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Kienholz: The Hoerengracht at the National Gallery, review

November 17, 2009

A collaboration with his wife Nancy led Ed Kienholz to create his most richly textured work of art in The Hoerengracht, his reconstruction of Amsterdam’s red light disctrict.

A nice girl like you, in a place like this? US sculptor Ed Kienholz's 'The Hoerengracht' is an unflinching replica of Amsterdam's seediest quarter

A nice girl like you, in a place like this? US sculptor Ed Kienholz’s ‘The Hoerengracht’ is an unflinching replica of Amsterdam’s seediest quarter Photo: ED and Nancy kienholz, courtesy of LA Louver, CA

Back in the early 1960s every school boy knew about Amsterdam’s Red Light District, where the ladies of the night sat in windows to be inspected by their clientele. I was on my first visit to Amsterdam, in a party of fifteen year olds being taken around Europe by a kindly Jesuit. Late one afternoon, three of us peeled off from our visit to the Rijksmuseum, cashed our cheques at American Express, and ran off to ogle what we imagined would be a bevy of Playboy bunnies striking provocative poses behind plate glass windows. Instead, what we found were half a dozen friendly grannies in their underwear (some literally knitting) whose waves and smiles seemed to promise us milk and cookies, not the longed for experience we would later have to repent. The story is not irrelevant to the exhibition opening tomorrow at the National Gallery.

For the next few months, we can all take a stroll through The Horengracht (Whore’s Canal) – a hugely ambitious life size reconstruction of a few seedy streets in the stews of Amsterdam created in the mid- 1980s by the late Ed Kienholz and his wife Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Under black- out conditions in the Sunley Rooms, illuminated doorways and windows festooned with blinking red fairy lights and strips of red neon beckon seductively. As you move closer, you discover the `reality’ behind the glamour: life- sized plaster figures of women (actually life -casts of the bodies of the Kienholz’s friends), each in the down-at-heel room where she plies her trade.

Though we cannot go inside the houses, the installation turns every viewer into a voyeur. It is exciting to peer into a sleazy lounge where the occupant is offering her body for cash, and annoying to find ourselves standing in front of a drawn curtain, imagining what must be going on behind it.

Read more at:

Kienholz: The Hoerengracht at the National Gallery

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2009 3:46 pm

    I have just written about this installation on my blog!
    I find it really interesting and impressive how the piece adds a different edge to the National Gallery and it’s purpose.

    What do you think about the National Gallery showing such a piece?

    Would love to hear from you


  2. islandlass permalink*
    November 18, 2009 9:51 pm

    I agree with you. Think it was a gutsy and risk taking thing to do and I applaud them for doing that.


  3. November 18, 2009 10:30 pm


    Have you seen the new installation at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall? Really inspiring


    • islandlass permalink*
      December 1, 2009 8:55 pm

      Would love to have seen it, but am a little too far away in the US

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