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.