THE PORTABLE WAR MEMORIAL MEMORIC



San Francisco - 1968

      Artist Ed Kienholtz had made quite a stir in Los Angeles with the debut of his "Portable War Memorial," and the increasingly infamous installation was opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the first leg of an international tour.

     This was a well attended affair with the press and scores of art world glitterati chatting with museum curators on hand as I made my way to the memorial. It was indeed a stunning creation! A life sized plaster cast of Iwo Jima soldiers raising the flag next to patio furniture - silver paint and clear resin everywhere - covering a tombstone, a blackboard, a garbage can, a stuffed dog and a (now classic), Coca-Cola machine. Having read about the installation in the LA Times, I knew beforehand that the Coca-Cola machine was functional, and walked past the un-admiring crowd directly into the installation. Silver twenty-five cent piece at the ready, I inserted it into the slot, pulled the handle, and out rolled a silver, resin dripped, icy cold bottle. I popped the cap and sat down at the patio table to enjoy the moment.

     One of the curators must have noticed the mild commotion going on among the glitterati standing next to the exhibit. He was aghast. "What are you doing! Get out of the Art!" From my resin protected perch I replied that I would "get out of the Art " just as soon as I finished my Coke, "Don't drink the Art!" screamed the frantic curator. As the glitterati broke up with polite laughter he ran off shouting: "Security! Somebody get Security!"

   When the two Security guards arrived they also demanded that I "get out of the Art!" With this the press began taking photos. I told the guards that I wasn't finished with my Coke, and calmly sipped away. One of the guards snarled that I was "trespassing," but I quickly corrected him by saying that I wasn't trespassing at all, I was "participating," and told him to mind his own business. In unison the guards started as if to take me by force but a second curator stopped them, fearing that the war memorial would be destroyed in the process. I suggested that they were ruining the purity of the artist's intent.


     Finally the Director of the museum arrived on the scene, and told me in no uncertain terms that he would have me arrested. "For what?" I asked. "Trespassing and damaging a work of art," he said rather pompously. "Okay, tell you what," I countered. "Why not call up Ed Kienholtz down in L.A. and ask him what he thinks about this situation? If Ed says I am in the wrong then I will let you arrest me, but until then I'm not gonna budge. I might just want another Coke ya know..."

     The increasingly hostile Director became red-face flabber-gasted at my suggestion. As the press continued to take photographs, I pleasantly continued to enjoy my silver Coke. Somewhat embarrassed and unable to come up with a safer alternative the Director agreed with my demand and stormed to his office. Ten minutes later he came back, his tie askew, and a withered look of confused resignation on his face. "So what did the artist say?" I confidently inquired. "Mr. Kienholtz told me to ask you to please put the empty bottle in the rack on the side of the coke machine when you are done with your refreshment."

     I beamed back at him, and said "Thank you," and went back to my soft drink as the Security guards strung a velvet rope across the front of the war memorial, momentarily separating me from the appreciative crowd. When finally I was "refreshed." as the artist so tastily put it, I dutifully placed the empty in the wooden rack on the machine and left the museum laughing under my own steam.



Epilogue:

Amsterdam - 1982

     As chance would have it, and while visiting the familiar home of Ad Petersen (former curator of painting and sculpture at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam), I had the opportunity to meet Ed Kienholtz. A great story teller himself, and as we thoroughly enjoyed Ad's bottle of Jenever (Dutch gin), I asked Ed if he remembered what had occurred when his Portable War Memorial first opened in San Francisco. "Oh that's right," he beamed. "This local artist actually bought a Coke from the machine, and wound up stealing the show! It was a gas." And I added, rather proudly, with a smile all my own, "...and I am that artist."




©Hammond Guthrie


In fond memory of
Ed Kienholtz - (1927-1994)