With Edward Kienholz’s notorious 1969–72 installation Five Car Stud having recently gone on view at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, we turn back to the October 1965 issue of ARTnews, in which Suzi Gablik reviewed another Kienholz installation. Kienholz’s reputation had not yet been cemented on the East Coast, and the work—The Beanery, a replica of a Los Angeles bar—was set to open Virginia Dwan’s second gallery, in New York, that year. Gablik’s review follows in full below. All spelling errors have been preserved.
“Crossing the Bar”
By Suzi Gablik
California Assemblagist Edward Kienholz has produced a masterpiece of the genre in recreating a Los Angeles saloon, bottle for bottle and beer-stain for stain, but adds his own sense of doom and obsession with symbolic details. The tableau will travel to New York this month for the opening of the Dwan Gallery.
At their more hectic moments, the tableaux of Kienholz seem to approach, in rather lurid-spectral fashion, a catalogue of horrors. But the convulsiveness of his imagery stems more from an irrepressible sense of violation than it does from some theatrical misanthropy or passionately cynical burlesque. The theme of man’s lack of spiritual value is savagely intoned throughout most of the apparently indigestible mass of his work. ALL HAVE SINNED reads with exquisite sagacity a sign hung above the mantle in his house, and a small button attached to the corner adds, “Control Yourself.”
The idea of the tableau, with all of its programmatic and environmental ramifications, is traceable to those makeshift Nativity Scenes and other spectacles Kienholz saw as a child in church performances and grange meetings. (“You were allowed fifteen seconds to look before the curtain fell.”) He remains something of the zealot, determined to elicit the truth, to assault our moral rebuke, without either the satiric or the anarchic humor of the Surrealists, but with vehemently demonstrative personal feeling. Yet his wild and bitter pathos is not the symptom of a morbid ferocity, bent on executing a police report or some sort of naturalistic novel. Those vivid and fearful scenes, which at times almost impair one’s faculties, are redeemed by their passionate straightforwardness and a loyalty to actual life. They are never the hideous absurdities, say, of Lord Byron who, according to Swinburne, indulged himself in lava kisses, baby earthquakes and walls that have scalps. Kienholz’s raffish herd emerges unseasonably well from the suburbs of hell; his personages are actualized archetypes of man’s deliberately fallen and perverted nature. They have been reduced by fate to submissive despair or spirit-broken acquiescence, and to feelings that run to unprofitable seed. Man’s disfigurement comes from his capacity for tragic error, a capacity which has permitted him to garble and to falsify the fact of death so that fear of death no longer seems like the uneasy impulse for all that we do. (Death and vulgarity, according to Oscar Wilde, are the only two facts the nineteenth century was unable to explain away.) For Kienholz, art is an instrument to be put to special use; if it can revise human understanding, it can change the world. In instructing man that he need not unresistingly accept his unhappy fate, he proposes that there is, after all, no incurable disgrace.
He grew up on a farm set on the border between Washington and Idaho; he lives presently high up on the side of a mountain in one of those canyons in Los Angeles that are just outside the city proper. A modest sort of outlaw, he enjoys shooting deer in neighboring woods and bringing back venison for his two children, Noah and Jenny. When not busy working or hunting or (in his spare time) reassembling the fragments of a dead squirrel’s skull, he may simply sit on a rock and think.
He doesn’t much like to come down from the mountain. But something that is likely to entice him out are the swap meets, a curious Los Angeles phenomenon in which drive-in movies are converted by day into portable flea-markets where highly mongrelized junk is bartered. From these, Kienholz can often be seen emerging with scabrous trophies. “Every piece of flotsam that comes to hand,” André Breton once wrote, “must be considered a precipitate of our desire.”
Kienholz first began incorporating found objects into his earlier work (wood constructions that were painted, mostly using brooms for brushes) around 1955. (Pieces such as George Washington in Drag and The Bluebird of Happiness as a Bleached Blonde date from later on in this period.) More and more these objects came to retain a cruel nostalgia, to reveal the real and latent force of rhetorical energy that is in them. But again, a single all-pervasive aim gives the work the unity of obsession. Unlike the Surrealists, who used found objects as a means of self-interrogation to shock the imagination or discredit the habitual, Kienholz uses them to demonstrate an earnest indignation at the gritty facts of life, as a means of gaining power over our terrors and desires, and to overcome our sordid memories. Thus, a kind of destroying angel, he would involve the spectator in a revolt against the self-protective dodges of consciousness, against a society of inherited meanings and outward standards of respectability, against the insipidity and hollowness of the human heart.
Keinholz’s interest in Barney’s Beanery began as a problem of just how one might set about building such a place (he himself is a trained carpenter), and the consideration of how to build it was simultaneously to envision it. His prototype, the real Barney’s, has existed on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles for thirty-eight years. It represents a type of old-fashioned, greasy-spoon bar (specializing in chili and onion soup), now being replaced in America by the chrome-and-formica variety. The interior is mud-colored, ill-lit, emotionally familiar. An actual mahogany table, repository of thirty-eight years of scratches, beer stains and carving, and a booth were appropriated by Kienholz from the real bar for use in his reconstructed one. This involved him in a certain amount of redecorating in the old bar itself as well, as he needed to replace the furniture he had taken out.
The real Barney’s is presided over by Barney (whose upper torso and head were cast in plaster by Keinholz to create the personage of his bartender). Barney offers free advice to customers, prefers “Blondie” comics and the music of Guy Lombardo. A framed newspaper clipping from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, October 15, 1964, describes the somewhat wayward clientele of the place as “beatniks, neighborhood time wasters and unclassifiable types who could be radio talkers, TV writers, actresses and European tourists,” mentioning that in the past it was frequented by such colorful luminaries as Jean Harlow, Clara Bow and John Barrymore. (In Kienholz’s bar, the people have been given weird human countenances made out of clock faces; the hands, all pointing at ten past ten, create eyebrows.)
One of the problems of the construction was to build the bar in such a way that it would be movable—able to be carried down the side of a mountain and transported to New York where it will be exhibited in the newly opened East Coast branch of Dwan Gallery. The dimensions of Kienholz’s bar are 6 feet wide, 7 feet high and 22 feet long. Some of the furniture and people are ingeniously condensed to give an illusion of greater depth and space, as do the photomurals projecting views of the kitchen and the restaurant that lead from the bar. Finally he settled on a kind of detachable box form, with each section a self-enclosed unit comprising roof, walls and floor that disengages from the rest. Each section is double-jointed for wiring and for sound. The sounds of the bar have been replicated by tape-recording actual conversations and juke-box music, and the smell of an old building is reproduced through circulating, by means of an exhaust fan in the wall (made to work in reverse), a sour concoction produced with the help of a chemist to simulate the stale odors. The artificially aged floors slant (an important aspect of Kienholz’s work is achieving special patinas, for which he has developed an inventory of techniques using varnishes and shellacs, inks and oil washes, epoxy, fiberglass and flocking—a close-clipped rayon fiber applied with a blow gun to produce a textural effect like that on a phonograph turntable); the louvered ceiling has been duplicated; and the perfect carpentry of the bar itself had somehow to be badgered into an aging crookedness. The bottles are individually wired to the shelves, and everything movable is epoxied down so that if the structure is tipped, nothing falls from its place. Although it purposes to be a facsimile of the original, it is, in fact, a subtle mixture of applied exactitude and highly inventive interpretation. “It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw,” was Barney’s dazed response when he saw it.
The first public viewing of The Beanery will be for three days on the patio of Barney’s; after that it travels to New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 1965 issue of ARTnews on page 22 under the title “Crossing the Bar.”