Mike Crafty, or Broken Toys Kelley
by Mike Mosher
Mike Kelley (1954-2012) was the most successful and most ambitious artist from a generation—my own—of southeastern Michigan creatives. In Kelley's case, one can find a lifelong relationship with craft, in two meanings of the word most prevalent in art school: craftsmanship, and the realm of crafts. His work swam towards, and away from both in various times in his career. It may help to veer from a strictly chronological account to understand this, and him. Cruel as it may be, a leftist observer is tempted to see the despair that ultimately consumed him as a failure, a lack of social consciousness.
1. Workshop of the Telescopes
Soul dominated Detroit in the early 1970s, the music, art, dress, walk and style and comportment of confident African Americans. Robert Farris Thompson's African Art in Motion details the unity of African aesthetic, as his later books map their impact on people of the African diaspora. White male adolescents felt outclassed in macho and confidence, and, as our parents dreaded, the suave black guys attracted all the pretty girls. In largely turning away from African-American assertiveness—though Kelley cites some exceptions—young, white artists turned to the dandyism of out-of-town models: the New York of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith a decade past, the Paris Surrealism or Zurich/Paris Dada of fifty years before.
Destroy All Monsters were Jim Shaw, Cary Loren, Niagara, and a revolving door of Ann Arbor participants. Kelley gravitated towards Shaw, son of a chemical engineer (and Sunday painter) in Midland, about 120 miles north of Ann Arbor, was a bearded longhair with eccentric wardrobe (loud women's stretch pants, an overcoat with artificial hump and Cub Scout's jacket sewn on the back), and they found a ramshackle house together near the UM campus. Cary Loren has been a lifelong collagist, and his Super 8mm movies and video works make use of a bricolage, this-goes-here-next-to-this aesthetic. His photographs of arty friends, and collages involving them, include Kelley's young hound dog mug, long hair and snout of a nose. Loren’s lithe, elegant girlfriend Niagara drew Gothic storybook princesses, posed and acted in his photos and films, smoked cigarettes and slept late.
Their music with Destroy All Monsters, as a foursome and with and a slew of Ann Arbor psychedelic and improvisational musicians, was intuitive, "primitive" (driven by Kelley's simple drummbeat), start-stop, noisy, difficult to listen too, often overly-amplified. Local psychedelic musicians—some quite skillful—drifted in and out of their jam sessions: the Miller brothers (twins Ben and Larry, and Roger, two years older), Michael Patrick "Jet" Powers, UM students Kalle Nemvalts, Rick Greenwald and John Reed. Kelley and Shaw were more interested in performing noise, and cited Sun Ra as an influence, for poet/polemicist John Sinclair celebrated the free jazz of John and Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra in polemical texts in the papers the White Panthers hawked at rock concerts and distributed to head shops and record stores. Kelley recalled to Natalie Hadad in 2001, “It was a terrible time, it was like a real recession and the music scene that I’d grown up with was completely dead. Destroy All Monsters was, in a way, reaction to that death of a thriving local culture.” And to the foursome it must have felt like them against the world, as people streamed out the Jean Paul Slusser Gallery from their gig at the University of Michigan College of Art and Design
Destroy All Monsters seemed to fit in the Detroit tradition of unique personalities like the Stooges, or later, Eminem, Kid Rock or Insane Clown Posse. Kelley and Shaw were students of Gerome Kamrowski there, a post-WWII Surrealist who constructed brightly-colored, paint-dotted wind-driven whirligigs and was amused by their creative masks and demeanor. In college (both in the classroom, and in small-format work produced for the Destroy All Monsters magazine that Cary Loren edited and assembled), the work of Mike and his buddy Jim Shaw were distinguished by eclecticism. Shaw had a more precise, photo-based drawing style (yet using photographic like cropping and overlays), while Kelley's was more consciously primitive, eclectic, distorted. Kelley wrote this author that the main black visual art that influenced him was Emory Douglas' cartoons of police as pigs in The Black Panther, cartoons which were reprinted by the White Panther Party in their papers the Ann Arbor Argus and Ann Arbor Sun; Douglas was entirely ignored by the art world (and this author has argued, insufficiently by the world of comics) until Sam Durant curated a 2007 show for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art) that traveled to the New Museum in New York. In a 1970s drawing reprinted in Geisha This (though, Loren cautions, only some copies; each issue was slightly varied and unique), an emaciated black man with an Afro hairstyle, forehead tattooed “Sinister Forces”, sits atop a business-suited white man comparable to John Q. Public in 1950s Herblock political cartoons, who stands upon a globe labeled “Citizen of the World”. The black figure holds a jewel labeled “The Real Thing”, while his enormous, snake-like penis wraps around the white man’s head like an anaconda, squeezing until his eyes pop, until it pokes into his mount’s mouth. The penis bears the legend “The False Goal Attained Becomes Constricting”, while a banner in the sky says “Led Astray”. One can read this as an emblem of Kelley’s conscious stand against Black Detroit, Black culture and its “jewel” of integrity and authenticity.
Kelley explained in an interview with Isabelle Graw that his style was based less on caricature than the kind of illustrative line drawing found in technical manuals and dictionaries. The teaching of drawing was in decline, for most of the UM faculty had been trained by abstract expressionists and non-objective artists, none of whom privileged its practice. Similarly, it lacked the methodical, coordinated hatching of local (White Panther Minister of Propaganda) poster artist-designer Gary Grimshaw. The ornate, orderly style produced by Grimshaw (plus a more psychedelic variant by Rick Griffin) was lovingly quoted in 1990s artwork by Jim Shaw. Kelley used text in works, yet lacked the sign-painting skills (or proper brushes) to make his lettering crisp and harmonious. Like a hastily-painted sign advertising a weekend garage sale, a currency of graphic craftsmanship is absent, omitted, irrelevant.
In a 2009 Artforum review of the more cheerfully slapstick artist Michael Williams, the critic Nick Stillnan linked Kelley and Peter Saul as two artists sarcastically revealing the illogic of passively accepted social mores (and the January 2013 of that magazine carries an ad for a Shaw and Saul show at Mary Boone Gallery in Manhattan). Asked about his affinity to Saul, Kelley defended him as a formalist, his grotesque distortions of the human face in the cubist tradition, critics rarely seeing beyond Saul’s political imagery. Supplementing his work in performance and installation, Kelley kept painting and drawing; his 2005-2006 “Hermaphrodite Drawings” were shown at Gagosian Gallery in London in Winter, 2007.
2. Performing The Pathetic
A few years ago a troupe of Italian mime artistes offered Parisian spectators the curious spectacle of a dozen grown men wearing nappies and bibs and bustling around on stage, stumbling, fighting, falling, screaming, cuddling, playing ring o' roses, shutting each other out of the circle and so on...These burlesque figures were like neither children nor adults. They were false adults or false children--or perhaps caricatures of children. It was not easy to say precisely which. Similarly, when Bill Gates, who is in his forties but has the outward appearance of an adolescent, ventures to declare publicly, "It may be, you never know, that the universe exists only for me! If it were true, I have to admit I would enjoy that!", then you wonder whether the boss of Microsoft does not also suffer from a kind of dimensional derangement, and whether this universe of which he speaks is not, like that of the nursery, the scaled-down world of the toys and games of an overgrown spoiled child.
Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, (2005)
Destroy All Monsters and their circle staged absurd nocturnal performance pieces around campus, often luring students to them with posters advertising lectures or other events at that place and time. Loren sometimes filmed these with his Super 8mm camera, or projected films upon the actors. Kelley and Shaw launched performances in the cold concrete basement of "God's Oasis", an old house in the student ghetto with a sign on the porch purchased from an evangelistic church, and elsewhere on campus. Though most tapes and films were lost or destroyed, a videotape of their “The Futurist Ballet” (1973) was saved by artist Susan Morningstar. Artforum Film critic Bruce Hainley approvingly cited Kelley's recollection (in an anonymously-credited book called Why I Got Into Art) of when "foreign film" and "artistic purposes" meant nudity and sex.
At UM, Kelley submitted a hurriedly stuffed dummy to an “Effigy Hanging Contest” held by the Sigma Chi fraternity. Surprised that he’d won (the only other entry, by their “sister” sorority, was disqualified), he demanded a promised trophy. Kelley later exhibited an installation “Alma Pater (Wolverine Den)” that commented on the university’s football imagery. After leaving Ann Arbor in 1976, in Los Angeles where they shared a house, Kelley and Shaw continued playing together and making tapes. These were released on Kelley's private Compound Annex label in 2011. [LINK] Kelley parlayed an improvisational, shambling sub-musical style into full-body performances in Los Angeles art venues. “Spirit Voices” with Don Krieger at LACE in 1978, an alternative institution whose Board he was long associated with. He was an arresting presence, inquisitive black Irish eyes, dogfaced long nose, as if kin to guitarist The Edge in the band U2. Kelley sometimes collaborated with Tony Ousler in a duo called the Poetics. One motif that animated Kelley's work was his boyhood Catholicism, which he told 2011 interviewer Tulsa Kinney “was pounded into” him in home and Catholic elementary school, though from age six was convinced it was “a load of shit”. Kelley joined Bruce and Norman Yomeoto, Mary Woronov and others to perform “Godzilla on the Beach” at Beyond Baroque, Los Angeles in November, 1984. He played a character called Dr. Serizawa in an amalgam of the anti-nuclear movies “On the Beach” and “Godzilla”. His two monologues in the piece excoriated the “gangland mentality” and “happy snot-nosed complacency” of Godzilla. He described the United States and Russia as “two big fat slobs fighting”. The second monologue ends with Dr. Serizawa releasing an oxygen pellet underwater, and him flopping dead. Kelley’s drawings were projected during his performance.
Kelley later said he felt some of the best art in America had come out of the 1970s, and “all the feminists are just erased, all the very intense body art and conceptual art…dedicated people on a mission.” Kelley and other non-macho male artists William Wegman, Raymond Pettibon, and Cady Noland exhibited in "Just Pathetic" at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, linked in what organizer Ralph Rugoff called “The Pathetic Aesthetic”.
His major work of performance, however, did not feature him onstage. "Day is Done" is cinema, filmed work of hired actors performing Kelley’s scripts or songs. There is a sense of him rallying the kids together to put on a show. “Day is Done” consists of skits, sketches, soliloquies and dances based on mysterious extra-curricular activities in other people's high school yearbooks. Segments were exhibited in the Gagosian Gallery along with props that had been constructed for the piece.
While painter Julian Schnabel has made several full-length movies, other 1980s-famous artists of Kelley’s generation made full-length movies in the 1990s. David Salle made the 1995 comedy "Search and Destroy", and Robert Longo filmed the science fiction story "Johnny Mnemonic" with Keanu Reeves. "Day is Done" was shown at the University Museum of Modern Art in 2011, but really yearns to be in the Ann Arbor Film Festivals of the 1970s, which often featured hauntingly similar comedies by its founder George Manupelli with the same amateur look. Or by Kelley's Ann Arbor contemporary Jimm Juback, with whom he played, and smoked dope, at least once in their college days.
Kelley told one interviewer than his most inspiring high school art teacher was a closeted gay man who taught the craft classes, which didn’t particularly interest Kelley at the time, yet the teacher took him to art exhibits and, since his parents were disinterested, to a ceremony where Kelley won a student art award. Perhaps the artist’s later involvement in craft media is a belated homage to his early supporter. The world of blue-chip art is one of the few places where the Great Man view of history still prevails, much of Kelley’s success has been a willingness to pick up media, and assemble objects, traditionally associated with women.
While painter Leon Golub was exhibiting massive un-stretched canvases, whose dry and austerely painted mercenaries and victims resembled both ancient frescoes and baroque tapestries, Kelley created banners with flat color that resembled those by Sister Corita Kent that were displayed in Catholic churches (St. Mary’s on the UM campus had one). Banners of cut and glued felt, the size of bed quilts, were installed on the walls of the Kunsthalle Basel in 1992. Several of them resembled flyers you’d find on a college bulletin board—“Electric Guitar for Sale”, “Looking for a Female Roommate”, or a talk “Sponsored by African Student Union”. One of the most abject proclaims “PANTS SHITTER & PROUD P.S. JERK-OFF TOO (AND I WEAR GLASSES”.
Mike Kelley explained his interest in home made craft items in a 1991 essay “In the Image of Man”. as something in American working-class culture intended from the start to be given away, escaping commodification. Yet there’s always a “hidden burden” to a gift that’s repressed, and time spent in its construction can elicit guilt in the recipient, despite the cheapness of materials used. Handmade dolls and stuffed toy animals he’d accumulated were his store of “love wealth” or “guilt wealth”
California arts writer Tulsa Kinney recalled first seeing a Kelley work at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in the 1980s, a worn blanket with stuffed animals placed on each corner, surrounded by black and white photographs of people smearing fecal-looking chocolate on the same blanket. Photos of knit toys were selected by the band Sonic Youth, fans of Destroy All Monsters (Kim Gordon had known Kelley, and ridden cross-country with him, in college) for the cover of their 1982 album “Dirty”; this resulted in a degree of underground fame with a non-art-world audience. Yarn octopi dolls were tied tightly together, and hung upside down), to create “Manly Craft” sculptures of 1989. The 1989 sculpture “Frankenstein” was composed of sewn stuffed cloth toys, basket with thread, a pin cushion and felt, on the floor like a helpless, supine figure. “Four Sock Dolls”, found handmade soft toys, all headless and two armless, were hung on the wall in 1990. These were something one (i.e., this prejudicial male academic) would expect to find at forlorn country-road garage sales, at tables manned by obese women in stretchy knit clothes, unflattering eyeglasses. Kelley’s challenge was whether such materials produced debased, degraded artwork. And if so, what of it?
Of the 1991 installation “Craft Morphology Flow Chart” he exhibited handmade items in “a simple and uniflected way—the way tools would be shown at a fair.” He’d grown “sick of being associated with stuffed toys”, though he’d tried to treat them “as pure color, almost like daubs of paint in an abstract painting”. Kelley's work "Memoryware Flats" (2001), mixed media with buttons, strings of beads, pin-back badges, dominoes, metal bracelets and notably-African cowrie shells on wooden panel, 70" x 47", was shown at the Skarstedt Gallery, New York.
In reviewing Kelley's eleventh solo show at Metro Pictures in 2002, Roberta Smith called it “only freeze-dried samples of his usual fluorescent nastiness, spiked cuteness and skepticism,” for it consisted mostly of mobiles, architectural models and blueprint-hung ersatz office cubicles. Yet Smith praised works decorated with buttons, beads and notions, and “Endless Morphing Flow of Common Decorative Motifs (Jewelry Case)” arrayed military pins, brooches and pendants, to reveal “an ocean of emotion by simply skimming across the surface”. Kelley’s “All the Love Hours”, composed of burnt candles and knitted afghans, was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art for its permanent collection. He had an installation titled “The Uncanny” at the the Tate Liverpool in 2004, a massing of “spookily evocative” toys and objects from childhood and adolescence. And the uncanny is a realm in which Kelley repeatedly dwelt.
III. Homebody and The Un-Homelike
Mike Kelley had created homespun yarns of the self, and came to be recognized for it. In the second edition (2011) of Art Since 1900 by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, the year 1994 is epitomized when “A mid-career exhibition of Mike Kelley highlights a pervasive concern with states of regression and abjection”, whereas the earlier edition gave greater attention to older L.A. artist Paul McCarthy. Upon the occasion of that exhibition, at the Whitney Museum in New York, the forty-year-old artist turned back to his teenage collaborators Shaw, Loren and Niagara, and issued old basement cassette tapes in a three-CD box. They played in Japan too.
Jim Shaw has noted how he had never really seen pornography until he lived in God's Oasis, four doors down from the Blue Front, a dusty news dealer filled with girly magazines. In an exhibit in Tokyo in 1996, Kelley explored the boyhood fascination of cutting the image of the Native American girl on the Land o’ Lakes butter box so her bare knees could be seen as breasts. Kelley was a fan of the 1960s ribald humor magazine From Sex to Sexty, collaged some of its covers into “Missing Time Color Exercise 3” (1988) and adapted two of its cartoons of exploratory naked children into a painting called “The Drawing of Sexuality”. Kelley wrote an appreciative introduction to a 2009 Taschen anthology of Sex to Sexty magazine.
Inspired as a teenager by William Burroughs, and determined not to have art critics speak for him, Kelley also wrote three books, all edited by University of California, San Diego Professor John C. Welchman. His first, Foul Perfection(2003), collected essays on artists, gender, caricature, the uncanny and UFOs. The second, Minor Histories (2005?) assembled Statements, Conversations, Proposals. His third book, Interviews, Conversations and Chit-Chat (1986-2004) (2009) was exactly that, a collection of one-on-one exchanges with other artists, musicians and filmmakers, some commissioned by publications and some initiated by Kelley. The one with his old friend Jim Shaw is the only one that really comes alive.
One of Kelley’s essays was on the unheimlich, the uncanny, a sentiment that Kelley flirted with repeatedly in his work. Christopher Benfey in the July 12, 2012 New York Review of books, discusses the unheimlich in the fiction of Toni Morrison. He notes the lingering ghostly presence of the dead child in Beloved (1987), and allusions to Hansel and Gretel in Home (2012), Song of Solomon (1977) and a recent lecture at Princeton. Freud defined it as “in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by repression.” The un-homelike now feels strange and mystifying. Kelley had created birdhouses (1978), a “Chicken Brooder” (1978/80), an “Orgone Shed” (1992) and installations involving a Port-a-John, tents and crawl spaces. But what if the child's home is normally un-homelike, perpetually unwelcoming, not a place where the mind comes to rest and things make sense? The concept may be key to understanding three of his mature works involving built worlds: “Educational Complex”, “Kandors”, and “Mobile Homestead”.
For a smart kid from a conflicted, un-supportive working-class home, school is a place to shine, to be appreciated; by teachers, or—most importantly—by peers, for those virtues you think important, like wit, erudition, quick thinking. “Educational Complex” (1995), foamcore, Fibreglas and wood, 4’ 9 ½” x 16’ x 8’, an architectural maquette (or doll house) of all the schools Kelley ever attended. Unremembered sections were called “dark zones” as if they were the sites of now-repressed memories. In a show at Weils gallery in Brussels called “Educational Complex Onwards, 1995-2008”, a series of mobiles “Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid #1—6” used Plexiglas and brushed steel to represent high school gyms or bathrooms, supplemented with electronic white noise. “Timeless/Authorless” (1995) juxtaposes restaurant reviews, yearbook photos and abuse testimonies. Four segments from “Day is Done” are presented along with a model of the Cal Arts basement.
A rock band can be considered a crafts collective; even more so a noise troupe and art gang. Shaw, Loren and Kelley (Niagara had lost interest, had her own paintings to produce) collaborated on the design of two billboard-sized paintings (painted by Dutch sign painters) for “Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha”, full of remembered Detroit rock, pop imagery. When two more were produced, and they were shown at the Artists Take On Detroit, celebrating the city’s 2001 tricentennial, Kelly created an installation “Blackout” centered upon a replica of the John Glenn statue in front of his high school in Westland. The figure was covered with trash found on the Detroit River’s Zug Island, while surrounded walls displayed murky photographs taken by Kelley with a damaged camera, as well as reprints of cheery local items from Westland community newspapers. Kelly showed a 1989 “Vaseline Muses” of soft-focus photographs at Skarstedt Fine Art, New York in 2006.
A series called “Kandors” were works, especially elegantly crafted resin cityscapes contained within large bottles, was based on Superman’s home town on the planet Krypton. In the mythos, Kandor wasn't really destroyed but was miniaturized, inserted into a big bottle, and fell into Superman’s possession on Earth. Was Kandors as a metaphor for his boyhood, or more likely, the Ann Arbor and Los Angeles bohemian hothouses of his young manhood? One notes the similar Superman allusion in the name of the curatorial project Fortress to Solitude, upcoming international curators whom Kelley never worked with, but, had he lived, might have.
Kelley returned to Detroit in September, 2010 for an installation “Mobile Homestead” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit (MOCAD). Unable to purchase his original boyhood home he created a simulacrum of his boyhood home, which before a public dedication was driven around Corktown, the empty train station, and his boyhood home on Palmer Road in Westland. A video of the hejira was his entry to the 2012 Venice Biennale. His eighth Whitney Biennial piece was a video of the Mobile Homestead building carted around the Detroit area. Kelley later called it failed public art. At the dedication (and reiterated in 2012), MOCAD and international funder Artangel announced that Kelley’s “house” will be permanently installed beside the museum, supplemented with a two-story deep basement (a maternal and paternal one?), perhaps with labyrinthine tunnels. In Fall, 2012 the William Morris Gallery opened in the 19th century designer's boyhood home in Walthamstow, Essex, UK; are there analogues between Morris' politically-conscious working-class aesthetic of hand-crafted fabrics for interior decoration, medieval styling and Kelley's eclectic mix? The enlarged, multi-story "Mobile Homestead" planned for MOCAD might serve as a similar Kelleyaneum. Or not.
He designed the 1992 installation “Pay for Your Pleasure” for the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux, and painted by skilled billboard painter Max Vigier included forty two banners with quotes by artists and philosophers. It showed in various venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Whitney Musuem of American Art. The centerpiece of each installation is an artwork by a criminal (when shown in Chicago, by John Wayne Gacy) that the exhibiting institution is required to locate and purchase. But prior to its installation at the Seattle Art Museum, a website and talk radio shows forced the cancellation of the show. A year later, the city’s Center of Contemporary Art (Seattle COCA) hosted a Destroy All Monsters show, in which Kelley, Shaw and Loren performed in a gallery full of their (and Niagara’s) artworks.
Prior to switching to Gagosian Gallery (actually eleven international galleries), Kelley had shown at Mizuno, Rosamund Felsen, Honore, Patrick Painter, and Metro Pictures in New York for twenty years. He turned his attention again to his old friends when, in 2011, he issued his duets with Jim Shaw, and an eight-CD boxed set of Shaw's guitar playing in the 1970s, and curated a show “Return of the Repressed” at the Prism Gallery—part of the “Pacific Standard Time” series of exhibitions of Los Angeles’ artists of the past thirty years held at sixty venues in the area—of work from (or based on motifs of) that era with Shaw, Loren and Niagara. But he almost didn't attend the opening, exhausted and depressed about an unhappy love affair. In January, 2012 the Los Angeles painter Joyce Lieberman sent this author a copy of the February/March issue of Artillery (“The Killer Text on Art”) magazine because its cover story by Editor Tulsa Kinney was on Kelley and his Detroit roots. Lieberman, who knew him since college, worriedly compared Kelley’s puffy and grayed visage to an ugly rockfish.
In autumn, 2011, Kelley was at work on a massive retrospective in the Netherlands, had completed two large shows and his eighth appearance in the Whitney Biennial, and complained of exhaustion. Kelly laments, the interview conducted that November, “I’ve been working non-stop for years and years, and now I’m not in the mood to make art. I’m trying to slow down…So I just want to stop for a couple of years.” Prices for his work had hit the million dollar mark in auction, but “I’m not necessarily going to capitalize on an inflated auction sale, that’s what I’m telling you” he asserted to interrogator Kinney. On the Artillery magazine cover, Kelly looks like the CEO of Despair Corporation, Inc. His art had become alienated labor. How much did he even touch it? Did he get the pleasure of Kelleyize it with bravura brushwork as Rubens did in his active atelier? Some have noted that, for the blue chip art star, the cycle of shows in the international art market creates a non-stop, year-long inexhaustible demand for artwork.
Mike Kelley killed himself February 1, 2012. He felt drained, his youth flowed out and mined, the lode played out. The cruelty of age, the cost of drinking in one's fifties, sexual energy and romantic appeal diminished. It's tempting to compare him to comic book art virtuoso Wally Wood, who killed himself when his liver was destroyed by drink. But in Kelley's case, there was success to attract women. And he won respect, if not love, through projecting the abject (the Pathetic Aesthetic). Kelley’s decline from drink like his comparably cynical, eclectic and medium-agnostic contemporary Martin Kippenberger, also a victim of boyhood religiously-based strictness. Peter Schjeldahl claims Kelley was enlisted to design publicity for a Kippenberger show. Kelley’s work was shown with Kippenberger in New York at Marc Jancou Fine Art in 2005, and the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 2007. His house proved to be the most un-home-like, so he exited. He died at home, in the garage, by his own hand. One hums the Burt Bacharach line, "a house is not a home...", but that melancholy was rooted in divorce. He was found in the garage of his home, his death ruled suicide by suffocation. The constriction of the breath, the flow of life, evokes childhood asthma caused by oppressive, emotionally invasive parents. His mother was a cook at the Ford Motor Company cafeteria, his father the head of maintenance at Westland public schools. Both parents were against his becoming an artist, “a profession I chose specifically in order to be a failure”, and “basically disowned” him. Kelley had called his mother “a complete control freak”, yet was convinced “All nuclear families are dysfunctional.”
The retrospective conversations in the Spring 2012 issue of the College Art Association’s Art Journal about Pacific Standard Time exhibitions around Los Angeles are haunted by the absence of Kelley. Various artists then had sentimental reminiscences of Kelley in the May 2012 issue of Artforum, an unsatisfying memorial that answered none of the important questions. What readers really wanted was an apologia by the gal who spurned him, launched his descent into existential despair. Later in 2012, Venice beach cinema impresario Gerry Fialka published reminiscences of his college classmate Kelley in Otherzine, and was skeptical that the artist's death was truly a suicide. Was Kelley in massive debt, to bankers or the Mob? To his dealer? The ten-minute video—a great resource for art students!—documenting his 2009 painting show at the Gagosian Gallery was removed from its website. Of course, any artist's work becomes more valuable after his death. In December, 2012 “MIKE KELLEY: Themes and Variations from 35 Years” opened at the Stdelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which will then travel to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, MOCA LA, and MoMA PS1 in New York. It really should end up in Detroit.
IV. The Craft of Healthy History and Community
Another Michigan kid born in the early ‘50s, Ken Burns is a popular historian, a time-based storyteller. This is something Mike Kelley endeavored to become too, but on a subjective, personal then fictional scale. Might one speak of "cliocraft", the elegant and decorative shaping of histories?
Ken Burns proven attention to his craft is such that a tool in iMovie is named after him, one which slowly zooms in upon a still image, a technique he made use of repeatedly. Apple secured permission from the filmmaker to name this software homage for him. Burns produces serious study, influenced by what persists in being the big issue of the United States of America, race. Burns has seriously examined American history, especially African American aspects. His first major work was a multi-part examination of the Civil War. He examined the biography of early 20th century prizefighter Jack Johnson. In 2012, Burns collaborated with his daughter to produce a documentary The Central Park Five, about the young black and Latino men who served serious time after being pressured to confess to a crime that none of them had committed. Whereas the 1960s is remembered as the decade of Civil Rights struggle, it was the following decade where the rubber hit the road, and the schools kids Burns age attended were integrated. The Ann Arbor News letters page and early call-in show Ted Heusel's "Community Comment" were full of angry affirmations or denunciations of open housing, school busing and trans-racial social intercourse.
Burns survives, perseveres and prospers because he has a big subject, history, its myriad histories. He follows his bliss, subjects that are interesting to him. Mike Kelley ran out of bliss, was confronted with the enormity of the task of simply filling space. When anything Kelley does (or simply exhibits) sells, what is an authentic Kelley? Duchamp knew he could (or should) only exhibit one urinal to make history, not an entire shop floor of them. Kelley, CEO of his self-enterprise, ran out of inspiration in light of his yawning, stupendous lack of affect, his warehouse the empty heart of capitalism (much as Jimm Juback proposed in 1972 that a high school conceptual art class occupy themselves trying to untie a box full of short pieces of string securely tied into knots). Kelley’s career can almost be seen as such an endeavor, unpacking a box of youth influences—from high school, from family, from comic books, from Catholicism—long tied too tight.
In the autumn of his suicidal year, there is a requiem for Kelley too, one with an enticing throbbing African drumbeat. Over a decade before, Loren, Shaw and Kelley pondered the saucer flaps of the mid-1960s, especially the sighting in a cornfield near Peach Mountain Radio Telescope Observatory, just north of Dexter, MI. The three published a newspaper called Saucer Times in 2002, in which Kelley composed a poem from found lines from UFO accounts. Kelley and Loren visited the site, and found an uninhabited car, motor running, headlights and fancy neon acoutrements illuminated as if waiting for extra-terrestrial contact. Kelley has written extensively on UFOlogy and its impact on his work and thought.
A decade later, and seven months after Kelley's death, Loren used this inspiration as the basis of a collaboration with older black artists Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts and M. Saffell Gardner (whose Ogun collective of black artist a dozen years older, coming of age in the 1960s, decorated abandoned automobiles on Detroit streets and highways) curator Rebecca Mazzei and others to produce "Vision in a Cornfield", an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). Cary Loren and Aaron Pitts both exhibits long vitrines full of seemingly random, disheveled collections strewn like Kelley’s "Memoryware Flats". Another collaborator in the project, the Apetechnology group installed programmed robotics, pneumatics, lights and audio in the vehicles, to animate the experience with random movements. Like disappointing zoo animals hiding in their cages, the cars were active when I saw the installation in November, then rather dormant when I brought my wife back in December. A docent, who main role seemed to be to discourage photography (though he readily admitted his ineffectiveness), affirmed that that the cars were programmed to be random and surprising.
Modern Painters magazine deemed Jim Shaw, in the conclusion to a December 2012 cover story, as the heir to Kelley’s intellectual top-artist throne. Niagara stayed in the Detroit metropolitan area and is a well-known painter. Kelley and Shaw left the area. Loren, who stayed in the Detroit area and made a stand by running a bookstore for thirty years, has woven himself into the scene to collaborate with both older and younger artists, black and white. As if editing Destroy All Monsters magazine, Loren assembled an accompanying limited edition box to accompany "Vision in a Cornfield" that contains an unreleased Sun Ra performance on vinyl, prints and texts.
Yet if Destroy All Monsters had appeared, at its 1970s conception, as a consciously stubborn reaction against, or stubborn indifference to, most African American creativity in the Motor City around them, they later joined harmoniously with black artists in this energetically decorated pastoral vision. A vision in which white Monsters finally realized the Other isn't just on the other side of Woodward Avenue, and only in solidarity can they confront the truly alien, or the unheimlich. It’s sad that Mike Kelley didn’t stick around to see that realized.
Mike Mosher is Professor of Art/Communication and Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.
"Frankenstein" image from Initial Access, "Kandors" from ArtSlant,, other artworks from PBS' Art 121/.