in Frieze | 02 JAN 01
Featured in
Issue 56

The Ride Stripped Bare

Modern Grottoes

in Frieze | 02 JAN 01

So I got in the car, hit the road, and stepped on the gas. It was sleek, it was new, it was a white Pontiac. Out I went, through the cityscape of New York. Out on the blacktop, driving towards Philadelphia, towards a museum, towards a closed room with a wooden door pierced by two holes - a room to which entry is forbidden.

The question is 'why?' My 'why?' goes like this: I have a problem. I'm working on a long-term project to build a Modern grotto, and this has set me thinking about complete, enclosed worlds - what are thought of now as 'installations'. For me, the beginning of our current notion of the installation, as opposed to the exhibition, is the grotto. Perhaps in this I am over-influenced by having visited Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria as a child. A castle built by Wagner's patron 'Mad' King Ludwig between 1868-1886, and made famous by its starring role in Disney's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Neuschwanstein houses a grotto: a crazy passageway of papier-mâché stalactites and stalagmites. It's a romantic evocation of nature, a world within the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art houses Marcel Duchamp's final, secret work: Etant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), made in his New York studio at 210 West 20th Street between 1946-1966 - a period when it was assumed he had given up his role as an artist. Upon Duchamp's death in 1968, at the age of 88, Etant donnés was acquired by the Cassandra Foundation and, in accordance with his wishes, presented to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The piece was opened to the public in 1969. This was why I was in a white Pontiac: my feeling was that Etant donnés held the key to the idea of 'installation', and was, in fact, the first Modern grotto.

Yes, I bent to look through those two holes in the door, surrounded with smudges left by the many faces which have pressed against it, to see that extraordinary image. It looks flat even though you know it is, in fact, a three-dimensional construction of a female nude lying on a bed of branches, legs open, one arm aloft holding an oil lamp. Behind her is a shimmering landscape in which a waterfall flickers as if to indicate the wetness so absent from the barren vagina which is central to the gaze as you stare and recognise yourself, not so much as a viewer but as a voyeur. Having seen it I was not so sure.

Glancing through the windscreen as I drove back, I started to think of the philosopher Emile-Auguste Chartier (1868-1951), best known by his pen name of 'Alain'. His students, who included Simone Weil, Andre Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre, simply called him 'L'homme'. One of the points that Alain makes in his book The Gods (1947) is that, like children, we forget that the world we know is the product of labour: 'we know the Bishop Berkeley was persuaded that the world is only imagery within us, the imagery of our thoughts. For him the world was a bishop's supper. And the child-man Berkeley went as far as Newfoundland to preach and came back, still persuaded that our perceptions have no substance. He let himself be carried by ship, while others hoisted the sails. The passenger's job is no doubt the stupidest in the world, which is why there are travels and travels.' 1 Somewhat later he adds: 'travel, it is true, is a form of labour, though often we give up and go by car.' 2

Sitting in that Pontiac, the world passed by the windshield as an almost incoherent spectacle; yes, with your foot on the gas and the wheel in your hand there is a sense of the world being responsive to your actions, but Alain is right. The feeling when bent, looking voyeur-like through those holes into Etant donnés is not unlike that of looking through a car window, a feeling of being passive and somewhat stupid. Perhaps in this lies the difference between painting and sculpture. Sculpture forces you to consider the issue of labour. Not only does it take physical work to make it, but you have to do physical work to look at it. In Etant donnés all the labour is hidden - indeed access to its physical reality is forbidden. It is Duchamp's final return to painting, but without paint.

I began to make a mental list of those works in the Modern era which lead to installation as a practice in itself: first Kurt Schwitters' Schwitters-Saule (Schwitters' Column, 1918-1938), best known as the Hanover Merzbau. Then Lucio Fontana's first 'environment', Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment with UV Light) at the Galleria del Naviglio, Milan, in 1949: a black space in which suspended forms covered in phosphorescent paint were illuminated by ultraviolet light. From there to Yves Klein's Le Vide (The Void, 1958) at the Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, and Arman's Le Plein (The Fullness, 1960), again in the Galerie Iris Clert, which Arman completely filled with found objects, including 50 small paintings by artists ranging from Picasso to Manzoni. On to Yayoi Kusama's Endless Love Room (1965-1966) and Lucas Samaras' similar mirrored space, Room 2 of 1966. And, finally, to its current form in the work of artists such as Louise Bourgeois. Then I started to think of another work which bears a marked similarity to Duchamp's Etant donnés, by an artist who made the concept of the tableau his own.

In 1966, Ed Kienholz was the subject of a huge one-man show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art. One work in particular caused considerable controversy: Back Seat Dodge '38 (1964). The piece consists of a curiously foreshortened 1938 Dodge standing on a rectangle of artificial grass. There is no front compartment to the car, the bonnet having been grafted on to the passenger section. The door is open and the spectator must peer in (and this is where the trouble lay) to see the figure of a woman with her legs open. But, unlike Duchamp's tableau, she is not alone: a chicken wire outline of a male figure is positioned above her, his hand attempting to get into her pants, her high heel digging into his foot. The car's windows are mirrored on the inside, a precursor to the mirrored rooms of both Kusama and Samaras, and presumably intended to reflect the scene and the voyeurs who found themselves looking in on this representation of teenage fumblings and American moral hypocrisy. Outside the car are several beer bottles, each on their own patches of Astroturf. The piece is set in the 1940s, the period of Kienholz's youth, yet includes a working radio which transmits the sounds of today. This work was Kienholz's succès de scandale and generated huge publicity. The Museum stood its ground against charges of immorality, although they placed guards nearby to prevent underage visitors from looking into its interior. Today it forms part of the Museum's permanent collection. Duchamp's Etant donnés is curiously sterile in comparison to Back Seat Dodge '38, more akin to Fragonard's painting The Swing (1768-1769) in its lyricism, elegance, rural setting, and the displacement of the vagina (into a waterfall rather than a lost slipper). Kienholz's Back Seat Dodge '38, although employing similar images and means, is fully sexualised, urban, and sculptural. Duchamp was aware of Kienholz's work.

In 1963 the Surrealist dealer Alexander Iolas was the first to exhibit his sculpture in New York - which is where Duchamp saw it. Asked how he liked it, the latter replied: 'Marvellously vulgar artist. Marvellously vulgar. I like that work.' 3 When told of this, Kienholz said: 'Well that's nice. I like his work too.' 4

The 1963 exhibition at Alexander Iolas in New York included the work Roxys (1961-1962), for which Kienholz coined the term 'tableau'. First shown in 1961 at the Ferus Gallery (a space Kienholz founded with Walter Hopps on La Cienega Boulevard, LA, in 1957), Roxys was a complete environment depicting its famous namesake, a Las Vegas brothel. Whereas the concept of a tableau in relation to Duchamp's Etant donnés can be said to derive from the French word for a painting, Kienholz took the word from the staged, costumed, stop-action presentations seen in rural churches during his youth. Roxys takes the form of a complete decorated space, with wallpaper, chairs, pictures on the wall, and occasional tables. It also incorporates a device which Kienholz was to use in the future: the figures of the girls are set on low, tiled plinths, which are themselves set on carpets - plinths, but at the same time, not plinths.

In Back Seat Dodge '38 he pushed the carpet/plinth further still: the truncated car sits on a rectangle of artificial grass and draws upon the common experience of millions of adolescent Americans for whom the car was a sexual space in which their desires could be consummated. Formally, Back Seat Dodge '38 is very similar to the way custom cars were exhibited at shows on the West Coast in the 1950s and 1960s. Hot Rods were often displayed on clean patches of Astroturf; beautifully crafted, outside and inside, these cars were mating bowers - 'pussy wagons' in the parlance of the times. It's hard to believe that Kienholz wasn't playing with this common convention and stripping its meaning bare. With regard to traditional sculpture, the real issue here is that Kienholz's work differentiates between the complete theatrical occlusion of the exhibition space by the installation, and the discrete entity of a sculpture as a singular object.

This is the historical point at which sculpture becomes fragmented and loose. Kienholz's significance as an artist lies not so much upon the notion that he originated a form of working so commonplace that it's accepted today as the dominant mode (although perhaps this was simply a consequence of Abstract Expressionism), but rather, in terms of American art at least, he occupied the space between the narrative sculptures of George Segal and Duane Hanson, and the fragmented works of the post-Minimalists. Back Seat Dodge '38 tells a story in three dimensions - the eye accepts the task of moving around the sculpture, reading its constituent elements, and building a narrative from the common understanding of those parts. If Kienholz's underlying aesthetic was traditional - in the use of incorporated detail to tell a story, for example - his use of assemblage was not, and the story told is ruthless in its biting criticism of American life.

At the first preview of Roxys at the Ferus Gallery, Kienholz insisted that all invited guests wear formal attire - he 'wanted people to feel on their very best behaviour. No one should look down on the girls or feel superior to them.' 5 As he said, 'you can't have a whorehouse without paying customers'. 6 In their need to modify the accepted construct of art into a critical position, both Duchamp and Kienholz borrowed from outside the artistic canon. For Duchamp, the model was literature. For Kienholz, it was the culture of his everyday life. Both artists radically modified the conventions of how art is seen. In the work of Duchamp, this position is well recognised. He restructured the conventions of art in terms of irony - a subtle form of sarcasm, a play of words where one thing is said but a different meaning intended - and great erudition is required to even begin to penetrate his intentions. With Kienholz there is no irony; the meaning and narrative are based on common cultural experience: vulgar experience, an American experience shared by millions, both in actuality and vicariously via the globalisation of American culture. The radical, inventive aspects of Kienholz's work are comparatively unrecognised, perhaps because its aesthetic is low-brow, whereas that of Duchamp is high-brow.

If the installation, in the Modern sense of the word, begins anywhere, it starts with Kienholz. It originates with Roxys and achieves its definitive form in Back Seat Dodge '38 - a world within a world, a room within a room. If Back Seat Dodge '38 marked a significant point in Kienholz's career, it also marks a significant point in the conventions of art practice.

Kienholz's sculpture is narrative, not reductive like, say, the work of other significant West Coast artists such as Robert Irwin. If anything, it is excessive, and, like the stop-action church narratives of his youth, Kienholz's tableaux freeze moments of time, moments compacted with images from common culture. The carpet/plinths, for example, function in a 'back home' kind of way; which is presumably what Duchamp was referring to when he described Kienholz as 'a marvellously vulgar artist'. Vulgar means to refer to the common people. Kienholz always had problems with critics who tried to associate his work with Duchamp; he saw himself as an American artist: untrained, someone who went out and made his own way in the world. His first show, in 1955, was hung in Von's Café Gallery, a Beat hangout in Laurel Canyon, LA. He supported himself by being a handyman, driving a pickup which carried on its doors the simple phrase: 'Ed Kienholz: Expert'. He also traded cars throughout his life (he sold a Cadillac in 1994, a month before he died) and is buried in one. On the morning of 10th June 1994, he expired of a heart attack getting out of bed. On 14th of June, he was buried according to his wishes at his hunting camp in the Howe mountains in his beloved 1940 Packard coupé. He was embalmed, arms folded across his body; he had a dollar in his pocket, a good bottle of Italian wine (1931), and a deck of cards to get him started in the next world. His wife, and co-author of the greater part of his work, the artist Nancy Reddin, had grudgingly consented to this on the condition that he occupy the passenger seat. As she said, 'I'm not going hurtling through all eternity with you at the wheel'. 7

And what of myself in that hired white Pontiac? Sadly, I was on the sterile trail of Marcel Duchamp. I drove back to New York, and returned the car to the car hire people. If I had gone to the Los Angeles County Museum, to see Back Seat Dodge '38 instead of going to Philadelphia to see Etant donnés maybe I would have spent less time in the front seat being a voyeur and more in the back seat making out. But, in a way, my question was answered; in his death Kienholz leaves what may, I think, be the first true Modern grotto: a last tableau, buried and even less accessible than Duchamp's Etant donnés.

1. Alain, The Gods, trans. Richard Pevear, Chatto & Windus, London, 1975, p. 40.

2. Ibid., p. 41.

3. Walter Hopps, 'A Note from the Underworld', Kienholz: a Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1966, p. 33.

4. Ibid., p. 33.

5. Pontus Hultén, Edward Kienholz, ICA, London, 1971, p. 6.

6. Ibid., p. 6.

7. Lawrence Weshler, 'Cars and Carcasses', The New Yorker, May 13, 1996, p. 56.