Who’s Afraid of “Five Car Stud”?

You know times have changed when Five Car Stud has a Facebook page. Once upon a time, the Ed Kienholz installation was the unspeakable sensation of Documenta 5 (1972) in Kassel, Germany. Housed in an inflatable dome, it defied any viewer to forget it. European critics praised Five Car Stud to the skies while insisting it was too controversial to ever be shown in dumb, backwards America. To add to the legend, Five Car Stud was acquired by Japanese collector Katsumi Kawamura and has been in storage ever since, slowly rotting away. Newly restored by Kienholz’s widow and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Five Car Stud will have its belated American debut at LACMA, starting September 4, and will travel to Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art next year. The L.A. showing is being co-sponsored by the Getty, which recently acquired the papers of Documenta 5 director Harald Szeemann.

Love it or hate it, Five Car Stud (1969-1972) is Kienholz’s magnum opus. It represents a group of white men castrating a black man as his white girlfriend watches. The figures are life-size mannequins wearing masks, illuminated by the headlights of four cars and a pickup truck. Floating letters in an oil pan on the victim’s chest spell out the N word. Kienholz’s aesthetic is as uncompromisingly bitter as Goya’s. People are mean and stupid, and things don’t get better. Up until now, Five Car Stud has mostly been known via creepy black-and-white photos taken by Walter Hopps, evoking Night of the Living Dead and news photos of the Watts riots (themselves two touchstones of race in America).

Kienholz was of course aware of the challenges of showing or selling such a piece. He turned entrepreneur, using Five Car Stud as the basis for multiples that would be smaller, less expensive, and less excruciating. Kienholz set up the life-size tableau in the West Hollywood parking lot of print publisher Gemini GEL and photographed it for a limited edition book and sculptural multiples. The latter, titled Sawdy (left), consists of a license plate and a vintage car door with a roll-up window displaying a black-and-white photograph of Five Car Stud. “Sawdy” was Kienholz’s name for the victim, taken from Clarence Fred Sawdy, former owner of the pick-up truck. The Gemini GEL edition of 50 entered a number of important museum collections, including those of MOCA and the Tate Gallery. (Sawdy will be shown at the Norton Simon Museum in “Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California,” starting Oct. 1.)

For Five Car Stud itself, a museum was the only plausible buyer. LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman wanted to buy it, but that was politically impossible at the time. The L.A. County Supervisors (right) had almost shut down the museum during its 1966 Kienholz retrospective, which they deemed “pornographic” and “revolting.” The controversy revolved around Back Seat Dodge, wherein the artist insinuated that teenagers have sex in cars.

In 1972 Kienholz didn’t have much of a reputation in New York, and most American museums took their lead from New York museums. Hence the work’s purchase by Japanese industrialist Katsumi Kawamura. He was president of DIC Corporation, an firm that makes printing inks (“Color & Comfort by Chemistry”). Kawamura was assembling art for a corporate museum. He started with a great Momoyama screen painting, Tohaku Hasegawa’s Crows and Herons. In due course, the collection embraced Western works too: the usual School-of-Paris suspects, a Rembrandt portrait for ballast (one of the few in Japan), and New York School abstraction. The Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, opened in Sakura in 1990, now houses a Pollock drip painting and seven of Rothko’s Seagram Murals, created for Manhattan’s Four Seasons Restaurants. In Sakura they occupy a single-room Rothko chapel, the only thing of its kind in Asia.

It was Kawamura’s poet-nephew who suggested that he buy Five Car Stud. Though it’s worthy of a room of Rothkos, it’s also very different, and the Kienholz was never exhibited. Whispers that DIC might be willing to sell led to LA Louver and Pace Gallery funding the restoration, in hopes of landing a buyer.

One can make a case that Five Car Stud‘s moment has passed. We’ve got a mixed-race president, and his haters are more about protecting Ayn Rand than southern womanhood. Do we need art to tell us the Ku Klux Klan is bad? For the art world, the fact that Kienholz was white complicates readings of the work. So does the fact that Kienholz is profoundly unironic. A later work, MOCA’s Holdin’ the Dog (1986, left), treats the same theme of racial violence in a more cryptic and therefore more “art school” way. The heart-on-sleeve quality of Five Car Stud goes against the grain of most of today’s ambitious art.

One reaction to Five Car Stud is to distance it. To its first viewers in Kassel, ethnic violence was an American thing (it appears that Germany never had problems along that line). Some Americans of the time might have invoked camp, the ultimate way of distancing anything. In 2011, many LACMA viewers will take similar tacks. But if the work is reduced to a problem already solved, what is left?

Kienholz tried to undermine the distancing ploy. The limited edition book locates the victim in LBC-adjacent Hawaiian Gardens, Calif. It’s intended that the viewer of Sawdy see his or her own reflection in the glass, superimposed on the photographed atrocity.

What hasn’t changed is that Five Car Stud makes just about everybody squirm. LACMA is instituting a protocol for visitors. Only 15 will be admitted at a time, and “trained facilitators” will be on hand weekends to answer any questions. Not since the Hammer did Black Male in 1995 has a local museum been so nervous that visitors would misunderstand contemporary art’s native tongue of ambiguity.

For the general public, the truly uncomfortable thing about Five Car Stud is the lack of redemption. OK, Kienholz is against racial violence, but why not make this more explicit? It’s worth comparing the Kienholz to Norman Rockwell‘s “race pictures,” produced only a few years before. The Rockwell claque cites Southern Justice (1965) as evidence of the artist’s willingness to look at the dark side of things. The sardonic title recalls the “State of Brotherhood” in the Sawdy license plate. But Southern Justice is packed to the gills with redemption. For one thing, it’s a piéta, and the dying black guy is Christ. The villains are reduced to shadows, and the real message—based on the “Mississippi burning” case—is that some white people are noble and able to fight racist violence. That was Rockwell’s happy invention: In real life, all three of the men were shot to death.

In Five Car Stud the two whites who are not involved in the crime are looking on, unable or unwilling to act. One of the men has brought his child to watch. The girlfriend is shown vomiting. This use of onlookers compares to that in another masterpiece too big and controversial to show, James Ensor‘s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. Ensor, who also uses masked figures to comment on the evils of society, has fellow members of Les XX, a Belgian avant-garde group, viewing the tableau from a balcony. They vomit and defecate in disgust, and their reaction becomes part of the tableau. Christ’s Entry was considered so sacrilegious that it was not shown publicly until 1929, by which time it had become a legend. That was 41 years after its creation, and Five Car Stud is now being revisited at the same remove.

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.