The Hand That Mocked Them and the Heart That Fed: The Art of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz Returns to New York

Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz in 1982. (Photo by Marsha Burns)

The first broadcast of CNN was on June 1, 1980—a little over a year after Brian Lamb and John D. Evans started the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network—and it began with David Walker and his co-anchor (and wife) Lois Hart. It was a pretty slow news day. The lead story was President Jimmy Carter’s trip to Fort Wayne, Ind., for a “brief visit” with civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, who was hospitalized with a gunshot wound. They also covered the launch of the CNN network, replaying footage from a press conference given by Ted Turner. He thanked the cable industry, “whose pioneering spirit caused this great step forward in communication.” From then on, America would be inundated by a constant flow of information, all presented by a stern, brow-furrowed newscaster as breaking and important.

It was then, during the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, that the husband-and-wife artist duo Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz—known collectively as Kienholz—created The Ozymandias Parade, which is currently making a rare appearance in New York at the Pace Gallery on West 25th Street. The exhibition was supposed to coincide with the week leading up to the election, but Hurricane Sandy set it back, and it didn’t open until the day after President Obama’s re-election, another event that fed copy to the cable news programs.

That the work didn’t go on view until after the dust was already settling on a $4 billion election year made it even more ominous. The Ozymandias Parade has traveled to galleries and museums around the world. Wherever it is displayed, a public poll is put out with the question, “Are you satisfied with your government?” The answer is almost invariably, “No,” and that word ends up pasted on the faces of the life-size plaster figures in the piece. One of them represents a president, saddled to the underbelly of a rearing horse, a sword in one hand, with a deflated globe draped on its point, and the Moscow-Washington hotline phone in the other. Behind him is a thin “overtax payer,” her face just an exposed skull, holding a cane in each hand and carrying the military general—who holds the button that launches a nuclear warhead—on her shoulders. Pulling up the rear is the vice president, wearing a necklace of broken radio speakers, his saddle on the belly of an overturned horse (which has ice skates on its front legs and roller skates on its hind legs). The work is rigged so that the flag of whatever country it is being exhibited in flies high above them all. The “parade” itself looks more like a mythological funeral procession, and it’s all the more frightening because everyone involved is frozen in place; by design, they perpetually fail to do anything at all.

“I don’t see how it’s changed any, really,” Ms. Kienholz said. She was comparing the political climate in 1985, when The Ozymandias Parade debuted at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, to the present. “I mean, it’s gotten worse. What we’ve just been through with the election has been … horrific. It’s been going on for a year and a half. It’s awful. It’s worse now than when we made the piece. For foreign corporations to donate to candidates would have been unimaginable at that time. And we just accept that now. I guess everybody’s so busy just trying to survive.”

“Tough” is the first word that comes to mind in conversation with Ms. Kienholz. She has bright red hair and a sarcastic smile. Walking to a coffee shop across from the gallery last week, she put on a black cowboy hat and sucked down a cigarette in a gasp as she crossed 10th Avenue. She talked about the previous night’s election results like she had just dodged a bullet. “Like we’re gonna go back to the 1950s and Leave It to Beaver, and the women are all gonna stay at home and wear aprons and dresses? It ain’t gonna happen. That’s a different time, and you can’t go back. You can never go home again.”

Since her husband’s death from a heart attack in 1994, Ms. Kienholz, 68, has been steadily reintroducing America to their work, predominantly made up of life-size dioramas, with the help of the L.A. Louver gallery, their sole U.S. representative since 1981. After Edward’s 1966 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was almost shut down after the County Board of Supervisors deemed it pornographic, much of the work was dispersed in Europe, where it traveled extensively. The couple started collaborating after that, and soon decamped for West Berlin, generally returning to the U.S. seasonally, to a farm in the bucolic town of Hope, Idaho, population 86. A number of their works, like the monumental Five Car Stud (1969-72), which depicts a violent racial encounter and had never been seen in America before last year, are known to New Yorkers only through stories or images. The works are too enormous and scattered in collections around the world to bring together in one place. The New York Times review of their 1996 retrospective at the Whitney, which included some 90 works, stated outright that a Kienholz show of that scale “will never happen again.”

Edward and Nancy met in 1972 at a party for the writers Jean and Irving Stone at Ms. Kienholz’s parents’ house in Los Angeles. Her father, Thomas Reddin, was the chief of the L.A. Police Department. She didn’t mind that, and she was a fan, in particular, of the family’s box at the Hollywood Bowl. By that time, Edward was already at the center of the L.A. art world. In 1957, he had co-founded, with Walter Hopps, the Ferus Gallery, which would go on to debut Warhol’s soup cans. The new business partners bought a space together on La Cienega. They went across the street to eat lunch one day at a Pink’s Dog hot dog restaurant and wrote down their plans on the paper that their chili dogs were served on and signed it. That was the contract. Kienholz showed his first major work at Ferus: Roxys (1960-61), a re-creation of a Nevada brothel he’d sneaked into as a kid. It’s a room-size installation, and the interior is all conservative parlor-room fare, but the figures inside are warped and mutated. (David Zwirner Gallery presented that work in New York two years ago.)

In 1959, Virginia Dwan, the sole heir to the 3M fortune, opened the Dwan Gallery nearby. The two galleries were basically the only show in town. Dennis Hopper was around a lot, as were the artists Sam Francis and Wallace Berman. Richard Cohan, who began working with Kienholz as his assistant at the age of 15 (his first task was sweeping the brush out of Kienholz’s yard so it wouldn’t catch fire), remembers days when he’d unload the art at Ferus with his friend Johnny Romain, then run over to Dwan to change into black pants and a black vest and serve Ritz crackers with cheese at an opening. In 1964, Ms. Dwan gave Mr. Kienholz his largest exposure up to that point, presenting a work called Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964). The titular car has a truncated chassis, and inside is a couple—a plaster cast of a woman and the silhouette of a man constructed from chicken wire—clumsily having intercourse.

“There were three people who kept coming back to look at this piece,” said Mr. Cohan last week on the phone from California. He had helped cut the Dodge in half and was working the desk at Dwan a lot in those days. “Steve McQueen, James Garner and Paul Newman. They were all car nuts. Steve McQueen hadn’t made it yet, so he couldn’t afford it. James Garner didn’t have a place to put it. Joanne Woodward wouldn’t let Paul Newman buy it.” It was Back Seat Dodge that caused all the controversy at the 1966 LACMA show. It was an election year, so local politicians turned it into an issue of family values. Famously, it was displayed with the door shut, and it would only be opened at the request of a museum visitor who was at least 18—and even then, there couldn’t be any children in the room. People lined up.

The Hand That Mocked Them and the Heart That Fed: The Art of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz Returns to New York