In 1962, when Edward Kienholz created ‘The Illegal Operation’, the image gave an intense visual form to an experience familiar to many, but which remained deeply in the culture’s shadow.
Abortion was a crime, and the miserable procedure the artist saw his wife undergo was fresh in his mind. (She survived.) The sculptor’s assemblage is scruffy in every detail—dirty rags; a dirty bedpan, trash-filled bucket and battered enamel pot piled under a shopping cart seat; filthy medical instruments and tools; a brass floor lamp with its tattered shade crooked and incandescent light exposed, to better illuminate the gruesome work while suggesting a looming police interrogation lamp. In the most shocking element, the woman, Kienholz’s wife, is depicted as a gray, ruptured, inhumane bag of dripping matter – an unnamed, unidentified clog that slumps over the seat.
A homely but stained crochet rug serves as a dirty pedestal for the horrific scene. Just outside the margins of the viewer’s room, a dingy pink stool where the abortionist was sitting steps out next to the patient’s wire chair. The shopping cart’s allusion to a blunt commercial transaction rather than a therapeutic process of medical care is artfully asserted.
When he created the sculpture, the artist was 35. (Kienholz died at age 66 in 1994.) His sordid assemblage would eventually go into the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Artin the city where it had taken shape. Acquired in 2008, it can be seen today in the galleries on the third floor of the BCAM building. A living moment in time – the present of 1962, when civil rights movements were churning and change from the isolated, socially repressive post-war years seemed possible – is embodied in a work of art that shapes the heartless violence routinely perpetrated against desperate women. .
Eleven years later, ‘The Illegal Operation’ was transformed. The United States Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion and ruled that too restrictive state regulation of the procedure was unconstitutional. Kienholz’s sculpture embodied a legacy of misogynistic brutality that had ended blissfully. 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” traveled through time again.
Another Supreme Court, this expressly formed as a third political branch of government intended to enact laws that the legislature and executive would not or could not, overthrown Roe† The sculptural present that became the past now describes the future. The inevitability of illegal operations extends into the dark and shabby corners of rambunctious American life, cheered by five conservative Christians clothed in the blackest robes, who decided that their religious beliefs should trump medical science and secular law.
Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the opinion, which contains an imbecile reference to an infamous 17th century English predecessor best known for his fervent belief in witches, whom he sentenced to death for wickedness. (Raised by a strict Puritan father, the lawyer initially planned to become a priest.) After a draft of the advice leaked in the spring, Alito’s misogynistic reasoning was widely dissected and even mocked in baffled legal circles. The opinion was accompanied by four other judges, all conservative Catholics like Alito, for whom abortion violates their religious beliefs.
Among them is a man who is credibly accused of sexually harassing women, another who is credibly accused of attempted rape, and a woman who is affiliated with a charismatic cult whose structure rests on a doctrine of male superiority. In that respect, the sharpness of Kienholz’s sculpture is scorchingly displayed in its cruelest, most devastating image – that grey, dripping lump of nameless matter. Alito’s bleak, hollow abortion opinion barely acknowledges that women will be affected by it, and the artist fully understood how persistent such routine dehumanization could be. As a young man, Kienholz had fled from a small town in eastern Washington to Southern California to be away from his fundamentalist Christian mother. That the center of his monstrous scene is a split open bag of cement torments the heart.
Alito and his smug cohorts might as well have decided the fate of inert chunks of the sort Kienholz gave a blistering shape. The living, breathing women of flesh and blood who will suffer and die at the hands of abortionists have been cut out of consideration. The court’s ruling will not stop abortion, as everyone knows, instead end the safety of abortion. The proceedings have again turned into an illegal operation that will kill thousands of people, something only the dissident judges bothered to vent.
Americans don’t want this harm done to them because every poll show. Four of the five lawyers who made the scandalous decision were appointed by two presidents who were rejected three times by a large majority of voters. Last week, the authorities basically told the Americans to sit down and be quiet.
Don’t expect that to happen. Kienholz’ “The Illegal Operation” is powerful for what it so indelibly represents, a relentless scene of brutality that can only flourish if kept hidden and quiet. That is the nature of important art. And that’s the purpose of a museum’s permanent collection, where paintings and sculptures are patiently cared for as time goes by – until suddenly a moment comes when they have to step forward to shake us by the lapel or take us by the hand. to take.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times†