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Entertainment & Arts

Confronting the darkness of Ed Kienholz’s ‘Five Car Stud’ at LACMA

The story of Ed Kienholz’s “Five Car Stud” has been something of a mystery for decades. Made in Los Angeles between 1969 and 1972, it was the last work Kienholz completed here before moving to Berlin and one of the most powerful by any measure: a searing indictment of race relations in America, told with a stroke of blunt violence as alarming today as it was the year it was made.

The piece was shown, however, only in Germany before being acquired by a Japanese collector and disappearing into the vaults of the museum he would go on to found. It remained there until 2007, when it was sent to Kienholz’s widow and longtime collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, for restoration. When it opens at the L.A. County Museum of Art on Sept. 4, 17 years after the artist’s death, as part of the region-wide Pacific Standard Time initiative, it will be the first time the work has been publicly seen in nearly 40 years. It’s a development that leaves those closest to the piece excited and uneasy. Indeed, Reddin Kienholz flat-out refused initially to work on it, reluctant to immerse herself in such a dark chapter.

It is a difficult piece on multiple levels. It is enormous, for one thing: a tableau installation involving nine life-sized figures, five automobiles, several trees and a truckload of dirt. More difficult still is what the piece depicts: a circle of white men, lighted only by the headlights of the circled automobiles, pinning and castrating a lone black man, while a child cowers in one of the cars and a woman — presumably the victim’s companion — huddles and vomits in another.

The white figures are all realistically cast, but for the grotesque rubber masks on each of the men. The black figure’s face is uncannily bifurcated: a clear plastic outer face is frozen in a scream while a darker one within it is “sadly resigned and quiet,” as Kienholz put it in a statement at the time. His torso is made from a rectangular tin filled with black water, in which float letters that spell out a racial slur.

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“It’s a shocking piece,” says Reddin Kienholz, speaking from her studio in Idaho. “If your sympathy is with the plight of people, it’s a tough piece to deal with.”

Born in eastern Washington state, Ed Kienholz came to art by way of a variety of odd jobs — an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, a used-car salesman, manager of a dance band — with no formal training. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s and became quickly involved in the avant-garde art scene, opening the infamous Ferus Gallery with Walter Hopps in 1957. By the early 1960s, he’d focused on installation: large, free-standing tableau made from found and salvaged materials, often involving semi-realistic human figures and a forceful degree of social critique. Because they require the viewer to literally step into the scene, the works are unavoidably confrontational. The 1964 piece “Back Seat Dodge ’38" — a car containing two sexually entangled figures — nearly closed down his 1966 retrospective at LACMA, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called it “revolting, pornographic and blasphemous.”

Kienholz met Nancy Reddin in 1972, not long after finishing “Five Car Stud.” (“When I met him he said he had a white elephant sitting up on the hill in Los Angeles,” she says. “Because it’s so big!”) They combined their families from previous marriages and moved to Berlin the following year, never to return to Los Angeles in any permanent sense. They built a studio in Idaho and lived primarily between there and Berlin for the next 20 years. Kienholz later publicly declared that all the work made after 1972 was in collaboration with Reddin Kienholz, and today that work is attributed to the pair. Reddin Kienholz continues to manage the estate as well as to make her own work: assemblage sculpture, primarily, with a strong feminist undertone. Kienholz died of a heart attack in 1994 and was buried in Idaho, in the front seat of a 1940 Packard.

Winding road

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“Five Car Stud” was installed in Los Angeles only once: in the parking lot of the print studio Gemini G.E.L., to be photographed for a limited-edition book. When an attempt by then-LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman to include the piece in an exhibition of L.A. artists in London fell through in 1971, he made an appeal to his own institution. It was a tough sell coming so soon after Kienholz’s retrospective.

The following year, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann included the work in his now legendary Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany, where it was installed inside an inflated black dome. It traveled from there to Berlin and Dusseldorf, where it was acquired by Katsumi Kawamura, then president of the DIC Corporation, on the recommendation of his nephew, a poet. Kawamura’s collection became the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum in Sakura City, Japan, in 1990, but “Five Car Stud” was never exhibited.

LA Louver director Peter Goulds, the Kienholzs’ art dealer since 1981, says he began to hear rumors in the early 1990s that the museum was looking to divest the piece. “It was an idiosyncratic addition to the collection,” he says. “It didn’t have a place.” In 2005, a partnership was formed between LA Louver and Pace Gallery in New York to fund the restoration, which Goulds estimates to have cost $130,000.

Reddin Kienholz wasn’t keen on the idea, however, and resisted their entreaties for a year and a half. She didn’t want to step away from the project she was then absorbed in to return to a piece she’d never even worked on. That, she says, “and then the meaning of the piece is so painful. It’s painful dealing with these racist figures, their ignorance — it’s hard for me. I didn’t want to put my mind in that direction.”

Eventually Daryl Witcraft, the head of her studio team, volunteered to go to Japan. The piece, he found, had been poorly cared for: parts of the figures, made largely of latex and resin, had disintegrated, car windows were broken and numerous pieces were missing, including a portion of a shotgun presumably removed by Japanese customs.

In 2007, the work was shipped to the studio in Idaho. The restoration took a solid four months. In the meantime, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark signed on as the host institution for a multi-city tour next year. Director Michael Govan being, by all accounts, more amenable to Kienholz than Maurice Tuchman’s board of trustees, LACMA joined forces with the Getty Research Institute to serve as the first venue. By the close of the tour, Goulds hopes to have found the piece a new permanent home.

“We thought it would be an important thing to do for Pacific Standard Time, which looks back on the era when Kienholz was such a major figure,” says Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the research institute, who was instrumental in the negotiations. “Though rarely seen, it’s one of his great tableaus, and the summit of that shift from assemblage art into installation art that was such a key feature of the art scene here.”

Stephanie Barron, the show’s curator at LACMA, happened to have seen the work when it premiered at Documenta 5. “It was a horrific, chilling, powerful work,” she says, “and something I’ve never forgotten.”

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At LACMA, she’s taken pains to present the piece in a sensitive context. Visitors will enter the installation through an introductory gallery with explanatory texts and archival materials. Admittance will be limited to 15 people at a time, and trained facilitators will be available on the weekends to discuss the work with patrons. “It’s a piece that will make many people uncomfortable, and we’ve had many internal discussions about that,” she says. “Our responsibility is to frame it, to try to explain it and to let people have their own experience.”

Kienholz described the work in 1972 as “symbolic of minority strivings in the world today.” His widow echoes that interpretation. “It isn’t really about black and white,” she says, “This is used more as an example of any new immigrants — and of course America is built on immigrants. Every new group that’s come in has had a difficult time.”

Conceived not in a response to any particular event but as the expression of a morbid fantasy harbored in the shadows of our national history, “Five Car Stud” challenges viewers to confront the inadmissible. How it will be received today — whether as a historical document of the civil rights era or as lens to turn on the darkest tendencies of our own time — remains to be seen.

For Kienholz, it was both a gesture of anger and an opportunity for growth. “In my mind the work has always taken on a kind of life and identity of its own,” he wrote, “and as I push one way it seems to push back another.... The conversation with Five Car Stud is still very painful and slow, but one thing has been established for sure: if 6 to 1 is unfair odds in my tableau, then 170 million to 20 million is sure as hell unfair odds in my country.”

calendar@latimes.com


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