Commentary: As Roe vs. Wade is toppled, a dark 1962 sculpture takes on tragic new relevance


In 1962, when Edward Kienholz made “The Illegal Operation,” the sculpture gave intense visual form to an experience known to many, but which remained deeply in the shadow of culture.

Abortion was a crime, and the miserable back alley procedure the entertainer watched his wife endure was fresh in his mind. (She survived.) The sculptor’s assemblage is sordid in every detail – dirty rags; a soiled bedpan, a bucket full of trash, and a battered enamel pot piled under a caddy chair; dirty medical instruments and tools; a brass floor lamp with its tattered shade askew and the bulb exposed, to better illuminate the macabre work and, at the same time, suggest a menacing police interrogation lamp. In the most shocking element, the woman, Kienholz’s wife, is depicted as a gray, ruptured, inhuman bag of oozing matter – a nameless, unidentified mass sagging on the seat.

A ruptured bag of inert cement replaces the woman in “The Illegal Operation” by Ed Kienholz.

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

A homey but stained crocheted rug serves as a grimy pedestal for the gruesome tableau. Just outside its margins in viewer space, a dirty pink stool where the abortionist sat is placed next to the patient’s wire seat. The caddy’s allusion to a rough business transaction rather than a therapeutic process of medical care is artfully affirmed.

When he made the sculpture, the artist was 35 years old. (Kienholz died at age 66 in 1994.) His sordid assemblage would eventually find its way into the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in the city where it took shape. Acquired in 2008, it can now be seen in the galleries on the third floor of the BCAM building. A vivid moment in time – the present of 1962, when civil rights movements were thumping and change from the isolated and socially repressive post-war years seemed possible – is embodied in a work of art that shapes the callous violence routinely inflicted on desperate women.

Eleven years later, “The Illegal Operation” is transformed. The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, ruling that unduly restrictive state regulation of the procedure was unconstitutional. Kienholz’s sculpture embodied a legacy of misogynistic brutality that had thankfully come to an end. Art defining the present has become an artifact of the past.

And it remained so for half a century. Then, on June 24, “The Illegal Operation” traveled back in time again.

Another Supreme Court, this one expressly designed as a political third branch of government intended to make law that the legislative and executive branches would not or could not, overturned Roe. The sculptural present that has become past now describes the future. The inevitability of illegal operations spills into the dark, seedy corners of bustling American life, encouraged by five conservative Christians dressed in the blackest of robes, who have decided that their religious beliefs must trump medical science and secular law.

Edouard Kienholz, "The illegal operation (detail)," 1962, mixed media

Edward Kienholz, “The Illegal Operation (detail)”, 1962, mixed media

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. penned the opinion, which includes a silly reference to a notorious 17th-century English predecessor, most widely known for his ardent belief in witches, whom he sentenced to death for wickedness. (The lawyer, raised by a strict Puritan father, originally planned to become a priest.) After an op-ed leaked in the spring, Alito’s misogynistic reasoning was widely dissected and even mocked in legal circles. appalled. The opinion was joined by four other judges, all conservative Catholics like Alito, for whom abortion violates their religious faith.

Among them are a man credibly accused of sexual harassment of women, another credibly accused of attempted rape, and a woman affiliated with a charismatic cult whose structure is based on a doctrine of male superiority. In this regard, the incisiveness of Kienholz’s sculpture is scorchingly exposed in its cruelest and most devastating image – that grey, oozing mass of nameless matter. Alito’s obnoxious and hollow opinion on abortion hardly acknowledges that women will be affected by it, and the artist understood very well how intractable such routine dehumanization could be. As a young man, Kienholz had fled the small town in eastern Washington for southern California to get away from his fundamentalist Christian mother. That the centerpiece of his monstrous scene is a split bag of cement makes the heart ache.

Alito and his right-thinking cronies might as well have decided the fate of inert masses of the kind that Kienholz gave a searing form to. The living, breathing, flesh-and-blood women who will suffer and die at the hands of abortionists have been excluded from consideration. The court ruling will not stop abortion, as everyone knows, but will end abortion safety. The procedure has been turned back into an illegal operation that will kill thousands of people, something only the dissenting judges bothered to express.

LACMA acquired Ed Kienholz's 1962 assembly

LACMA acquired Ed Kienholz’s 1962 assembly “The Illegal Operation” in 2008.

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Americans do not want this harm done to them, as all the polls show. Four of the five jurists who made the outrageous decision were nominated by two presidents rejected three times by large majorities of voters. Last week, authorities in effect told Americans to sit down and shut up.

Don’t expect that to happen. Kienholz’s “Illegal Operation” is powerful for what it so indelibly depicts, a scene of ruthless cruelty that can only flourish if hidden and kept quiet. Such is the nature of important art. And that is the purpose of a museum’s permanent collection, where paintings and sculptures are patiently nurtured over time – until suddenly a moment calls them to step forward to shake our backs or take us by the hand.

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