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The Portable War Memorial Commemorating VD Day

Kienholtz’s anti-war sculpture is not simply a commentary on the futility of war, or the stupid complacency of lawn furniture suburbia, but a devastating, all embracing put-down of the whole mess, past, present and, by all indications, future

Edward Kienholz

American artist Edward Kienholz. Photograph. Circa, 1968.

Imagno/Getty

Untitled, 1968 is probably the most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art ever organized in San Francisco. Of 80 works by 23 major American artists on display at the San Francisco Museum of Art, there is a single piece that amounts to an earth-shaking statement, but it is a work of surpassing importance: Edward Kienholz’s “The Portable War Memorial Commemorating VD Day.”

Kienholz’s mammoth sculptural assemblage is an epic masterpiece, comparable in its way to “The Last Supper.” Don’t ask which one. Its theme, in some ways, is similar to the depressing, unintentional message conveyed by “The Last Supper” replica at Forest Lawn: The submersion of objects of reverence in a triumphant phoniness, mediocrity and stupidity. But there is nothing at all unintentional phony or mediocre about the Kienholz piece, so perhaps one can compare it with Leonardo’s original as the summation of an age. Or with Bosch’s “Garden of Worldly Delights,” since Keinholz is the supreme artistic black moralist of our times.

The assemblage is as high as a low building, extends across the width of a museum gallery and almost all of its parts are covered with a sick, dull aluminum coating, one of Kienholz’s favorite devices for unifying disparate found objects.

From left to right, its components include: —

—The ravaged wax head of a woman, with grotesquely grinning teeth, sticking out from an inverted garbage can above a pair of fat, Petunia Pig legs; inside the can, a tape perpetually plays Kate Smith’s “God Bless America”; —

—A blank wall containing a copy of James Montgomery Flagg’s World War I “I Want You” poster, framed by spotlights; —

—A replica, cast from actual figures, of the classically pyramided soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima, everything with the utmost realism except for the heads, which are non-existent, mere empty spaces beneath the helmets; the flag is one that used to be given in exchange for cigarette coupons in the ’30s; —

—Two lawn chairs and a table, with one chair turned on its side and supporting a soldier’s foot. The parasol hole in the center of the table is the obvious point of destination for the flag pole. Behind this a blackboard tombstone inscribed with the names of 475 historic countries whose boundaries have disappeared from the face of the map (with room for more). And there is the inscription “A Portable War Memorial Commemorating V [followed by a black blank over which someone has scrawled “D”] Day, 10.” —

—A life-sized photograph, printed on film negative which allows the silver background to show beneath the magnified graininess, of a crummy Hot Dog and Chili parlor with a seated couple eating; a leash attached to the man’s wrist jumps out into the third dimension, holding a runty, sculptured dog; in front is a trash can and another lawn table arrangement; and alongside is a Coke machine (dispensing real-life cokes) and a clock that keeps actual time; —

—A third lawn table, with parasol, which stands in front of a blank aluminum tombstone. At the very bottom is a tiny, barely visible figure——an over-baked toy Tarzan with burned palms.

Spattered over the silvery surfaces of everything are globs of transparent plastic goo, another Kienholz trademark; they can be interpreted as mud and sweat on the GI uniforms, drops of rain falling from the awning of the hotdog stand, congealed 7-Up on the table-tops. They underline a sense of age, neglect and utter emptiness.

As always, Kienholz’s meaning is perfectly obvious——no doubt the reason the assemblage has drawn almost record crowds, and record protests, not the least of them stemming from the fact the museum occupies the top floor of the S.F. Veterans’ building.

“It’s a very simple statement; there are no hidden curves,” Kienholz said. “It is the viewer who brings the impact to the piece. Some may bring feelings of guilt for letting the country run away with such a stupid situation.”

The power of the piece lies in the way the obvious meanings of its various parts overlap, blend and interpenetrate to form a message that is greater than the sum of its component parts——not simply a commentary on the futility of war, or the stupid complacency of lawn furniture suburbia, but a devastating, all embracing put-down of the whole mess, past, present and, by all indications, future. Unlike Kienholz’s previous work, which freezes a particular moment in time, “War Memorial” brings past, present and future together in a haunting, spectral triptych montage. There is the past–—”with all those propaganda devices,” the present, with its clock, Coke machine (“business as usual”) and eatery (“eating is a big compulsion in our society”) and the tiny, scarred “man of the future.”

The Memorial achieves its greatest impact through uncannily recreating the spirit of World War II——as Mary Ryan, the museum’s publicity director, said, “When you hear Kate Smith singing, you can’t help feel a little surge of pride”——and then putting it in the perspective of now; you become literally embarrassed by the appalling simple-mindedness of your own historical past; like watching an old war movie on late night TV. The Iwo Jima flag-raising was the symbolic turning-point in the war that was really supposed to end all wars, a victory commemorated long afterward every time we licked a postage stamp, its huge figures resemble the aluminum soldiers kids used to bake in the oven during World War II. Now it is the central image in a War Memorial that is not only portable, but interchangeable and open-ended.

The feeling of self-embarrassment is one of the targets Kienholz shoots for. “I like to force people to voyeuristically consider their own actions,” he said. He cited his famous “Back Seat Dodge,” a tableau in which a couple sprawls on the back seat of an old car, and his more recent “State Hospital,” a room in which two grotesque, naked figures with fishbowl heads recline on bunk beds.

“In ‘Dodge,’ you also see your own reflection looking in the glass,” he pointed out. “In ‘State Hospital,’ you look voyeur-like through a window at the captive figure your state tax monies support.”

“Most people miss the fact that the female figure in ‘Dodge’ is only partial,” he added. “But everyone has screwed in the back seat of a Dodge at some time in their life, and they read it this way.”

“State Hospital” was modeled after a patient Kienholz cared for while working in a Washington State Hospital—”it is a very mild replica of what goes on in every state hospital in the union,” he said. Why the fishbowls? “That’s the way the insane thinks.”

Kienholz’s artistic background consists mostly of having been “the kid who always did the stage curtains for high school plays” in the small eastern Washington town where he grew up. He began his career doing sculptures of single figures and pieces, often using junk materials. One of his earlier examples is called “God Tracking Station,” rigged with a searchlight, a camera—”so you can take a photograph if you should see Him”—and a tiger’s mouth “that can bite you in the ass,” the religious stigmata. Another is of two machines which fuck and produce baby machines.

His first tableau, a 1961 whore house scene called “Roxie’s,” grew more or less logically out of the figure of a single prostitute Kienholz created from a coin vending machine. “It occurred to me that if I had some more whores and a couple of beds, I’d have a whorehouse,” he said. His tableaux also hark back to early memories of Christmas, even nativity scenes in churches. “They freeze something in time, make this moment stationary.”

Besides the whores (each with personal belongings and names like “Miss Cherry Delight” and “Five Dollar Billy”) “Roxie’s” contains a madame, an aromatic mixture of incense, disinfectant and perfume, and a plethora of the authentic small details that gives Kienholz work its devastating accuracy. There is even a drawer containing a letter written from one of the whore’s kid sisters—”wish I could come to town and get a good job too”—in an envelope Kienholz sent all over the country to get several forwarding cancellations.

Kienholz said he does not believe that social comment is an indispensable ingredient of art, but “art should reflect the naturalness of the artist, and the artist has a tremendous responsibility, although it is no different from anybody else’s.”

One element that seems to flow naturally into much of Kienholz’s work is his philosophy of death; by their nature, his tableaux both invoke and transcend it. “Fear of death is what controls everyone in life,” he said. “At a very early age, it is repressed; teenagers dare death and they feel more alive; in the late 30s, you can begin to talk about the fact that you are going to die. Death education would be a useful and vital part of school, like sex education.

“Happiness is involvement in anything you do—you forget for a span of time that you are going to die. Sex is a tremendous involvement, and it also has the chance of procreation—that’s why it is so vital a part of life.”

The measure of Kienholz’s overwhelming force as an artist is cast in relief by the rest of the Untitled, 1968 exhibition. It contains works by Stella, Judd, Samara, Frankenthaler, all the standard names; while one cannot exactly say of them that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, it does seem true that they are less concerned with what they say than how they say it. At its finest, the how can become the what, but still it is often a matter of relatively predictable variations on a single theme, style as content. With Kienholz, on the other hand, one can usually predict the general outlines of his style, but never what he is going to say next. He seems to involve himself thoroughly with any given idea, and then to incorporate all of its implications in a single, definitive statement.

“The Portable War Memorial” is his definitive, thoroughly regurgitated statement on what he calls “This chickenshit war in Vietnam.” He has other ideas on war, of a vast environmental scope, most unfeasible for a museum show.

“We should buy Vietnam,” he said. “At least we’d be fighting for our own land, and have some legal justification for being there.

“We should really buy Australia, and make it the war continent. We would move everybody off of it, and all countries that wanted to participate could set up bases, bring in troops, bombs, the whole thing. They would fight their battles, and the losing country would peaceably be given over to the victor.”

Kienholz is mid-way through his next assemblage, a life-size theater with a ticket booth and lobby through which spectators will pass to rows of seats, populated with six or seven figures programmed to cough, belch and emit other sounds at random intervals; the spectator sits down, possibly next to one of the figures, looks at a blank lighted movie screen, “imagining his own movie” over a pastiche of theme music, and when he turns to leave, discovers that all the figures have death’s heads.

Kienholz accepts his own version of a life-is-art philosophy.

“Artists are not anything special,” he said. “We buy houses and raise our children.”

He said his famous replica of “Barney’s Beanery” was built shortly after he was divorced from his first wife, in between cooking breakfast for his two kids, running them to kindergarten and putting them down for naps. Occasionally, they helped with some of the painting.

“Art judges itself —it’s an incestuous circle,” he said. “It leads you to the conclusion that art is a bunch of bullshit. I accept that. Art is really no more important than setting a table. The important thing is life and how you are involved in it.”

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