“I don’t see anything but a bunch of junk thrown together. And he calls that art!”

We’ve already told you what happened at LACMA forty-five years ago this week. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention what happened forty-four years ago this week: LACMA opened its infamous Edward Kienholz exhibition. Exactly one year after the museum opened its doors, LACMA got into hot water with the County Supervisors over the Kienholz show, and especially Back Seat Dodge ’38, which depicts two people making out in the back seat of a car, alcohol on the floor and radio playing in the background.

Warren M. Dorn, then a County Supervisor (who was also making a failed run for Governor that year), declared the exhibition pornographic and threatened to pull all County funding from the museum. LACMA stood strong against Dorn and allowed the exhibition to run its course. The controversy made local and national headlines, and the crowds descended upon the museum to form their own opinions.

We’ve got a detailed account of the exhibition and the controversy on our website, but thanks to the great tweeter @LAhistory (fun to follow for all sorts of local history nuggets), we came across this must-watch film of interviews with visitors to the exhibition (found at archive.org). It’s a bit long, but fascinating from beginning to end. My favorite part comes near the end, when a young hipster is explaining why he likes the work. An elderly woman bumps into him and says she doesn’t get it, then confuses him for Kienholz. “Are you the doctor?” she asks, before correcting herself and asking first if he’s the artist, then asking if the young man is related to the artist. “Yes,” he says, “in a sense. So are you.”

Scott Tennent

One Response to “I don’t see anything but a bunch of junk thrown together. And he calls that art!”

  1. cshteynberg says:

    Absolutely fascinating video! On a side note, outside of the Back Seat Dodge ’38 bits, I especially like the part where the guy says, “Everything’s wired–nothing’s really people anymore.” He’s followed by a man who talks about going to war in a machine era in which, “a machine finds the enemy, and a machine shoots down the enemy, and you just sit there and watch the buttons.”

    However, I think you understate what’s going on in Back Seat Dodge ’38. It’s not a depiction of two young people making out, it’s of them having sex. The transparency of the chicken wire man puts the focus on the woman. The hand placement of the man, the foot placement of the girl–it all suggests that there may be a struggle or at least some anxiety on on her part. While it’s not a piece that shocks most people now, it still makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s ambiguous–I don’t know how either party feels, and I feel strange for spying on them. I think it’s important to realize that while there was some reactionary response in the 60s to this work, that was partly because Kienholz’s brilliant work does in fact invoke strong (and often disturbing) emotional responses, even today.

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