The Marriage Icon is an editioned sculptural object, consisting of an oak frame in the form of an elongated rectangle with a carved relief in the centre. A brass name plate on the lower edge of the frame indicates the title and edition number. The frame contains a row of twelve postcards separated by a black card support and trimmed with a length of lace fixed around the edge of the frame under the plexiglass. Kienholz applied a layer of clear resin to the top of the plexiglass, allowing it to slide down the front of the work. It echoes dribbles of brown oil which partly colour the postcards. These date from the turn of the last century and have been hand-coloured, mainly with pink, green and yellow, by the artist. They are based on drawings depicting a couple in various stages of courtship, beginning with an introduction by a third party, in the first image, and ending with children in the last image. Each card has a caption at the bottom, commenting on the picture it portrays. The eighth postcard stands out from the others: it is a black and white pornographic photograph from the same period, satirising traditional portraiture.
Born and raised in the rural eastern Washington town of Fairfield, Kienholz moved to Los Angeles around 1952. He began to make freestanding assemblages in 1959 commenting on aspects of the provincial American culture he had grown up with. A critique of voyeurism and sexual objectification is a central theme, often staged to implicate the viewer within the commentary of the work.
During the 1960s Kienholz made several works specifically addressing sexuality. The first of these is Roxys 1961-2 (private collection), an environmental tableau depicting a brothel. Framed in an ordinary domestic environment, the female figures in this tableau are misshapen and grotesque. A smaller tableau, The Illegal Operation 1962 (Betty and Monte Factor Family Collection), presents the aftermath of an abortion, hardened concrete oozing from a hole in a sack on the bed suggesting a violated female body. In his most notorious work, Back street Dodge ’38 1964 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), a couple make out in a truncated car. While Visions of Sugar Plums Danced in Their Heads 1964 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) presents a married couple in bed. Enormous balloon-like heads with peepholes for the viewer contain the couple’s individual sexual fantasies in the form of miniature tableaux peopled with naked Ken and Barbie dolls. A round mirror over the dressing table frames a fictional reflection of the couple in the form of a photograph of a man and a woman, engaged in solitary bedroom activities.
In 1972 Edward Kienholz met his fifth (and last) wife and future collaborator, Nancy Reddin. Several years later, in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition entitled The Kienholz Women, he issued a statement declaring that Nancy Reddin Kienholz should receive equal credit for all the work they had created since they had been together. The Marriage Icon was created shortly before the couple’s meeting, at the point when Kienholz’s marriage with his fourth wife had gone sour. It is possible to read the work as a comment on the clichés of coupledom and marriage, with which the artist may have been feeling disillusioned. Following this, the first work on which Nancy and Edward collaborated, The Middle Islands No.1 1972 (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark), is a meditation on middle-aged sexuality and the dissolution of a marriage. The works they exhibited in The Kienholz Women in 1981 examine relationships between women, sex and society.
The Marriage Icon was produced in an edition of seventy-five by the Los Angeles publisher of limited editions prints and sculptures, Gemini G.E.L., who had produced his editioned sculpture Sawdy (see Tate L02346) the previous year. Tate’s copy is the sixty-first in the edition.
Robert L. Pincus, On a scale that Competes with the World: The Art of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California 1990
Walter Hopps, Kienholz: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American art, New York 1996