Edward Keinholz at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Edward Keinholz, The Wait (1964-65), mixed media, 80″ x 248″ x 78″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Is it possible to write about an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art without commenting on the institution itself? If lamenting the dismal state of affairs at the Whitney has become tiresome, it is no less so than that which the museum routinely proffers as art. What is surprising, then, about Kienholz: A Retrospective is not that it almost didn’t happen, but that it didn’t happen sooner. Although he had been working for over forty years, Edward Kienholz—who died in 1994 at the age of sixty-six—could be considered the quintessential artist for the Whitney of the 1990s, a museum partial to (as a colleague has it) “the school of puke, pus, piss, and politics.” This is an unfortunate turn of phrase but one that sums up the Whitney’s criteria for art all too well. It sums up Kienholz: A Retrospective pretty well too.

The title of the exhibition refers not only to Edward Kienholz but also to his wife, Nancy Reddin Kienholz. In 1981 Kienholz retroactively designated his wife as co-creator of all work made since 1972, the year they met, and this collaboration was to last until his death. While this acknowledgement by Kienholz may have been, in part, a display of feminist solidarity, the extent to which Nancy Reddin Kienholz was an equal in their artistic partnership is uncertain. The Kienholzian vision is, after all, of a piece throughout the period covered by the exhibition (1954–1994) with no substantive variation in the post-1972 work. Perhaps it’s best to assume that great minds think alike and leave it at that.

Kienholz: A Retrospective includes over a hundred pieces, occupying two floors of the museum. Kienholz’s work may be three-dimensional, but it isn’t, technically speaking, sculpture, and only his earliest wall pieces can be considered assemblage without qualification. Best known for his tableaux—elaborate and dingy environments populated by thrift shop curios and grotesque figures—Kienholz’s work is really a form of theater. The scenes he creates are dank ruminations on death, decay, institutionalization, sexism, racism, war, imperialism, abortion, Vietnam, National Socialism, and American culture. The tableaux are constructed of plaster casts, stuffed animals, neon lights, live birds and fish, used furniture, chopped and battered dolls, human hair, automobiles, pianos, and innumerous other objects all overlaid with a splattering of brown, viscous liquid. Dada and Surrealism influenced Kienholz’s tableaux but not, one feels, as forcefully as the sleazier attractions at roadside carnies. A few years ago, I had occasion to describe an exhibition as a “postmodernist fun house that is no fun at all.” If I had any gift for prognostication I would’ve saved such a line for Kienholz: A Retrospective.

The Beanery (1965) is one of Kienholz’s most famous and representative works. It is a freestanding construction of a dilapidated barroom (based on an actual Hollywood bar and grill), crowded with hunched figures whose facial features have been replaced by clocks. Only one museum visitor is allowed inside The Beanery at a time, perhaps in deference to conservation concerns. But such isolation forces the gallery-goer into a complicit voyeurism, not the healthiest way to engage with art. Admittedly, Kienholz had a faculty for picking out pertinent details—The Beanery does evoke the cracked-vinyl ambience common to many diners—that reveal the artist’s acute powers of observation. But the work’s gross portentousness is so relentlessly over the top that it becomes silly and, finally, stupid. And Kienholz’s vaunted sense of humor is so devoid of humanity that it ceases to resemble humor at all. For instance, one of the “satiric” song titles found on the jukebox inside The Beanery is “Come to Me My Mellon-bellied Baby” by a group called the Abortionists. W. C. Fields proved that misanthropy could be cogent and funny. Kienholz, however, just lets us know how miserable he thinks the world is, and that’s supposed to pass as profundity. It doesn’t.

It says quite a bit about the foibles of the art world, however, that Kienholz’s nihilism is mistaken for profundity. This is how the Whitney gets away with calling his work “intense realism.” And this is why catalogue essayist Thomas McEvilley ponders Kienholz’s “nostalgia for a pre-capitalist civilization and a desire for a post-capitalist resolution” in such highfalutin terms. One matronly woman at the exhibition proclaimed that the tableaux “freeze history we don’t like to see.” This observation probably would have pleased Kienholz but it is a charitable one. The Kienholzes aren’t capable of plumbing the intricacies of history or human emotion, except in the basest of terms. And when they attempt the elegiac— as in Mother with Child with Child (1976) or Kienholz’s The Illegal Operation (1962)—the work is simply vulgar. “Ed and I … are moralists,” Nancy Reddin Kienholz proclaimed in a recent issue of The Village Voice. This is true only if one considers sensationalistic schlock a reliable transmitter of wisdom.

Kienholz’s tableaux are intended to offend and rattle viewers out of their “patina of couth,” to borrow Marcus Raskin’s clumsy phrase from his catalogue essay. But how shocking are they really? Certainly, there is much here that is distasteful. The Kienholzes’ diorama on the hypocrisies of organized religion, All Have Sinned in Rm. 323 (1992), has stayed with me, if for all the wrong reasons. Yet on the day I visited the museum, gallery-goers reacted to the scenarios on exhibit not with disgust (or a sense of revelation) but with a detached bemusement; at times, they nodded sagaciously. Of course, anyone who regularly traverses the galleries of New York is bound to be inured to this kind of thing, but I suspect that the only people this work would truly offend are those who wouldn’t think about seeing it in the first place. Are we to assume, as the Whitney often does, that preaching to the converted constitutes outreach? The Kienholzes offend only in the sense that they play to an audience cynical enough to play along with them.

The fate of “provocative” art like that of the Kienholzes’ is that it is (contrary to its supporters’ claims) readily digested, easy to “get.” This is what we have learned from the career of Marcel Duchamp. For that matter, it’s also what we learn from Richard Jackson, Kienholz’s hunting partner, who comments that “it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand [his art].” One is tempted to counter that it hardly takes anything at all. This is especially true for the politics of the work. Walter Hopps, the organizer of the exhibition and Kienholz’s friend for almost forty years, states that the artist “wasn’t in any sense left-wing, and he was totally skeptical of any political party.” Kienholz’s skepticism is a given, but his politics have all the convolution of a bumper sticker slogan, being nothing more than received liberal pieties coarsened by the artist’s meat-grinder Weltanschauung. Kienholz’s political sense is so simple-minded that both sides of the political spectrum are likely to be annoyed by it. If there was ever proof needed that political art cheapens not only art but political discourse, well, here it is.

Is there anything to recommend about the work? There are moments when Kienholz’s juxtapositions of found objects intimate a nostalgia that has some teeth to it. In Portrait of a Mother with Past Affixed Also (1980–81), a framed photo of an elderly woman’s face is placed where the head should be on a life-size cast of a figure. The friction between the flatness of the photo and the three-dimensionality of the body generates real creepiness. It may be corny, but it works; it’s certainly more effective than the piece as a whole.

Of course, the friction in Portrait is generated through formal, rather than thematic, means, a trait largely absent from the rest of Kienholz’s tableaux. One of the few pieces that does function as sculpture is The Gossip (1962), a cabinet divided by knotted canvas tubing and book-ended by two masks. The Gossip is Dadaist assemblage of a rather conventional sort, but it’s also absurd and grotesque in just the right measures. Here Kienholz’s smart-ass guile fits the subject. One can accurately gauge the depth of Kienholz the social critic by noting that he made better art about idle chatter than he ever did about the military-industrial complex.

Exiting the exhibition, I walked in to Joseph Cornell: Cosmic Travels in the museum’s lobby gallery. After the Kienholz debacle, this small show—consisting of a handful of Cornell’s assemblages from the Whitney’s permanent collection—came as a respite. Its atrocious installation aside, Cosmic Travels was a reminder that art need not be ugly or assaultive, that it could be beautiful and possessed of magic. “Cosmic Travels” was mounted, I would guess, as a means of establishing an art historical precedent for Kienholz’s tableaux. I suppose that it does. But this is a lousy burden to foist upon poor old Cornell and one that he does not deserve. Cornell’s fragile meditations on distance and memory show up Kienholz’s work for the thuggery that it is.

While Cornell’s assemblages do survive the museum’s acrimony, how much longer can the Whitney get away with insulting its public with exhibitions like Kienholz: A Retrospective? In the introduction to the catalogue, David A. Ross, the Alice Pratt Brown Director at the museum, writes that the support received from the National Endowment for the Arts for the Kienholz exhibition “may be one of the last grants of its kind to the Whitney.” Many people are concerned about the Republican Congress’s plans for the NEA, as well as the effect such plans may have on the arts in the United States. They have reason to be concerned. But I worry more about cultural institutions that disguise their contempt for art under the rubric of social justice. To assert that the Whitney Museum of American Art has done much to debase the cultural life of our time is not hyperbole. It is a fact, one far more disturbing than anything to be seen in Kienholz: A Retrospective.

© 1996 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 1996 edition of The New Criterion.

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