Mike Kelley is remembered for more than his art


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Anyone who knew Mike Kelley knew the importance of music in his life -- he was a musician himself, loved Iggy Pop and had collaborated with Sonic Youth. As an art student in the 1970s, he helped found the band Destroy All Monsters.

Kelley, who died Tuesday, formed the band in 1973 with fellow University of Michigan art students Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and a woman known as Niagara.


‘He worked way too hard for way too long and he never rested,’ Niagara said Wednesday by phone from Detroit.

PHOTOS: Mike Kelley | 1954-2012

An exhibition of artwork created by band members --and co-curated by Kelley -- recently ran at the Prism Gallery in West Hollywood, and Niagara was in town for the opening. The show included about 140 individual works, the gallery said.

Kelley was very emotional about his years in Michigan and working with the band, according to Niagara. ‘Mike was a sentimentalist -- you wouldn’t see it at first,’ she said. ‘He would do huge installations about being in high school and living in Detroit. We were a kooky team trying out new ideas constantly.’

Benjamin Weissman went to CalArts with Kelley, after he left Michigan and came west. He is a professor of creative writing at Art Center College of Design and Otis College of Art and Design, as well as the host and organizer of the Hammer’s “New American Writing” series.

PHOTOS: Mike Kelley | 1954-2012

“It was radiantly apparent as far back as grad school in ’79 that Mike would become one of the the best artists of his generation,’ Weissman said. ‘He had a luscious caustic wit, a deep textured laugh, and an intelligence that could out-debate anyone. He had an amazing sense of humor and was also more literary than any of his art-world peers. He was harsh and tender and absurdly analytic. And when he was in his 20s he looked like a handsome greasy rodent.’

Weissman said that Kelley was also a compelling teacher. ‘Thousands of young artists figured out how to make art via his counsel, at Art Center but really all over the world. He was the high water mark on how to be radical. We all pushed to be somewhere in the vicinity of Mike.”

Rick Hager worked as project manager of Kelley’s large sculpture for about four years.

“You can tell a lot about a person’s character when they’re put in a position of leadership, and though Mike never wanted to be a leader, when he got into that position, he employed more than 30 artists,” Hager said. “The culture that he catalyzed within his studio was full of excitement, creativity and respect. We all loved and admired him as an artist and personally.”

“Working closely with him was one of best parts of working there, to see what he would pay attention to and what he wouldn’t. What decisions he would take possession of and what he’d leave to chance. I can’t summarize it; it’s an amazing education.”


PHOTOS: Mike Kelley | 1954-2012

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--Margaret Wappler and David Ng