Two mannequins, looking uncomfortably like corpses, recline near a wall of black-and-white photographs from the ’70s; onstage there’s an infernal blast of cello, double bass, drums, and horns. Middle-aged hipsters in leather jackets and chunky retro glasses line up at the back of the shoe box-shaped gallery to listen. Recordings by the Los Angeles Free Music Society are for sale on a table. It’s the sort of ragged, cacophonous gathering artist Mike Kelley would have enjoyed. He was, in fact, scheduled to play drums with one of the bands on this cool, sunny Sunday in February at the Box, an art space down-town.
Kelley’s death in January—an apparent suicide involving carbon monoxide—jolted the city’s art world. It also turned the concert into an inadvertent tribute to the artist, who left behind in his Eagle Rock and Highland Park studios a significant amount of partly finished work.
Though he wrote for art journals, did performance pieces, painted, and drew, it was his found-object assemblages that attracted the most attention. Probably best known for the soiled stuffed animal on the cover of Sonic Youth’s Dirty album, Kelley was a master of the unlovely. His was an aesthetic pitched toward the messy and the inscrutable, as with a trio of pieces consisting of, among other detritus, stained blankets, cat toys, and cat food bowls on display in the memorial exhibition put together at the Museum of Contemporary Art after his death. While his creations were often forlorn—Kelley sometimes described his art as being about failure—they weren’t without humor. Day Is Done features dozens of video projections that reconstruct the rituals of school days; it’s a kind of perverse, multichannel musical constructed from high school yearbook photos, with characters that include a shy satanist, a lonely vampire, and many cheerleaders.
Artist Jim Shaw played with Kelley in the band Destroy All Monsters when they were University of Michigan undergrads and came west with him from Ann Arbor to attend CalArts in 1976. Shocked as he was by his friend’s death, Shaw wasn’t entirely surprised. Kelley was known for his bouts with despondency: The artist had been frustrated with the corporate tone of the art world and stinging from a September breakup; he’d also complained about being overwhelmed—by traffic, by business concerns, by existential questions about his purpose on the planet. “He’d been more depressed in the past, but his peaks and valleys were becoming more extreme,” says Shaw.
“Oddly enough,” notes Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, the former department head of the Art Center College of Design graduate program where Kelley taught for 21 years, “the last time Mike and I talked for more than five minutes was at a memorial. As we left we talked about how miserable it was. Mike said, ‘I certainly wouldn’t want that. I want a wake, not a memorial.’ Mike was grumpy but cheerful.”
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knew by the time I was a teenager that I was gonna be an artist—there’s no doubt about that,” Kelley said on the PBS program Art 21. “There was nothing else for me to be.” As a kid, he fell hard for psychedelia and the underground comics of R. Crumb; he called these his first experiences with the avant-garde.
Kelley’s art often nodded to his biography—he was raised by Catholic, working-class parents outside Detroit—but he was up to more than identity politics. When it was suggested that his pieces featuring stuffed animals and craft bric-a-brac were commentaries on child abuse, the artist was equal parts amused and perplexed. “I didn’t understand what they were talking about,” he said to Interview magazine. “But when I did a bit of research, I discovered how culturally omnipresent this infatuation with child abuse was.” Repressed memory syndrome intrigued him, so he designed the sculpture Educational Complex, which he called “a model of every school I ever went to plus the home I grew up in, with all the parts I can’t remember left blank.”
The artist wasn’t focused on lush materials or technical control: Kelley was a deep-sea diver into the American unconscious, dedicated to what makes us uncomfortable. “He opened up the psyche of this culture, with its obsessions and insecurities,” says John Welchman, a UC San Diego art professor who has written extensively on Kelley. “Mike’s work was very layered. There’s something raw, but also humorous and ironic—and between those two extremes there’s half a dozen other layers.”
Kelley arrived at CalArts when conceptual artist John Baldessari and, briefly, performance artist Laurie Anderson were teaching there. He was drawn especially to performance (clothing optional). After graduating with an M.F.A., he chose not to follow in the footsteps of many great L.A. artists, from Charles Mingus and John Cage to fellow CalArts grads David Salle and Eric Fischl: He stayed in L.A. Shaw remembers that period as an art-scene lull (“Everything was under the radar”), which kept Kelley free from any artistic camp or orthodoxy and able to pursue his own vision.
Poet Amy Gerstler first encountered him around 1980, at an opening at the art space LACE, where Kelley was carrying around a volume of German Romantic poetry. “When you met him,” she says, “it didn’t matter how much art sense you had. You realized you were in the presence of something really ferocious and incandescent. He was kind of explosively charismatic. He was also scary-smart—he had a lot of energy, nervous energy.”
From the beginning Kelley wanted to be an important artist and to reach everyone. “It has to operate on multiple levels,” he said later about his work. “It has to be available to the laziest viewer on a certain level, and then on a more sophisticated level as well.” To this Catholic atheist, art was a priesthood devoted to materialist ritual.
“Mike is part of a generation of artists who really changed the world’s image of Los Angeles,” says MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, taking a break from installing the tribute show. “He became for the generation of the ’80s what Ruscha had been to the ’60s and Baldessari to the ’70s.”
That generation’s sensibility was often grim, dystopian: It’s not for nothing that Kelley was a key figure in the curator’s groundbreaking 1992 Helter Skelter survey. Kelley displayed a bookishness and a voracious, sometimes obsessive curiosity—he was fascinated with Freud’s theory of the uncanny, for instance, and produced pieces for a touring European exhibition that included polychrome figurative sculptures, film stills, cartoons, and newspaper clippings. He liked to straddle passions high and low, from B zombie movies to transgressive French writers of the 19th century to cartoons on bar napkins. “I think he saw that because the history had not been written yet and the art world here wasn’t controlled by commercial institutions,” says Schimmel, “it left enormous possibilities.”
uch of how we try to make sense of art and artists verges on cliché. But as generalizations go, critic Edmund Wilson’s notion of the wound and the bow—of the artist as a damaged, often psychologically isolated figure whose talent takes its energy from his pain—certainly resonates for an artist like Kelley. He had struggled with depression his whole life, and the manic-depressive temperament of the art world, which encourages nonstop production and leads to emotional crashes when the attention flags, only exacerbated matters. Shaw watched Kelley move from one piece to the next without pausing for breath. “Workaholism contributed to his death,” Shaw says.
A few years ago Kelley bought a modest midcentury house in South Pasadena, but his love was for the less manicured Highland Park. On those nights when he wasn’t working, friends would persuade him to head out to an opening or for drinks and cheap Mexican food. “He had a big, raspy laugh that would change pitches or tones,” recalls artist Benjamin Weissman, “a wild guffaw that shifted or rolled.” Kelley had a particular gift for dirty jokes: Schimmel remembers a dinner this past winter at which he, Kelley, and artist Chris Burden had tears in their eyes from laughing so hard.
At 57, Kelley had the graying buzz cut of an aging punk and was laboring over multiple projects, including a retrospective that begins in Amsterdam at the end of this year and arrives at MOCA in 2014. He was also partway through a project with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to reconstruct a small-scale version of his childhood home that will serve as a community center; a layer of dungeonlike rooms below will make literal Freud’s notion of the unconscious. (Two documentary films about the house and a related mobile home will be part of this year’s Whitney Biennial, which is dedicated to Kelley.)
By the end he was a blue-chip player for Gagosian Gallery, which has become one of the wealthiest, most global art enterprises since the Vatican stopped collecting. As his energy went into his work, Kelley got deeper and deeper into something he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. “He didn’t like the big business of art,” says Welchman. “He didn’t like the elitism and the pretension. He was caught in a contradiction he was well aware of.”
When journalist Tulsa Kinney, who runs the magazine Artillery, went to interview Kelley in his office and former home off Figueroa in November, he complained about an art world increasingly driven by money and careerism. “He was stoic, disconnected, not making eye contact,” she says. “I was kind of surprised that we sat in the living room with the blinds drawn.”
On the last weekend in January some friends invited Kelley out, but he said he needed to write the text for his retrospective. That evening a contemplative Kelley went to the Welcome Inn in Eagle Rock to see his old friend Anita Pace dance at an event based on the music of John Cage and Bruce Nauman, among others. Two nights later three friends, troubled because their calls had gone unreturned, banged on his door and shined flashlights through the dark windows. Then they called the South Pasadena police, who broke in.
“We know Mike had been suffering from depression—he wasn’t the Mike we had known,” says Welchman. “And we were all trying our hardest, spending more time with him, having lunch with him, speaking on the phone with him. Mike had a lot of very close friends. But he slipped through our fingers.” Those friends bid their final farewell during a wake that even Kelley would have approved of: 24 hours long and full of strong opinions.