I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to three of Lawrence Block’s anthologies in recent years, with more to come, and the two most recent stories of that set have been examples of something called ekphrasis — a twenty-dollar word meaning “writing inspired by an artwork.”
In the case of In Sunlight Or In Shadow, all of us worked from the inspiration of paintings by Edward Hopper, and when LB let us pick artists for Alive in Shape and Color, I went with Salvador Dali. But there was another artist — and more precisely, another work — that has stuck with me over the years as well.
At some point in my teens, I found a Janson History of Art that my dad had likely acquired for a class, or maybe just because that was what he was into. So I worked my way through it, dipping in here and there as the spirit moved me, and focusing a bit more heavily on stuff produced during or near my lifetime (Ah, the egocentricity of youth!). One of the pieces I saw was a 1966 sculpture by Edward Kienholz, called The State Hospital , and as we say here in the South, it knocked me upside the head:
So, yeah, if you wonder what kind of stuff floats around in my head, this is some of it.
But of course, this was not Kienholz’s only work. The piece that really seems to have launched him into the art world’s consciousness was a piece he did in 1964, called Back Seat Dodge ’38:
Per the NYT:
The sculpture, which portrays a couple engaged in sexual activity in the back seat of a truncated automobile chassis, won Kienholz instant celebrity in 1966 when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors tried to ban the sculpture as pornographic and threatened to withhold financing from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art if it included the work in a Kienholz retrospective.
[. . .]
After the County Board of Supervisors threatened to shut down the 1966 exhibition, the museum reached a compromise under which the sculpture’s car door would remain closed and guarded, to be opened only on the request of a museum patron who was over 18, and only if no children were present in the gallery.
So loud was the uproar that more than 200 people lined up to see the work the day the show opened. Ever since, “Back Seat Dodge ’38” has drawn crowds.
So again, this seems to be a work with some staying power. And in turn, it inspired a work in another medium dear to my heart — garage rock. In 1966, a SoCal drummer named John Christensen put together a band called Opus 1, and they had a minor hit with a largely instrumental track called “Back Seat ’38 Dodge.” It’s a combination of surf rave-up and proto-psychedelia, with lyrics that are variations on “What can you see/In the back seat/ Of a ’38 Dodge?” and “What goes on?/ I really wanna know.”
I was actually aware of the song before I was aware of that particular sculpture, but it didn’t take me too long to put the pieces together, and now we have a piece of writing about a piece of music about a piece of art. Now I guess someone needs to turn this blogpost into a short ballet.