Ed Kienholz, one of the seminal figures in American contemporary art, didn’t want this piece mistaken for a parody.
He and his wife Nancy Reddin Kienholz, who worked in tandem, had taken an abandoned Spokane window display filled with religious tokens, removed it and presented it as an installation piece called “The Jesus Corner.”
While Kienholz was an atheist, he wanted it clear he had no intention of ridiculing the display’s creator, whom the artist was never able to locate, despite extensive effort.
“It was a humble expression of one man’s belief and dedication to a supreme being,” Kienholz wrote. “(He) wanted all who passed the corner to know where he stood and how he felt about his God. The world could use a lot more (Roland Thurman) kind of people rather than the hypocrite who prays in church on Sunday and then preys on his neighbors and associates the rest of the week.”
That was one of the many insights Beth Sellars shared earlier this week about “The Jesus Corner,” which is on display at the Missoula Art Museum.
Sellars knew Kienholz personally from her time as curator at the Cheney Cowles Museum in Spokane. Through personal letters and photographs, Sellars shared the story of the pieces’ origins, and her efforts to bring Kienholz’s work to the museum.
Sellars knew Kienholz from his gallery in Hope, Idaho, which drew the likes of Jasper Johns and Alberto Giacometti, and worked with him on bringing his work to Spokane.
The Cheney Cowles eventually hosted an exhibition called “Kienholz in Context” in 1984, displaying his art in a city whose lights he once admired from the family farm in nearby Fairfield.
By that time, Kienholz was responsible for a shift in the art world from the East Coast to the West, and the show drew a “media frenzy.” Kienholz reluctantly agreed to do a short museum talk, but approached Sellars shortly beforehand with a demand.
“We’re going to smoke while we talk,” Ed and Nancy told Sellars.
She thought about saying no, but realized she’d have to turn away 150 people. So she let them smoke in a clearly marked, no-smoking museum, and a rapt audience listened to an hour-and-a-half talk.
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After the exhibition, “The Jesus Corner” was sent to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and eventually made its way back to the Kienholz studio in Hope.
Sellars continued lobbying Ed for a major piece in the museum so close to his home.
“Like it or not, Ed, we are your museum. We’re in your part of the country. We are your museum,” she recalled saying.
About 10 years after “The Jesus Corner” was first on display at Cheney Cowles, Sellars received a call from Peter Goulds, who was the director of the L.A. Louver, which remains the Kienholzes’ gallery today.
Goulds had been instructed to offer the piece for a price so far below market value Sellars had to promise to keep it private.
It was still, Sellars said, far above the museum’s coffers. She convinced the museum to make five years’ worth of installments to purchase it.
Then in 1994, she and two others drove to Hope in a flatbed truck to retrieve the piece, which MAM curator Steve Glueckert estimates weighs more than a ton with all its packaging.
After barking at the building manager driving the truck, Keinholz ended up telling dirty jokes with him. They loaded up the piece, which measures pretty high on the back of a flatbed, and headed back to Spokane.
“Ed called first thing the next morning and said, ‘You didn’t go under any low bridges, did you?’ ” Sellars said.
A mere six months later, Kienholz died. The artist was suffering from diabetes, and had minimal use of his extremities.
“He was just putting things into place,” Sellars said.
Obituaries ran in major newspapers across the country, from New York to Los Angeles. Writing in the L.A. Times, William Wilson said, “It is simply impossible to imagine the history of the American aesthetic without him.”