Nancy Reddin Kienholz was an artist in her own right, but one of her biggest moments came in 2011 when her late husband’s “Five Car Stud” was about to go on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Edward Kienholz was famous for raunchy installations, the kind that almost led to the closure of LACMA’s retrospective of his work in 1966. The horrific scene of “Five Car Stud” — life-size vehicles shining headlights on a white gang castrating a black man — was a gut-wrencher. As public officials and other guests began to preview what was bound to be a controversial show, some were disturbed by the subject matter.
“You could see the wheels turning,” said curator Stephanie Barron, who organized the exhibition. “There could have been a problem. But then Nancy spoke in such a heartfelt, honest way that it took my breath away.”
As keeper of Kienholz’s legacy, Reddin Kienholz thwarted any challenge to “Five Car Stud” by talking about the work, which had languished in storage since its 1972 debut at the Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Kienholz had died of a heart attack in 1994, before the piece had been restored, and his wife reluctantly stepped into the daunting project. Though physically arduous and emotionally devastating, the process of bringing the work back to life was “an enormous labor of love,” Barron said.
“At the museum she talked about why Ed made the piece and what motivated him to deal with racism in our country. The piece is really anti-racist, and she put it into an understandable context. People listened and heard. Her ability to disarm potentially negative reaction spoke volumes about her understanding of the work, her relationship to Ed and her capacity to speak on behalf of the art in a truly inspired way.”
Reddin Kienholz died Wednesday at her Houston home at age 75 after hospitalization for an undisclosed illness, said Peter Goulds, owner of L.A. Louver, the Venice gallery that has represented the couple’s work since 1981.
The daughter of Betty Jane and Thomas Reddin, who was police chief of Los Angeles from 1967 to 1969, Nancy Reddin was born in Los Angeles on Dec. 9, 1943. She married at 19, had a daughter, Christine, in 1964, and became a single mother who held various jobs before settling on court reporting and photography.
Her life took a dramatic turn in summer 1972, when she met Kienholz at a party hosted by her parents for writer Irving Stone and his wife, Jane. According to an account written by art collector Monte Factor, Nancy spotted Ed sitting alone in a corner and struck up a conversation that continued for 22 years. It was “a loving, fighting, art-creating love affair that exceeded in intensity, fusion, and consistency” anything Factor had ever seen.
Nancy soon became Ed’s fifth wife and they merged their families, which included Kienholz’s two children, Jennette and Noah. They moved to Berlin, later established homes in Hope, Idaho, and Houston, and continued to be strong-willed outsiders in a rarefied art world. He was self-taught; she learned photography on her own claimed to have attended the School of Kienholz throughout their partnership.
“They did everything together,” Goulds said. And their art inevitably changed, growing in ambition and complexity while delving into women’s issues.
The evolution was of particular interest to Colin Wiggins, a retired curator at the National Gallery in London, who in 2009 oversaw the venerable institution’s installation of “The Hoerengracht” (Whores’ Canal), a walk-in re-creation of Amsterdam’s red light district.
“Ed’s work as a solo artist is grotesque, angry and macho,” Wiggins wrote in an email. “His subjects were often things that angered him. His work yells out its rage to the spectator. This didn’t change when Nancy came along. The rage continued, but now the work gently added another feature that I would define as empathy.”
In a 1960-61 Kienholz sex-trade piece called “Roxys,” the women are repulsive characters, Wiggins noted, whereas the women in “The Hoerengracht” (made in the 1980s) are meant to evoke real people. “Viewers can identify with them, look into their faces and wonder at their sad stories.”
In 1981 Kienholz issued a statement acknowledging Reddin Kienholz’s essential role and granting co-authorship credit for all works made from 1972 onward. “Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who in the partnership did what,” Wiggins wrote. “Neither was seeking credit for their own contribution and each was supporting the ideas and creativity of the other, as equals.”
After Kienholz’s death, Reddin Kienholz made assemblage sculpture and returned to photography, exploring optical technology. An exhibition of her work at L.A. Louver in 2008 featured lenticular works, in which the image shifts as the viewer’s position changes.
She is survived by her mother, Betty Reddin; brother Michael Reddin; daughters Christine and Jennette Kienholz; son Noah Kienholz; and granddaughter Leah Kienholz-Kerr.