Commentary: As Roe vs. Wade is overturned, a grim 1962 sculpture gains tragic new relevance

When Edward Kienholz made The Illegal Operation in 1962, the sculpture lent intense visual form to an experience that many knew but remained steeped in the shadows of culture.

Abortion was a crime, and the abject, back-alley procedure the artist saw his wife undergo was fresh in his mind. (She survived.) The sculptor’s composition is filthy in every detail—filthy rags; a dirty bedpan, a bucket filled with rubbish, and a battered enamel pot piled under a shopping cart chair; dirty medical instruments and tools; a brass floor lamp, its tattered shade askew and the bulb exposed to better illuminate the gruesome work while suggesting a menacing police interrogation lamp. In the most shocking element, the woman, Frau von Kienholz, is portrayed as a grey, torn, inhuman bag of oozing matter – a nameless, unidentified lump slumping over the seat.

A torn sack of inert cement represents the woman in Ed Kienholz "The illegal operation."

A torn sack of inert cement represents the woman in Ed Kienholz’s The Illegal Operation.

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

A homey but stained hooked rug serves as a grimy pedestal for the horrifying tableau. A dingy pink stool on which the abortionist sat enters the viewer’s space just outside its edges and stands next to the patient’s wire seat. The shopping cart’s allusion to an outright commercial transaction rather than a therapeutic process of medical care is artfully asserted.

When he made the sculpture, the artist was 35 years old. (Kienholz died in 1994 at the age of 66.) His sordid collection eventually ended up in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the city where it took shape. It was acquired in 2008 and 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 rife and change from the isolated, socially repressive post-war years seemed possible – is embodied in an artwork that gives shape to the callous violence routinely inflicted on desperate women gives.

Eleven years later, The Illegal Operation was transformed. The United States Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion and ruled that overly restrictive state regulation of the process was unconstitutional. Kienholz’s sculpture embodied a legacy of misogynistic brutality that had found a happy ending. Art that defined the present became an artifact of the past.

And it stayed that way for half a century. Then, on June 24, The Illegal Operation time traveled again.

Another Supreme Court, designed specifically as a third political separation of powers to legislate that the legislature and executive would not or could not, overthrew Roe. The sculptural present that has become the past now describes the future. The inevitability of illegal operations unfolds in the dark and seedy corners of surging American life, fueled by five conservative Christians in their blackest robes who have decided their religious beliefs should trump medical science and secular law.

Edward 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. wrote the opinion, which contains a moronic reference to an infamous 17th-century English predecessor widely known for his fervent belief in witches, whom he sentenced to death for malice. (The barrister, who was raised by a strictly Puritan father, originally intended to be a priest.) After a draft of the report was leaked in the spring, Alito’s misogynistic argument was widely dismantled and even derided in horrified legal circles. The opinion was shared by four other judges, all conservative Catholics like Alito, who believe that abortion violates their religious beliefs.

Among them are a man who is credibly accused of sexually molesting women, another who is credibly accused of attempted rape, and a woman who belongs to a charismatic cult structured around a doctrine of male supremacy. In this regard, the sharpness of Kienholz’s sculpture is revealed in its most gruesome, devastating image – this gray, dripping lump of nameless matter. Alito’s hideous, hollow opinion on abortion barely acknowledges that women will be affected, and the artist understood well how insistent such routine dehumanization could be. As a young man, Kienholz had fled the small town in eastern Washington for Southern California, far from his fundamentalist Christian mother. It’s heartbreaking that the centerpiece of his monstrous scene is a burst cement sack.

Alito and his self-righteous followers might as well have decided the fate of lifeless lumps that Kienholz gave a bubbling form. The living, breathing, flesh-and-blood women who would suffer and die at the hands of abortifacients were excluded from consideration. As everyone knows, the court’s decision will not stop abortion, it will end abortion safety. The trial was turned back into an illegal operation that will kill thousands of people, which only the dissenting judges bothered to say.

LACMA acquired Ed Kienholz's 1962 assemblage "The illegal operation" in 2008.

LACMA acquired Ed Kienholz’s 1962 assemblage The Illegal Operation in 2008.

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Americans do not want this evil to be inflicted on them, as every poll shows. Four of the five lawyers who made the scandalous decision were appointed by two presidents who were defeated three times by large majorities of the electorate. Last week, authorities actually urged Americans to sit down and be quiet.

Don’t expect that to happen. Kienholz’s The Illegal Operation is powerful for what it so indelibly portrays, a ruthless scene of cruelty that can only thrive when hidden and kept silent. That is the nature of great 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 beckons them to step forward to shake our lapels or take our hands. Commentary: As Roe vs. Wade is overturned, a grim 1962 sculpture gains tragic new relevance

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