Edward Kienholz was born in Fairfield, Washington, in the eastern part of the state. He grew up on a farm, learning carpentry, drafting and mechanical skills. He studied at Eastern Washington College of Education and, briefly, at Whitworth College in Spokane, but did not receive any formal artistic training. After a series of odd jobs, such as nurse in a psychiatric hospital, manager of a dance band, used car salesman, caterer, decorator and vacuum cleaner salesman, Kienholz settled in Los Angeles, where he became involved with the avant-garde art scene of the day.
In 1956 he opened the NOW Gallery, for which Michael Bowen designed the sign; that year he met student Walter Hopps, who owned the Syndell Gallery. They co-organized the All-City Art Festival, then in 1957, with poet Bob Alexander, they opened the Ferus Gallery on North La Cienega Boulevard.
Despite his lack of formal artistic training, Kienholz began to employ his mechanical and carpentry skills in making collage paintings and reliefs assembled from materials salvaged from the alleys and sidewalks of the city. In 1960 he withdrew from the Ferus Gallery to concentrate on his art, creating free-standing, large-scale environmental tableaux. In 1961 he completed his first installation, "Roxy's," which caused a stir at the documenta 4 exhibition in 1968.
A 1966 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art drew considerable controversy over his assemblage, Back Seat Dodge 38 (1964). The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called it "revolting, pornographic and blasphemous" and threatened to withhold financing for the museum unless the tableau was removed from view.
Kienholz's assemblages of found objectsthe detritus of modern existence, often including figures cast from lifeare at times vulgar, brutal, and gruesome, confronting the viewer with questions about human existence and the inhumanity of twentieth-century society. Because of their satirical and antiestablishment tones, his works have often been linked to the funk art movement based in San Francisco in the 1960s. Regarding found materials he said, in 1977, "I really begin to understand any society by going through its junk stores and flea markets. It is a form of education and historical orientation for me. I can see the results of ideas in what is thrown away by a culture."