AMSTERDAM — You could almost hear Mike Kelley laughing. As journalists entered the Stedelijk Museum's new so-called bathtub building to hear director Ann Goldstein introduce a retrospective of Kelley's work, they were greeted by the mellifluous tones of the late Andy Williams from invisible speakers: "It's the most wonderful time of the year, with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you 'Be of good cheer.' It's the most wonderful time of the year ..."
Surely Kelley, who took his own life in January, would have appreciated the happenstance irony. Or was this all part of his vision for the exhibition — a wry poke at the Christmas holidays, pop music, American culture and religion, our best and worst expectations, maybe even himself?
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After all, the L.A. artist had a role in planning the show. It's been in the works since 2006, when former Stedelijk director Gijs van Tuyl conceived of it to reopen the museum — shuttered for much of the decade for construction of a new wing designed by the Amsterdam firm Benthem Crouwel.
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"Mike is one of our most important, visionary artists who was at the apex of a generation of artists," said Goldstein, who became the Stedelijk's director in 2010 and before that worked closely with Kelley in Los Angeles as senior curator of MOCA. "This has always been an international museum, rooted in Amsterdam but with an esteemed history that enriched its reputation through experimental, adventurous, courageous, exhibitions."
Even so, one of the many challenges Goldstein faced at the Stedelijk was explaining why it should reopen with a retrospective of an artist few Dutch knew. Why Mike Kelley? Why now?
Battling exhaustion and the flu on the Monday after the opening, Goldstein, sitting in the Stedelijk's popular restaurant with a cup of fresh mint tea, considered for a moment, then said, "If artists make arguments about what a work of art can do, and if artists give us an opportunity to have insights through their own eyes and words to culture we all share, I think Mike, in a most profound and almost impossibly comprehensive way, gave us not only a window [into] but in some ways a means to rethink art and to examine our relationship to our culture and our society."
The Kelley retrospective is a living, breathing visual and audio onslaught covering nearly 2,000 square feet on two floors of the new Benthem Crouwel wing. Walking through the exhibition feels like passing through a kind of art fun house — or not-so-fun-house — at times spooky, at others funny, always deeply intelligent, sensitive and human. For those not well schooled in Kelley's art it provides a valuable context for the work he produced over the past 35 years.
Even John Welchman, a professor of art history and critical theory at UC San Diego who has written or edited some 25 books, catalogs and articles on Kelley, said, "I learned something new in every room."
"Seeing it physically and being in it," said Mary Clare Stevens, the executive director of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, who had a long working relationship with the late artist, "I was actually overwhelmed and surprised at how much it affected me."
Among the Angelenos attending were Paul Schimmel, former MOCA head curator; gallerist Shaun Regen; choreographer Anita Pace, who restaged a 1989 dance piece on which she'd collaborated with Kelley; and Joel Wachs, former councilman and now president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (which gave the exhibition a $100,000 grant).
Ralph Rugoff, director of London's Hayward Gallery and former L.A. Weekly art critic, noted with incredulity that the 200 works in it are really just "the tip of the iceberg" of Kelley's oeuvre.
Stevens, who worked in the Kelley studio for 10 years before taking over the foundation after his death, said Kelley produced 3,000 to 4,000 titles, many with multiple parts. "He was at the studio 9 to 5, and then often he was in his private studio researching and reading and drawing or watching films at night."
In public, Stevens added, "He was a performer. When I'd walk into a room, Mike was the center. He was charismatic, engaging — and engaged. This show is a chance for people to feel that."
That engagement — Kelley's and the viewer's — is palpable. "The work actually brought life into the place," said Goldstein, "not in a metaphysical way but just the way that art lives in the present. No matter what you're looking at, you're always looking at it in the present. Of course we were abruptly confronted with that because of Mike's death."
Everything changed, Goldstein said, with the artist's death. Kelley had been working on a thematic retrospective with a guest curator, Dr. Eva Meyer-Hermann, hired by her predecessor Van Tuyl.
But that approach, Goldstein said, "was dependent upon Mike's continued participation. So I shifted it to a more loosely chronological exhibition, knowing that for many people it would be the first introduction to his work."
Reflecting on the opening weekend and the weeks (and years) leading to it, Goldstein spoke about the importance of the Stedelijk to the people of Amsterdam and how difficult it was for them during the nine long years it was closed. "When I came here the museum was in crisis, and the people missed it like hell, and they were angry — and when you see the museum, the collection, you understand why"
Among the collection's 90,000 pieces are a number of early works by Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, notable works by Henri Matisse, Willem De Kooning, Max Beckmann, Barnett Newman and Philip Guston, an unusually large Kurt Schwitters painting, an unusually spare Alberto Giacometti marble head, and several works by the contemporary Amsterdam-based artists Rineke Dijkstra and Marlene Dumas.
But the piece the public most missed during the Stedelijk's closure, Goldstein said, was "The Beanery," Ed Kienholz's 1965 assemblage based on the interior of the West Hollywood roadhouse Barney's Beanery.
"When I said the museum was going to reopen in September with our collection," Goldstein said, "the first question was, 'Will the Beanery be there?'"
The L.A. native's art-world roots — her 20 years at MOCA — prepared her well for the Amsterdam undertaking. "MOCA gave me foremost a deeply rooted love and belief in the importance of museums," she said, "and it gave me a deeply rooted kind of compass of being artist-driven and artist-centered. I always feel that if you can justify your work to the artist and can cooperate with the artist in the production of their history that you can also then fulfill all the missions of an institution."
That isn't always easy to do, however. If Goldstein came to a museum in crisis, she also left one in crisis. "One of the things I learned at MOCA," she said, "was that we had built a great museum but maybe not a great institution."
As for MOCA's continuing struggles, she added carefully: "All I want for that museum is to thrive, be supported, be loved and cherished and nurtured and to be able to always fulfill its best potential. It's an institution that really needs to be there. And it needs to be great. I know that there are still a lot of people inside that house that really care about it."
Not so unlike her situation in Amsterdam. On opening weekend, 6,000 people visited the Stedelijk, which proves that in some parts of the world at least, you can show large, intellectually challenging contemporary art exhibitions and still bring in the crowds.
"It's interesting to see how people from another culture can connect to [Kelley's work]," Goldstein said. "The subjects he touches upon, whether it's high school and religious rituals, or trauma or making fun of history, or confronting high and low culture, or handmade craft, or music or feeling like a misfit, is an experience [also found] far outside of American culture. I think people can see things through Mike's eyes. And then as we do with any art we connect it to our own perspective.
"I think what makes him so extraordinary is that [his work] is not just analytical, it was part of his psyche. It's not autobiographical, where he has to tell you the story of Mike Kelley, as much as it tells you the story of how one deals with one's experiences. He's an artist who was still defining what an artist could be. So for him an artist can make works on paper, make paintings, make sculptures, make video but also write critical texts about other artists' work. That was his whole opus as an artist.
"And he gave it his all. I think you see it in that work, you see that every single work is its own moment and that together it's this incredible cosmology."
"Mike Kelley" continues at the Stedelijk through April 1. After stops at Paris' Centre Pompidou and New York's MoMA PS1, it will arrive at MOCA in March 2014.