifies a dramatic shift in the long-contentious abortion debate, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade. Of an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 American women who each year underwent back-alley abortions in the 1950s and 1960s, untold numbers died or were maimed. Their grim fate was mostly hidden behind a screen of moralizing silence; but suddenly, Finkbine’s tragic story thrust an all-American mom into the glaring abortion spotlight.
For his sculpture, Kienholz dumped a sagging gray bag of wet cement on top of a supermarket shopping cart covered with soiled white rags and standing on a stained and shabby rug. Blunt instruments from the kitchen and garage are crammed into a filthy bedpan beneath it. A bucket and a chipped enamel pot are nearby, while dirty fingerprints mar a frilly lampshade, tilted in the direction of the lifeless, drooping “body.” Its innards ooze from a slit in the bag.
Equally disturbing is a short wooden stool painted pink. Seemingly incongruous, the chair is pivotal to the sculpture’s power. It’s placed as if offering a viewer the seat from which the grim butchery was performed.
“Put yourself in their place,” Kienholz’s sculpture in effect says. “Because whether it’s hidden or not, we all participate in this social horror.”
“The Illegal Operation” evokes the shocking injustice forced on desperate women by laws prohibiting abortion. Its gesture of empathetic identification, subtle yet profound, represented a cultural shift in focus -- one that soon overtook the fractious debate about terminating a pregnancy.
The sculpture is among a handful of Kienholz’s most important assemblages, almost all of them made in a prolific period between 1959 and 1966. Unlike “Backseat Dodge ’38,” the notorious 1964 assemblage showing tawdry, drunken sex in the back of a beat-up car, installed nearby in the exhibition, “The Illegal Operation” is the rare Kienholz masterpiece not already owned by an American or European museum.
The powerful work is instead on loan from a private collector. That fact, surprising in its own right, is doubly notable in a show titled “SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s From LACMA’s Collection.” Indeed, three additional works have also been lent to LACMA’s “collection” show. Given that all four are superlative, the museum is doubtless engaged in a public bit of wishful thinking about works it would like to acquire.
Two of the other loans are by Robert Irwin, the central figure in the awesome development of 1960s Light and Space art, which ranks as L.A.'s first, wholly original contribution to 20th century art. (The final loan is related -- a 1966 projection by James Turrell, in which a cube of light appears to hover in the corner of a room.)
The show’s five exceptional Irwin works chronicle a transformative period between the early 1960s and the early 1970s, offering a stunning capsule history of a major artist’s radical evolution. Would that they were permanently on view. (Incidentally, a 50-year Irwin retrospective is scheduled to open at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art on Oct. 21.)
The sequence culminates in Irwin’s breathtaking 1974 “Soft Wall,” a large, taut panel of stretched white fabric, its edges affixed to the ceiling, the floor and two side walls of a large gallery. Ceiling lights aimed toward the floor bounce reflected illumination, causing the white scrim to be opaque at the bottom and diaphanous at the top. Between the floor and the ceiling, the wall seems to dissolve, as if it were a plane of translucent white light. A hidden volume of perceptually accessible space -- otherwise unreachable and unknowable -- opens up behind it.
“SoCal,” which was organized by LACMA curator Carol Eliel, assembles 52 works by 28 artists. It includes eight pieces from the 1980s and 1990s that refer back to the 1960s and 1970s, the era when Los Angeles art first came to wide critical attention. Instead of being a comprehensive view, it follows two loose strands -- one abstract, the other figurative.
Light and Space variations are displayed on one side, with examples by Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Mary Corse, Doug Wheeler, Norman Zammitt and others, including Irwin and Turrell. Assemblage and Pop art are displayed on the other, starting with Kienholz and Wallace Berman and including George Herms, Michael McMillen, John Outterbridge, Bettye Saar and others.
The lines between these two groups sometimes blur, as in the marvelous 9-foot-tall, lipstick-red plank by John McCracken; the polyester resin and fiberglass wall relief “Roto,” by Ron Davis; and the sexy yellow and orange plexiglass “erotic thermometer” by Craig Kauffman. All meld abstract rigor with space-age flash.
The Pop section features fine examples by Billy Al Bengston, Llyn Foulkes, Joe Goode, Ken Price and other artists -- yet something very strange occurs. Two names that virtually define L.A. Pop are nowhere to be found. Neither Edward Ruscha nor David Hockney is represented, omissions that are frankly bizarre.
LACMA does own Ruscha’s great 1962 painting “Actual Size,” in which the label on a can of Spam streaks across the canvas like a falling star, trailing spattered paint beneath a billboard-size rendering of the brand name. By contrast, the museum doesn’t possess a Hockney painting from the period.
However, since four works LACMA would surely like to add to its collection were borrowed for the show -- one from a New York gallery -- Hockney’s absence might reflect the sobering reality of his works’ stratospheric place in today’s marketplace. His 1966 swimming pool painting “The Splash” sold last year at auction for $5.35 million. Any art museum would like to own a ‘60s Hockney, but is it even possible now?
Of course, who knows what might turn up in February, when the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum opens on LACMA’s Wilshire Boulevard campus? The current show was no doubt organized with that imminent debut in mind. (One of the Irwin loans comes from Edythe and Eli Broad’s private collection.) It can’t be mere coincidence that “SoCal” remains on view through March, just after the new Broad building opens.
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‘SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s From LACMA’s Collection’
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: Noon to 8 p.m. weekdays, to 9 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends, closed Wednesdays
Ends: March 30
Contact: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org