Edward Kienholz, Sawdy, 1971–72. Installation view: “The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata,” Fondazione Prada, 2012
The Louisiana is one of my favorite museums of modern art. At the end of the summer, I had a chance to visit this glorious and romantic setting for art, architecture, and nature overlooking the Øresund Sound, thirty minutes outside of Copenhagen. So it was a shock to the system when I came upon Edward Kienholz’s morbid Five Car Stud (1969–72). This infamous installation, shown in 1972 at Documenta 5 in Kassel, has been in storage in Japan for nearly forty years. The gruesome depiction of five white men castrating a black man was a highly contentious subject for the Americans who failed to give it a proper presentation until recently. LACMA exhibited Five Car Stud in October 2011 (after the work had been rediscovered and restored) and it is now on an extensive European tour.
The ghost of Kienholz followed me to Venice, where I visited the Prada Foundation (which, coincidentally, purchased Five Car Stud for its permanent collection). Germano Celant, the foundation’s Artistic Director, has curated an exceptional exhibition of multiples entitled “The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata,” and included in the show is Kienholz’s Sawdy (1971–72)—a series of vintage car doors whose windows have been replaced by Walter Hopps’s famous black-and-white photographs of Five Car Stud. During its Japanese hibernation, these photographs were the only evidence of the existence of the work—now considered the artist’s magnum opus.
Back at the Louisiana, however, I descended a spiral staircase and emerged in a cavernous, life-size diorama. With headlights blazing, four cars and a pickup truck encircle a group of masked men viciously holding down and castrating a black man. His white girlfriend is vomiting and watches helplessly from one of the cars. The license plates read “State of Brotherhood.” The assemblage of found objects feels kitschy and theatrical, and yet there is a creepy, film noir element that draws the viewer in emotionally. I left the space feeling disgusted and angered by the injustice. Kienholz’s blunt commentary on hate crimes during the watershed years of the 1960s and ’70s raises a troubling question: How much progress have we made in the last fifty years? On the one hand, the answer is simple: we elected President Barack Obama and we’ve legalized same-sex marriage (in some states). On the other hand, Five Car Stud remains scarily contemporary. It conjures up Rodney King’s beating in 1991 and the shocking 1998 killings of twenty-one-year-old Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and James Byrd Jr. in Texas. In January of this year, the beating of Bronx teenager Jateik Reed—not by masked men, but by four police officers—was caught on video. The following day, Reed was charged with with drug possession, assault, and harassment. All charges were recently dropped.
Despairingly, Five Car Stud’s depiction of human nature as dark and ugly has withstood the test of time.