Lyn Kienholz is the physical opposite of her late ex-husband, L.A. pop-art titan Ed Kienholz. While he was a lumbering Promethean shaped like a Humvee, she is as tiny and thin as a breadstick, usually dressed informally in turtleneck sweaters and comfy flats.
Beginning with “Wow, there are so many people here!” Kienholz, now in her 70s, keeps it loose and charming during her opening remarks for “Black SoCal: Art and Practice in an Evolving Landscape,” a launch party she hosted earlier this month at Club Fais Do-Do in the West Adams district. She fumbles for the papers perched on her lap, forgets to hold the microphone up to her mouth as she speaks, and abruptly breaks off her prepared statements to greet featured artists as they come through the front door. The invitation she'd sent out for the event practically said it all: Dress Casual.
Since Kienholz's 1974 divorce from Ed, whom she met in the early 1960s while working the front desk of the seminal Ferus Gallery on La Cienega, she has quietly acted as a vital connective tissue between L.A. and the rest of the art world.Since 1981, she has organized more than 100 international SoCal-centric art shows through her California/International Arts Foundation. She and ex -Hammer Museum director Henry Hopkins formed the L.A. Art History Project, which in 2010 published the encyclopedic L.A. Rising, a Who's Who of more than 500 SoCal artists both famous and obscure.
After turning her Hollywood Hills home into an ongoing artists' salon – some claim the idea for the L.A. Opera was born at her dinner table – Kienholz has been referred to by a number of admiring sobriquets: “macher of the L.A. art world,” “pot stirrer,” “sherpa,” “facilitator,” “collector of people,” “chronic worrier.” All of them equally embarrass her.
Sitting onstage at Fais Do-Do, she visibly grimaces several times during energetic tributes to her work ethic, occasionally interrupting with asides like “What is this? This Is Your Life?” or “I think I'll go to the bathroom now” or “Can I have my glass of wine yet?”
Kienholz's impatience to get the spotlight off herself and back on the local artists she has spent the last 40 years championing is understandable. The event's raison d'être is to raise funds for what may be her crowning achievement: The transportation of art from 35 African-American artists, active in Southern California from the 1930s through the present day, to the vaunted stage of the 2015 Venice Biennale.
“Black SoCal” will be the first comprehensive, multigenerational survey of its kind to be shown abroad, and arguably the biggest stage any of these artists have seen – a half-million attendees.
“This all started because of John Outterbridge,” Kienholz says of the man who is perhaps L.A.'s best-known purveyor (aside from her ex-husband) of assemblage, or “junk art,” and who once publicly called out the L.A. Times for ignoring exhibitions of black artists.
“Some years ago we were having dinner,” she continues, “and I was doing the encyclopedia of L.A. art at the time, and John started rattling off these names. At about the 30th name, I said, 'John, who are these people? I've never heard of them!' and John said, 'That's because nobody would show us.' I thought, 'What can I do to alleviate this situation?'?”
There's a history of black artists, underappreciated at home, crossing the pond for a little love from Old Europe. In 1951, visual artist Charles White, whose lithograph “Love Letter #1” would later adorn the cover of the Now Dig This! monograph from 2011's citywide Pacific Standard Time initiative, traveled to Europe and was surprised to find legions of admirers he never knew existed. Leimert Park poet Kamau Daa'ood experienced the same sensation two years ago when he was invited to France as a cultural ambassador.
“The appreciation for art and culture in Europe is very different from here in the States,” Daa'ood says. “I've never in my life been treated like they treated me there. Where have I ever went as an artist and the chef keeps the restaurant open three hours after closing time because I'm there? Or the head of Cultural Affairs personally meets me at the airport and presents me with a per diem? Or the U.S. ambassador goes to three of my readings and tells me if I have any problems to please let him know? I mean, it was just on and on like that, and it was just so overwhelming.” He laughs heartily. “Now I understand why so many artists from America became expatriates.”
Jazz historian Steve Isoardi agrees: “Historically, it's been true almost since the post – World War I era. There's been a huge interest and appreciation for African-American artists in Europe, and I think this show will continue that.”
Isoardi is coordinating the music portion of “Black SoCal”; his wife, Jeannette Lindsay, produced a documentary on the Leimert Park arts scene that has already played to great enthusiasm in France and Italy. “But what we're hoping is that people will see this finally on a scale unlike they've seen before, and they will see it as cutting-edge and important within the art world, not just as 'African-American art' but also as an important artistic development of the art world in general,” he says.
The show has already been accepted for the 2015 Biennale, and a venue chosen – the sumptuous, state-of-the-art multimedia complex Palazzo Querini Stampalia, just a stone's throw from Piazza San Marco. The multimedia program, curated by former California African American Museum head curator Jill Moniz, will include films, poetry readings and live performances by three generations of L.A. jazz musicians.
The mere promise of such an endeavor – coupled with the old-home-week feel of a community of like-minded artists reconnecting – palpably infused Fais Do-Do. Painter Phoebe Beasley danced to Curtis Mayfield's music. A beaming Dale Davis, who with his brother Alonzo opened the Brockman Gallery in 1967, embraced Daa'ood like an old friend. A regal Tony Ramos, who easily won the award for most miles traveled after flying in from the South of France, chatted up both daughters of Betye Saar – all four artists will be represented at the Biennale.
There was already excited talk of taking the show beyond Venice, to Senegal and South Africa.
The only remaining snag, of course: We live in a market economy, and in order to be an artist of any kind in L.A., you have to find someone with deep pockets and persuade them to support your cause.
Kienholz admits that part of the event was to suss out possible corporate underwriters; “None has been forthcoming,” she says after the party. “So we'll have to find them on our own!”
But for now, at least, Lyn Kienholz can finally have her glass of wine.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story gave the wrong first name for the artist who designed “Love Letter #1.” He is Charles White. We regret the error.
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