Edward Kienholz: The State Hospital
by Shelly Couvrette

When giving the piece a superficial glance, all that is visible is a large, crate-like box. Details do not become obvious until one looks more closely. The form of the box creates a hulking, institutional-white outer shell. Closer observation reveals a padlocked door in the center of the front wall. In this door is a small, square, window with three bars. High in the upper left-hand corner of the wall is a sign reading WARD 19.

One must approach the barred window to see inside. There is a smell of disinfectant spray. The room is lighted by a single, bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. The scene that it illuminates is repulsive.

There are two identical figures lying on institutional-issue, metal bunk-beds, one upon each bed. Each is shackled to the frame of his bed by a leather strap and wrist-cuff. Their bodies are a pus-like yellow color, roughly rendered with congealed drips and lumps of resin. The figures have the appearance of emaciated mummies. Their bodies rest on thin, blue and white striped mattresses that are filthy and ragged. The figure resting on the upper bunk is encased in a elliptical neon tube; a thought bubble from a comic strip. The tube glows an ominous red. The heads of the men are made from illuminated fish-bowls. Two black fish swim in each bowl. There is a small, and apparently purposeless, hospital-issue bedside table against one wall. A bedpan rests on the floor, but it is not within reach of the bed.

The motivation to create this piece, The State Hospital, came out of the actual experience of the artist. In 1947 Edward Kienholz began working in a mental hospital in Lake Medicine, Washington. The conditions that the inmates were subjected to effected him. He constructed this piece, in 1966, as a form of indictment of all such institutions.(1)

Edward Kienholz wanted his art to function in the capacity of a social conscience. He wanted to create art that would make people reconsider the role of throw-away people in modern culture; to draw attention to the facets of society that are taboo. The people in Kienholz's works found few homes in the art of the 1950s and 1960s. Such ugly topics were not handled in the realm of high art. Kienholz felt that he had to call attention not only to their dilemmas, but to the social circumstances that allowed their exploitation.(2)

The works of Kienholz are saturated with the desolateness and alienation of man in modern society. His subjects have been badly misused and forsaken by America. She has deceived them and cheated them of their lives without a thought of compensation.(3) For Kienholz, modern life could be characterized by inadequacy, breakdown, and tragedy; life is a series of Pandora's Boxes that have been ripped open.(4) His grim and hopeless environments illustrate the foolishness of Americans in believing that we are the apex of modern western culture.(5)

Kienholz achieves this by the graphic portrayal of America's "other"; the cast-offs of this great, utopian society. His works are tangible; one can almost taste the fear and horror in the air. In this manner, they are almost documentary in their immediacy and urgency.(6) He uses bizarre and grotesque images to call attention to atrocities that are subverted by media and government.(7) Issues receiving little if any attention by the press or the administration are fair game for Kienholz.

After the second world war, artists in the United States were concerned with developing an art that was singularly American. These artists recognized that the European tradition, long been popular in American art, was no longer valid.(8) Abstract Expressionism was born from this desire to invent a new art. For these artists, the act of creating each piece became as important as the finished product.

Artists like Jackson Pollock sought to tap their inner reserves of creativity. This internal source of inspiration was thought to exist universally. It was believed that all humans are linked to the same collective unconscious. This instinctive bond was understood to exist without regard to boundaries of culture or time. The Abstract Expressionists recognized that the creation of their art occurred when they tapped into this pool of creative energy.

The fact that this art appeared to refer to nothing outside itself appealed to formalist critics like Clement Greenberg. Greenberg applauded them for creating an art that was not only uniquely American, but was pure and perfect. For these critics, a painting should reference nothing external, but should simply be a painting about painting; a sculpture should be a sculpture about sculpture.

This categorization of art allowed for the glorification of the art object.

These critics felt that a work of art should exist as a precious object. The emphasis was not on whether or not the object piqued the interest of the viewer, but on its possessing some indefinable "quality." The implication was that this quality must be innate. Until the 1950s successful art could, in theory, transcend time. Ancient art could be appreciated by modern man because it held within it some spark that would be universally identifiable by humans.

This changed in the 1950s. Emphasis shifted from the precious "quality" of high art to a more temporal interest. Through the exploitation of new techniques, the artist illicited a new response from the viewer. Art was now allowed to be sight and/or time specific. If not the physical context it was exhibited in, then the social, political, or cultural context it was born from became an integral part of the work. Art could now fix itself firmly in one place and time; it could now be used to exert leverage against the world.

The pop artists of the 1960s rebelled against this formal, purist approach to art. They wanted to create an art reflective of the reality of contemporary American culture. They were concerned with addressing the sweeping reformations in economics and politics that had begun in this country after the second world war. Although these changes were at first subtle, by the 1960s they had brought about the re-evaluation of cultural practices. The political and social climates of this era allowed artists to explore and comment upon these changes. They did so in a way that confronted established standards of both subject matter and manner of presentation.

These artists were working within a new, modern American environment. The newly acquired affluence of modern middle class society was the subject of their art. The 1950s and 1960s saw great social, political, and economic progress in the United States that necessitated a new way of looking at the world in their works.(9) This new perspective was valid, regardless how vapid were its sources or how insipid were its products. These artists saw no need to make excuses for using America's own newly-found industrial language to define its culture. In pursuing this end, they incorporated images and symbols from mass media into their works. Some of these artists assimilated the language of commercial art into their pieces, while others utilized the consumer debris of America's processed, pre-packaged, mechanized, and homogenized culture.(10)

Artists who included junk in their art did so in order to make their art more immediate. They were in search of new ways to make art more 'real.' To achieve this reality, they incorporated bits and pieces of found objects into their pieces. This combination generated an art that was seen by the artists as being on a human scale to a greater degree than any art that had come before it.(11)

While Kienholz was related to the Pop artists in his use of the debris of modern consumer society in his works, he differed from them in his intentions. Kienholz lacked a concern in his art for the formalized and aesthetic awareness of Pop art's primarily illustrative goals.(12) Kienholz emphasizes the importance of the story. Anything that can lend itself to the telling of the story is fair game for the artist. He is not concerned with whether or not certain materials can be properly included in a work of art. He does not buy into the high art elitism applauded by formalist critics such as Clement Greenberg. Kienholz felt that the wreckage of a society should be appropriate material for reproducing that culture.

For Edward Kienholz, content reigned supreme over form. Aesthetics were certainly secondary to the ideas embodied in the work.(13) He worked at making his pieces awkward and unpleasant to the eye, wanting to create "anti-gestures." He was uncomfortable with the possibility of his works being appreciated for sheer aesthetics.(14) This unpleasantness of form in his art was undeniably a component of its content.(15) In this sense, elegance or refinement would have defeated his purpose.(16) He did not intend his forms to be finished, graceful, or polished. His subjects are the cast-offs of society, the throw-aways, and are treated in his works as they are treated by society.

In modern culture, art serves more than merely an aesthetic purpose. We require an art that will satisfy emotional and spiritual needs. Art is that which fuses human creation with human spirit. Art has the power to aid us in understanding ideas and ideologies that are foreign to us. Art defines us both as members of unique cultures and as individuals within those cultures. What we create reflects our place in relation to everything that is important to us. The debris we leave behind us is an extension of ourselves in relation to our environments. Environments that are man-made are merely collections of objects. These objects are made by us; they represent our collective selves.

Kienholz's art can be characterized as maximalist. He crams his works with the material clutter of life; all the accouterments necessary for a modern, civilized existence.(17) He saturates his works with objects that are easily identifiable with certain aspects of society. This allows his figures to be recognizable. People in western culture are defined by the physical possessions that surround them. In Kienholz's works, his figures are defined in the same manner. They are the sum of their environments.(18)

Many of the artists working in the 1960s felt that it was legitimate to investigate human behavior and interaction. They chose to have their works function in the capacity of a societal conscience. They realized that the world around them was somehow less than it could, and should, be. They believed that if they were capable of changing or calling attention to the shortcomings of society then they were duty-bound to pursue that course.

Kienholz was raised on a farm on the Washington/Idaho border where he was taught carpentry, basic mechanics and engineering in preparation for entering his family's farming business.(19) While in high school he became involved in the designing and building of sets for school plays. At this time he became interested in painting with both oil and watercolor.(20)

Many or these early works were bas-relief wall mounted paintings on plywood. He used brooms to apply large volumes of paint while each piece lay face up on his studio floor. The use of the broom as paintbrush gave these works a rough and expressionistic quality.(21) They were quickly painted, sometimes at the rate of one each day. Eventually bits of wood were added to the paint in an effort to make them more crude.(22) Kienholz felt that if he could create art that was ultimately ugly, he would be better able to appreciate beauty.(23) His early works were relatively light-hearted, but as they evolved stylistically, they developed a social and political conscience.(24) He began to portray the grotesqueness he saw around him.

Between 1957 and 1958 these pieces began to protrude from the wall more and more, becoming sculptures in their own rights. Ultimately Kienholz expanded upon the three dimensional quality of these sculptures, creating full- scale installations, or tableaux.(25) Kienholz treated his tableaux as if they were enormous, three-dimensional paintings. He added drips of resin to their surfaces, as he would to the surface of a canvas.(26)

Ultimately, these tableaux came to be, in essence, conceptual. It was not necessary that the ideas for the pieces be rendered tangible. They took the form of typed and framed descriptive statements. Along with this written sketch came a bronze title plaque. The cost for these "concept tableaux," as Kienholz called them, was the same as for a finished work. Kienholz would also, upon request, create a drawing of the piece. This was of course at an additional cost. Any given tableau could be completed at any later time at the discretion of the owner. Kienholz charged only the actual cost of materials and labor for this.(27)

Tableaux are picturesque, or theatrical, groupings of persons or objects in a stage-like setting.(28) In pieces like Roxy's, the environment was constructed to be entered. It exists in much the same way as any building, with separate rooms, furniture, and belongings.(29) The objects Kienholz incorporates into his pieces are analogous to stage props. In his works the tragedies of life are acted out.(30) Kienholz's tableaux are usually encased in crates or boxes, as is The State Hospital.

Kienholz was fascinated by the box form, feeling that its shape was accessible. He wanted the suggestion of the possibility of contact in his works, finding the aloofness of traditional high art troubling. Viewing art within the traditional museum or gallery setting attached too much importance to the art as object.(31) Artworks should not be treated as precious objects but should, ideally, be explored.(32) This meant learning the piece and vicariously living the experiences of it's subjects. For Kienholz, experiencing one of his installations necessitated entering and moving about within it. He felt that art should invite and inspire the observer to physical participation and interaction with each piece while viewing it. The forms of and presentations of his installations required that the viewer literally participate in the examining of each work.

In order to fully understand Kienholz's tableaux, actual physical contact and interaction are necessary. In pieces like Roxy's, viewers must open the dresser drawers in which letters and the minutiae of day-to-day existence can be found. This places the viewer in the somewhat uncomfortable position of voyeur. One must snoop into the personal belongings of Kienholz's "people" in order to find out more about them.(33) Just as in every day life, the objects we associate and surround ourselves with define who, and more often what, we are. These objects provide us with visual clues that dictate our reactions to each other.

Kienholz realized that in order to get people to become interested in interacting with his art, he had to attract their attention. He did not want his audience to passively look at his works. This would have defeated his purpose. He wanted to get people actively involved his art, and through that art, with the social injustices he depicted. He felt that with each person who saw his art, there was the potential for that person to serve as a vector for change. He hoped that if he could get his audience's attention, he could incite his viewers to assist in the transformation of society's defects.(34)

Kienholz did not allow his viewers to be passive observers. He was distressed by the apathy characterizing contemporary western culture. People in our modern society live insulated lives. We are passive observers of all that happens around them. We are disconnected from our environments on a greater scale than ever before. We have no contact with the world around us. We see wars on television, we ride in cars "in nature," we go to school to learn. With every generation we get further away from any sort of contact with each other and with our environments. We are almost entirely encapsulated.

This encapsulation allows us to cultivate an apathetic detachment from everything around us. It is easy for us to allow ourselves to become alienated from others in our mad races to "take care of our own." We tell ourselves that we do not have the resources to help others. On a societal scale, we do not want to go to the aid of other countries because there is too much to take care of "here at home." It is a vicious cycle we have entered, with no obvious exit. Kienholz felt that it was necessary to gain an awareness of the misfortunes of others. He hoped that by getting the attention of the art-viewing public, he could perhaps then incite progress. The use of the box to enclose these works also allowed for detachment from the exhibition space. Each piece was self-contained. The artist's intent was not altered by the piece being moved from one exhibition space to another. This lent a sense of permanence to Kienholz's tableaux.(35)

The limiting form of the box provided a secure structure for the often disturbing themes addressed within.(36) At the same time, there is an obfuscation of the separation between life and art that is disquieting. When approaching one of these pieces, the viewer first encounters the shell of the work. This often obscures the interior from view until the observer is relatively close to it. There is at once a psychological distancing from the piece and a lure to intimacy with it. This push and pull creates a dynamic tension between the work and the viewer. One is lured by the unknown which, when revealed, often repulses.

This grotesque aspect of Kienholz's art was not accidental. Kienholz was disturbed by the sheer inanity of modern man.(37) He felt that if he could create art that was repugnant enough, he had at least a chance of gaining the attention of the American viewer. People, like children, are preoccupied by vulgarity; they are drawn to it almost against their will. Kienholz felt that if he could tap the natural curiosity and morbid fixation that is seemingly innate to humans, then he would have the power to refocus that interest.(38)

Once the viewer's attention is secured, he or she can be led through a series of thoughts and/or emotions. The conclusions of the viewer are predetermined by the artist. When creating a work of art, the artist exploits whatever materials, iconography, and visual clues that will best be suited to the piece's theme. The observer ultimately arrives at a conclusion that has therefore been manipulated by the artist. Kienholz recognized this. His art was concerned with attaining the interest of his audience by whatever means were most expedient, then redirecting that attention to the issue he wished to address.

The first documented asylum in Europe to be solely dedicated to the housing and treatment of the mentally ill was located in Valencia, Spain. Founded in 1408 by Fray Gope Gilaberto, it was concerned generally with the upkeep of the insane.(39)

It is not surprising that, in a culture that believed that an individual's happiness, health, and prosperity depended upon the placation of evil spirits, the mentally ill were thought to be possessed by demons.(40) Insanity, in medieval Europe, was attributed to satanic forces. Afflicted persons were presumed to have made a pact with the devil, or to have been unwillingly possessed by him. In either instance, the victim was branded as somehow morally lax. If he had not made a conscious decision to enter an evil plot, then he at least was guilty of not having the strength of character to keep the demon at bay.

The attribution of insanity to evil spirits made it a concern for priests or religious leaders, rather than medical doctors.(41) Victims were taken to the asylum, almost exclusively in the domain of the religious sector, to be exorcised. Their care was in the hands of priests and monks, who generally treated them with little, if any, tolerance or sensitivity.(42) Exorcism generally took the form of an elaborate ceremony. Fetid, putrid drugs were used, administered with abusively worded chants.(43) The afflicted were harshly dealt with. Medicine in the modern sense had no role in the ceremony, apart from the medieval cure-all: blood-letting.(44)

This belief in the immortal origin of insanity evolved into a belief that the mentally ill were witches. Records surviving of witch trials of the seventeenth century indicate that possibly as many as one-third of those convicted of this crime were in actuality suffering from mental disorders. These conditions are thought to have ranged from schizophrenia and paranoia to manic-depression.(45)

An understanding of the depth that these beliefs were rooted in the early foundations of our culture may help to explain their persistence today. Although they are obscured, the stigmas we attach to the mentally ill can be traced to the early beliefs that the insane were possessed by evil spirits and therefore tainted.(46) Traditional beliefs concerning the insane must be re-examined in a modern light. Most of the attitudes we have toward these people stem directly from theories of the middle ages. Society must be encouraged to educate itself regarding the mentally ill if there is to be any hope of changing its attitudes toward these people. They are feared because they are not understood. The unknown holds great power over people.(47) Modern psychologists are viewed and approached with suspicion.(48) They are not considered credible practitioners. On the occasions when they are trusted, their patients are given a wide berth; they are untouchables. If not their disease then their "misfortune" is feared as being somehow contagious. There is a common belief, stemming from medieval views, that there is guilt by association.

Although there were indeed advances made in the late seventeenth century regarding the understanding of the origins of mental illness, it was not until the eighteenth century that any real changes were made. There was a protest by those in the medical field against the treatment of the insane as demonically possessed witches.(49) However, as late as 1716 a woman and her nine year old daughter were hanged in Huntington, England on charges of practicing witchcraft.(50)

Despite the fact that many doctors were coming to understand that mental abnormality was not derivative of demonic control but of some physical cause, it was still a popularly held belief that insanity was due to some sort of moral deficiency. With the so-called "cult of curability," the 1870s saw an inclination toward an emphasis on the physio-psychological origins of insanity.(51) Understanding of mental illness has steadily proceeded, albeit ploddingly. Advances in therapy for the insane have continued to be made, if not in the manner in which they are treated.(52)

One of these changes has been in the actual purpose of the asylum. Originally serving solely a custodial function, modern mental hospitals evolved from them. The mental hospital not only cared for the patients, but, in theory, functioned in a curative capacity.(53) Some institutions that are considered hospitals today, however, still fail to live up to the supposed standards set by government agencies. They are little more than holding cells for patients.

One of the main impediments to the administration of adequate care in hospitals is the deplorable lack of supervising physicians. In the state of California, between 1900 and 1940, the doctor to patient ratio was 1:340. This meant that a patient was only attended by a doctor, at best, every five to six weeks. Patients were left in the care of attendants who were given little if any supervisory support.(54)

The incredible workload these doctors were forced to take on contributed to an excessive turn-over rate. There was a high level of stress at all levels of administration. Aides were the ones who had day to day contact with the patients. This, ultimately, coupled with sheer boredom on the part of attendants, led to the neglect and abuse of patients.

In the "total institution" there are, when the best of standards are met, high incidences of "social breakdown syndrome." The cause of this syndrome can be traced not to the actual mental disorder of the patient, but to conditions that fail to provide adequate challenges for inmates within the institution. The lack of appropriate stimulation of patients is due, at least in part, to the nature of the mental hospital coupled with the attitudes of mental health practitioners and the general community in which a given institution may be found. In total institutions the stimulation of patients, if attempted at all, is derived from a mundane repetition of tedious activities. The same exercises are prescribed for patients, almost always with the same partners, executed in the same environment.(55)

This neglect to address the less tangible needs of patients easily deteriorated into blatant abuse. Conditions within the institutions often approached those of the concentration camps of the Nazi's. Patients were packed like cattle into filthy wards. They were frequently denied shelter, clothing, and heat. It was commonly believed that the insane could not sense temperatures, and so they were left exposed to extremes of both heat and cold. Numerous patients were malnourished to the point of semi-starvation.(56)

Patients were also subjected to intense degrees of physical mistreatment. It was assumed that brute force was appropriate, and generally necessary, in the discipline of inmates. Community leaders perceived these abusive practices on the part of the guards as acceptable and even essential.(57) Battery of patients by attendants often escalated to the point of mortality. Deaths by beatings were obscured by hospital management by the falsification of records.

In a Pennsylvania facility, a grand jury found that patients' records had been tampered with in numerous instances. Deaths that had been attributed by hospital physicians to heart failure were actually, upon digging up the bodies, caused by extreme abuse. Broken ribs and arms, punctured lungs, torn livers, and ruptured spleens were seen in the exhumed remains.(58) Upon questioning, attendants admitted to the abuse. It was common for groups of five or more guards set upon a single patient. The subject would be beaten in a frenzy, with no chance of self-defense. Acting within the confines of a gang assured that no single person could call attention to the abuse. Even had an attendant reported what transpired, hospital superintendents, more likely than not, would choose not to acknowledge the extent of the torment. Patients were often then left without medical attention. This may have caused the deaths of numerous individuals who, if treatment had been provided, may have survived their injuries.

As recently as 1949, it was not at all uncommon for the mentally ill to be confined in penal institutions. This generally occurred when the mental hospitals were too full to accommodate more patients. This was theoretically to be only temporary, but frequently inmates were incarcerated for months, and even years. Obviously, these patients had no recourse to appropriate treatment.(59)

The State Hospital is the only concept tableau that Kienholz completed in the 1960s. It was painstakingly designed to make the room of the hospital look as much like a prison cell as possible. He wanted to portray the prison-like conditions under which these people were kept.(60) The confinement of patients to cells has been common throughout the history of the asylum. The thought that somehow the patient was at fault for his or her condition made it culturally acceptable. Beyond the conception that these people were morally lax, it was thought that isolating them in cells was in their best interests. The walls of Kienholz's tableau are painted stark white, a color that is instantly associated with institutions, be they prisons, orphanages, or, as in this case, mental hospitals. He has placed bars upon the windows: to keep people out, or to keep people in?

Kienholz wanted to explicitly portray the absolute helplessness of the hospital 'inmates' he had worked with in the 1940s. He had a graphic recollection of the conditions under which these people lived. The orderlies were much like prison guards. They often beat the patients brutally, with little or no intervention from doctors or supervisory personnel.(61) He does not find the subjects of his pieces at fault for their predicaments, but he definitely comments upon the social structure that allows these wrongs to exist. He is concerned with exploring why the world is the way it is and how individuals operate within their societal framework. His assemblages address the human capacity for cruelty and the utter chaos in which humans live, presenting the viewer with moralistic sketches. They are grotesque allegories of the human as monster. These parables are drawn directly from the artist's life experiences and observations. The world around him is integral to his art.

In The State Hospital, Kienholz comments on the inhumane manner in which the mentally ill are treated. They are not perceived as living, thinking individuals, but as undesirable objects. Their mistreatment and abuse is allowed, and almost expected, as long as it is kept behind closed doors. These people have no resources upon which to draw, and so mentally and physically they waste away.

Kienholz uses a combination of found objects and cast-off rubbish in the construction of his works. In creating The State Hospital, he incorporated hospital beds, a table, bedpan, and goldfish bowls. While not strictly junk, these objects have lives of their own outside the tableau of which they are made a part. Unlike many artists who were working with found objects at this time, Kienholz does not attempt to give to these objects a high art identity. They continue, in his works, to function in the manner that they were originally intended. The use of found objects multiplies the sense of neglect that is common to all his works. The incorporation of things that were once useful to society emphasizes the uselessness of the cast-offs of humanity.(62)

Although he uses the actual devices that would generally surround his subjects, he does not incorporate them into his works in a hyper-realistic fashion. He juxtaposes his objects more for the production of an uncomfortable feeling on the part of the viewer than for verity of environment. He is not necessarily concerned with literal reproduction.(63)

Kienholz's method of presentation also lends itself to the over-all feeling of neglect and disuse. His figures are made from cast plaster covered with resin. The resin is applied crudely, with no attempt to smooth the imperfections. Kienholz has allowed the liquid to drip and splatter over the surface, creating the appearance of tormented flesh.

Kienholz had a particular patient in mind when creating this piece. The man was visible to him every day as he walked by his room. He was never moved or turned by the staff, and lay always in the same position. He remembered an occasion when the man had been beaten by an attendant. A bar of soap wrapped inside a towel was used in an effort to hide the bruises. Kienholz decided not to graphically portray the contusions that covered the man's body, choosing instead to show the abuse and decay the victim suffered by painting the bodies a sickly yellow color. The surfaces of the figures seem to be comprised of seeping, pus-filled abscesses. Kienholz renders the man's abstract pain tangible.(64)

To best convey the disgusting condition of this patient in his piece, Kienholz enlisted the aid of an acquaintance, Ed Born, who was suffering from cancer. Kienholz created the plaster casts used in the creation of both figures from Born's actual body. The figures in the tableau were originally meant to rest on their right sides, but Born's body was so wasted by the disease that he could only lie on his left side. The use of a model who was himself close to death gave integrity to the piece. Both he and the subjects of the piece had been sentenced to a state of living death.(65)

The utter alienation of the man from everything external is underscored by the use of a thought bubble to encase the figure in the upper bunk. This second man represents the only concept the first man can understand. He is unable to think abstractly. He can only comprehend his existence in the here and now. It is as if he is in suspended animation.(66) There is no other conception of life for him, his only thought being the immediate endurance of his present physical condition. The feeling of isolation emanating from Kienholz's subject is so absolute that the stark nothingness enveloping him is palpable. This discomfort and anguish is rendered tangible to the viewer by the incorporation of the second figure. We can see his state of mind as clearly as can he.(67)

That Kienholz did not use human faces in the heads of his figures emphasizes the degree to which these men have wasted away.(68) In the place of their faces he has incorporated two illuminated fish bowls. In each bowl swim two black fish; they are allegories of confinement and the mental and physical decay born from it.(69) The fish swim aimlessly within the confines of their bowls. The thoughts of the man have nothing to fix themselves upon; they drift pointlessly. He has only a dim consciousness of his relationship to his environment. He does not live, he exists.(70)

Kienholz empathizes with the people he portrays in his art. He wants to provoke the viewer to experience the same empathy. He often does this by placing the viewer in the position of either the victim or the victimizer.(71) In the case of The State Hospital, he has chosen to force the viewer to experience the position of a hospital attendant. Orderlies in mental hospitals often ignore even the most basic needs of their patients. By not allowing entrance into the work, Kienholz has forced observers to look in through the bars and, inevitably, to walk on. The viewer is forced to take the place of the hospital attendant. This gives a sense of immediacy to the piece. It ceases to be just a self contained art experience and becomes an actual event.(72)

Kienholz's The State Hospital functions as a moralistic story. If he had handled the subject matter in a different fashion, the function of the piece may have changed. It performs its role in exactly the manner Kienholz that intended. His tableaux can definitely be considered art in that they are the visual representation of an idea. They reach out in an effort to communicate with the viewer.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and having evoked in oneself, then by means of movement, line, color, sounds or forms express in words, so to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
--Leo Tolstoy

Throughout time, art has had the ability to answer our emotional and spiritual needs. In the 1950s and 1960s, artists recognized that it could be used as an influential tool in helping people to understand one another. In exploiting the potential of art, artists like Kienholz hope to alleviate and hopefully avert some of the predicaments modern man has gotten himself into. In this way, the artist hopes to take part in the reshaping of our material and immaterial environments.Every piece of information that is obtained alters a person's perception of his or her environment. This is also true on a societal scale. Any given culture is changed, however imperceptibly, by the new ideas it encounters. As long as information is taken in, our outlook cannot remain static. Our perceptions of our environments, therefore, are ever-fluctuating kaleidoscopes; they continuously shift and change.

E-mail: shelly@cat-sidh.net
Copyright 2007 Shelly Couvrette


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1. Robert L. Pincus, On a Scale that Competes with the World: the art of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz (Berkley: The University of California Press, 1990), 64.

2. Pincus, 2.

3. Pincus, 18.

4. John Miller, "Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz," Artforum, 28 (December 1989), 134.

5. Pincus, 19.

6. Pincus, 26.

7. Pincus, 28.

8. Sidra Stich, Made in U.S.A. (Berkley: University of California Press, 1987), 2.

9. Stich, 206.

10. Stich, 207.

11. Pincus, 2.

12. Sidney Tillim, "Edward Kienholz's Barney's Beanery," Artforum, 4 (Arpil 1966), 39.

13. Pincus, 7.

14. Maurice Tuchman, "A Decade of Edward Kienholz," Artforum, 4 (April 1966), 41.

15. Miller, 133.

16. Tillim, 39.

17. Pincus, 4.

18. Frederick S. Wight, "Edward Kienholz," Art in America (October-November 1965), 71.

19. Tuchman, 41.

20. Pincus, 8.

21. Edward Kienholz, Ed Kienholz: main works from 1961 up to today (Milano: Edizioni Bocchi, 1974), 2.

22. Pincus, 9.

23. Tuchman, 41.

24. Adrian Henri, Total Art: Enviornments, Happenings and Performance (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), 48.

25. Tuchman, Maurice. "A Decade of Edward Kienholz," Artforum (April 1966) p. 41.

26. Pincus, 41.

27. Pincus, 48.

28. Jess Stein, ed. Random House Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Random House, 1968), 1336.

29. Pincus, 1.

30. Pincus, 41.

31. Tuchman, 41.

32. Pincus, 48.

33. Tuchman, 41.

34. Pincus, 28.

35. Pincus, 86.

36. Tuchman, 41.

37. Irving Sandler, American Art of the 1960s (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 310.

38. Suzi Gablik, "Crossing the Bar," Artforum, 64 (October 1965), 23.

39. Deutsch, 16.

40. Deutsch, introduction, 7.

41. Deutsch, p. 17.

42. Deutsch, Alfred, The Mentally Ill in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), p. 16.

43. Deutsch, 17.

44. Deutsch, 28.

45. Deutsch, 20-21.

46. Deutsch, 14, introduction.

47. Deutsch 11, introduction.

48. Ibid., 452.

49. Ibid., 284.

50. Ibid., 23.

51. Deutsch, 132-133.

52. Ibid., 13, introduction.

53. Ibid., 442-443.

54. Rothman, 353.

55. Chu, 45.

56. Deutsch, quoted in Chu, p. 13.

57. Rawls, 252.

58. Rawls, Wendell Jr., Cold Storage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 250.

59. Deutsch, 434.

60. Pincus, 64.

61. Rothman, 356.

62. Pincus, 41.

63. Pincus, 26.

64. Pincus, 66.

65. Pincus, 66.

66. Pincus, 66.

67. Wight, 72 or Pincus, 66.

68. Pincus, 66.

69. Pincus, 66.

70. Henry, 45.

71. Pincus, 24.

72. Pincus, 29.