Mike Kelley: A game-changer for the art world

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Not many artists count as a game-changer for art. Mike Kelley did. His work altered the international conversation about art, and it changed the Los Angeles art world. His death Tuesday at 57 is an unspeakable loss.

That it should come midway through Pacific Standard Time is its own tragic memorial. The Getty-sponsored extravaganza of Southern California museum exhibitions tells some of the back story to the city’s 1980s rise as an international contemporary art powerhouse. That decade witnessed a huge expansion in the city’s existing art infrastructure, but nothing was more important than the exploding depth and breadth of the talent pool. Many artists contributed to it. Kelley? He was at the forefront, leader of the pack.


I met Mike in 1978. Fresh from CalArts, he had been invited by my then-curatorial colleague, Richard Armstrong, now director of the Guggenheim Museum, to do an evening performance piece at the La Jolla (now San Diego) Museum of Contemporary Art. In the sleepy seaside village of La Jolla, performance art was a tough enough sell, never mind that the artist was virtually unknown. A handful of people showed up. Lucky them.

PHOTOS: Mike Kelley | 1954-2012

Mike, undaunted -- and perhaps bolstered by the handy hip flask of his nominal prop-master, artist Tony Oursler -- didn’t mind. For the small audience, we quickly set up folding chairs in a circle on the lighted stage, with the darkened rows of empty auditorium seats as a backdrop. Viewers were suddenly among the viewed. Mike did five short pieces, ending with a funny one that lampooned cultural assumptions about how art is a therapeutic exercise that improves one’s life. When he got up off the floor, where he’d been rolling around on a big sheet as his incantatory riff unfolded, a childlike drawing of a daisy was left behind -- an equivocal human stain. I became an instant fan, soon one among legions.

I didn’t know it then but, like Pittsburgher Andy Warhol before him, Mike was a working-class Catholic kid raised in a dying Rust Belt city (Detroit). His personal history gave him a perspective very different from the routine middle-class world that spawns many artists. He made a point of acknowledging it on the catalog cover of his 1993 Whitney Museum retrospective -- pointedly titled ‘Catholic Tastes’ -- which sports a photo of the artist wielding a bucket and mop and dressed as a janitor. Partly an homage to his father, who managed a public school maintenance crew, he assumes a heroic pose like a warrior with sword and shield, worthy of the Parthenon frieze.

When I moved to L.A. and started to write about art, Mike was one of the first people I looked up. He was living in a cluttered Hollywood apartment on North Ardmore Street, which also served as his studio, and it was filled with drawings, sculptures and performance props. Standard advice circa 1980 to gifted, ambitious young L.A. artists -- and every artist I knew also knew that Mike was unique -- said, Move to New York. He said no. The messiness of the studio, not to mention the city, was like his work, a roiling stew of material from which brilliant lightning bolts flashed.

He also turned out to be a prolific writer, as witness his chunky, indispensable 2004 volume, ‘Minor Histories,’ which mixes raucous social satire with incisive philosophical texts. Kelley’s scripted performances became must-see events, although his considerable stage fright made doing them less than comfortable. Eventually he stopped, inserting video performances into theatrical installations instead.


A turning point came in 1987. ‘More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid’ is a big wall hanging, nearly 8 feet high and 10 feet wide, the size of a standard Abstract Expressionist canvas from the 1950s or one of the market-worshiped Neo-Expressionist paintings then galvanizing so much art world attention. Composed of scores of used stuffed animals, stained afghans and cruddy crocheted dolls that Kelley scavenged from the city’s thrift stores, it looks like a train wreck in a craft shop merged with a classic Hans Hofmann abstract ‘push-pull’ painting. At the upper right and left corners, two quotation marks are made from bundles of dried Indian corn, visually holding this giant, American insecurity blanket aloft. A hippie devotional altar of melting, homemade candles stands to one side.

One of the decade’s artistic Ur objects, it’s the kind of thing for which the word masterpiece was invented. A devastating meditation on impossible negotiations of love and loss, both for society and for individuals, is embodied in those lovingly homemade stuffed talismans of intense familial entanglements. It hung in Rosamund Felsen Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard for the duration of a show there, largely ignored by the city’s overanxious collector class, before being shipped off to a New York show. From there it entered the Whitney’s permanent collection.

Soon Mike was showing in Europe, where younger artists, as in L.A., had broken New York’s 40-year dominance. In Vienna in 1992 for ‘LAX,’ a group show of Los Angeles-based artists, I saw that Mike was going to be speaking on a program at a local university. It made sense to go. Whip-smart, articulate and with an acid wit, he would be fun to hear interacting with students. I was unprepared for what I found.

Rather than a classroom, a large hall was packed to the rafters with hundreds of eager kids. When Mike arrived on stage there was pandemonium -- cheering, applause, hollering. He was a veritable rock star, and they hung on his every word. The moment was a vivid sign of two irreversible things: the profound impact of Kelley’s art on an international generation of artists and L.A.’s emergence as a major production center for new art, with Mike its leading light.

Those transformations had been heralded by ‘Helter Skelter,’ a boisterous 1992 pageant of 16 L.A. artists and 10 writers at the Museum of Contemporary Art that prominently featured one of Kelley’s sprawling installations. They were cemented the following year by his Whitney mid-career retrospective, which traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Mike enjoyed his success, for which he had worked so hard.

A friend and fellow Kelley enthusiast called me in 2005 to say that I had to get to New York to see ‘Day Is Done,’ a massive show of 30-plus new installations inflected by three hours of projected-video thought bubbles at Gagosian’s huge Chelsea space. Ritual tableaux of rumbling psychic turmoil and repressed trauma, derived from mundane high school yearbook photos of extracurricular activities, assumed the moral grandeur of homemade stations of the cross. With no plan to travel and obligations pressing at home, I was flummoxed. But Mike was the kind of artist in whom one could place implicit trust, so I did something rash. The Friday before the show closed, I took a red-eye to JFK, got a cab to West 24th Street, hung around outside the gallery until it opened, spent the entire day in the exhibition, got a cab back to JFK and flew back to L.A.


It was one of the most satisfying days I’ve ever spent in an art gallery. I thanked Mike for the show the next time I ran into him, but it was over and I didn’t review it. That was OK, because I knew there would be more to come. ‘Day Is Done’ was an acute private pleasure -- more love hours than can ever be repaid. RELATED:

PHOTOS: Mike Kelley | 1954-2012

Art Review: Mike Kelley at Gagosian Gallery

‘Devastated’: Shock, grief after artist Mike Kelley’s sudden death

-- Christopher Knight