Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Whose Art Challenged and Disturbed, Dies at 75


Nancy Reddin Kienholz, a contemporary artist who, working with her husband, the sculptor Edward Kienholz, conceived daring and often-disturbing installations that denounced child abuse, sexism, racism and the misuse of political power, died on Aug. 7 in a hospital in Houston. She was 75

The cause was cardiac arrest, said Peter Goulds, the founding director of L.A. Louver, the gallery that represents the couple’s work.

Mrs. Kienholz (pronounced KEEN-holtz) was an amateur photographer when she met and married Mr. Kienholz in 1972. He had a richly deserved reputation as an artistic provocateur whose work combined elements of Surrealism, Expressionism, Pop and assemblage. But she had little experience.

“Like Ed, I am self-taught, except for the fact that I went to the ‘School of Kienholz’ for over 20 years,” she said in a film that accompanied an exhibition of the couple’s work in 2005 at the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England. “He taught me everything I know about art. He taught me to weld and solder, cast figures, paint and to believe in my ‘eye.’”

She recognized that her devotion to art had to be as absolute as his.

“Art was more important to him than he or I or our children,” she told The Guardian in 2009, “and once that was clear, it became our focus, and it was fun.”

They were inseparable for 22 years, working in their studios in Houston, Berlin and Hope, Idaho, and shopping for found materials in junk shops and flea markets to use for their elaborate installations and tableaux.

The Artforum critic Jeffrey Kastner called their installations “riotous, excoriating and often brutally blunt” in a preview of a Kienholz show at Fondazione Prada in Milan in 2016.

Within “The Caddy Court” (1987) — a Dodge van sandwiched between the front and back ends of a 1978 Cadillac — preside nine mock Supreme Court justices who are grotesquely depicted with heads made of animal skulls, some decayed, that had been preserved by a taxidermist

“The Bear Chair” (1991) shows a teddy bear who has sodomized a girl and is etching a message into a dressing table that says: “If you ever tell, I’ll hurt your mama real, real bad.”

The couple sometimes spent several years on their projects, including “The Hoerengracht (“Whore’s Canal”), which they completed in 1988. A commentary on the subjugation of the female body, it is a garish recreation of Amsterdam’s red-light district with half-dressed mannequin prostitutes standing behind glowing windows and lurking in alleys.

When the National Gallery in London announced in 2008 that it would install “The Hoerengracht” along with old masters paintings of somewhat similar scenes, the British newspaper The Independent asked in a headline if the museum was “prostituting itself for the punters” — suggesting that the venerable museum was relaxing its standards with a populist show to attract visitors.

Nancy Jo Reddin was born on Sept. 9, 1943, in Los Angeles. Her father, Thomas, was a police offer who rose to chief of the Los Angeles Police Department before resigning and becoming a local newscaster. Her mother, Betty (Parsons) Reddin, was a real estate agent.

She attended the University of Southern California for a short time before working as a court reporter, medical assistant and emergency room attendant. She met Mr. Kienholz at a party hosted by her parents.

“I knew who he was — you could not not have known who Ed Kienholz was,” Mrs. Kienholz told The Guardian, largely because of the public stir caused by his installation, “Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964), which showed a couple engaged in sexual activity in an old car. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors tried to ban the sculpture as pornographic.

One of their most ambitious works was Mrs. Kienholz’s idea: “The Merry-Go-World, or Begat by Chance and the Wonder Horse Trigger,” an octagonal merry-go-round with calliope music, flashing lights and broken-down carousel animals, including a giraffe with crutches for legs.

Viewers spin a wheel of fortune to select one of eight sealed compartments to view artifacts from wealthy, poor, vulnerable and humble situations around the world (including Paris, Luxor, Houston and Rio de Janeiro) that suggest how geography determines destiny.

“‘Merry-Go-World’ combines all the sharpness, craft and realism of the assemblagist’s craft into a work that is tough without coarseness, wise without judgment, amused without condescension,” the critic William Wilson wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1992.

In the years since Mr. Kienholz’s death in 1994, Mrs. Kienholz has created her own assemblages and lenticular art, in which one subject morphs into another in three stages. Christ on the cross, for example, turns into Santa Claus; a street paved with gold becomes a road of guns; and a girl on a desolate street is transformed into the Statue of Liberty.

Mrs. Keinholz also oversaw the restoration of installations, notably Mr. Kienholz’s “Five Card Stud” (1972), which depicts a horrifying crime: A group of masked white men castrate a black man in a desert as the lights of vehicles illuminate the scene.

“I felt it came inside my soul when I was working on it,” she said in a video produced by The Los Angeles Times when the restored “Five Card Stud” was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011. “I was very upset over it, that there was this hatred and ugliness in my country, and I think it’s still there.”

“Maybe it’s not spoken of the same way,” she added, “but it’s alive and well.”

Mrs. Kienholz is survived by her mother; her brother, Michael; her daughters, Christine Kerr and Jennette Kienholz; her son, Noah; and two grandchildren. Her marriage to Raymond Acuff, her first husband, ended in divorce.

For most of the Kienholzes’ first decade together, Mr. Kienholz alone signed their works. But he came to have second thoughts. In the catalog to “The Kienholz Woman,” an exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Zurich in 1981, he surprised his wife by declaring that all their work in those first nine years be retroactively credited as theirs.

“My life and art have been enriched and incredibly fulfilled by Nancy’s presence, and I wish to belatedly acknowledge that fact here,” he wrote. “I further felt I no longer have a man’s right to signature only my name to these efforts which have been produced by both of us.”

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