The Mike Kelley retrospective at MoMA PS1 is, in a word, large. One might expect as much, given that it is a retrospective, but this one is uniquely big: it marks the first time the entire museum has ever been given over to one artist. Two hundred and seventy artworks are on view, stretching from the boiler room and theater in the basement all the way up to the classrooms-turned-galleries on the third floor. Those works include videos, sculptures, installations, photographs, paintings, drawings, and a lot of music and sound. Kelley was prolifically postmodern: he committed to themes and ideas (sexuality, childhood, repression, the counterculture, cast-off everyday objects) rather than any specific medium. The exhibition is arranged accordingly, displaying series and related groups of work rather than progressing in chronological order.
These conditions make for an overwhelming but remarkable — and remarkably cohesive — show, a true opportunity for viewers to see something approaching the full extent of an artist’s body of work. Combined with the knowledge that Kelley committed suicide in 2012, at the age of 57, they also give MoMA PS1 the feel, alternately, of a haunted house and a memorial. Or, considering that the building is a former public school (Long Island City’s first, according to Wikipedia), perhaps a university of Mike Kelley.
The latter would perhaps be a discomfiting thought to the artist, who spent much of his life and career questioning and railing against educational structures in the US. One of his most famous pieces, “Educational Complex” (1995), takes all of the schools that Kelley ever attended (plus his childhood home) and renders them in foam core as a single maze-like, model structure, with blanks and gaps left for the spaces he didn’t remember. Gleaming white inside a glass case, the complex is both highly personal and a kind of public offering — a blank slate onto which viewers may project their own memories of and anxieties about school.
Kelley made it clear that his distaste for education grew out of his own formal training as an art student, first as an undergrad at the University of Michigan and then as a grad student at CalArts in the 1970s. The catalogue published for the retrospective, which originated at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, contains an interview with the artist conducted by Eva Meyer-Hermann, curator of the Stedelijk show; in it, Kelley discusses the near impossibility of studying “live art,” or anything besides painting, at the University of Michigan and the rigidness of the art department at CalArts, which shut him out of working with the one teacher he had gone to CalArts to work with. And yet, Kelley went on to teach at the graduate level at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena for nearly two decades. He was nothing if not contradictory.
In fact, contradictions like these are at the heart of Kelley’s art, as well as how audiences have often understood it. In 1987, Kelley started on a series of artworks made from secondhand stuffed animals. His breakout piece in this vein, “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages Of Sin,” features grimy stuffed animals, afghans, and dolls splayed across a hanging tapestry, a small table filled with half-melted candles nearby. The work was shown at the 1993 Whitney Biennial to much critical acclaim, but what Kelley didn’t anticipate was the audience’s reaction to the piece, and others like it that came after. As he explains in the interview with Meyer-Hermann:
The presentation of an old, dirty stuffed animal immediately evoked the issue of child abuse to many viewers. I was very surprised by this response and researched [Repressed Memory Syndrome]. I hadn’t realized what a dominant belief system it was. We were living in the midst of an epidemic of fear regarding the abuse of children … I realized that these fears were projected upon me, the artist, and one interpretation was that perhaps I had been abused myself as a child. I decided to capitalize on that notion.
It may be that we should thank those viewers, because this confrontation sparked Kelley’s creation of “Educational Complex,” which in turn led to his fantastically ambitious Day Is Done project (more on that later). But it also explains how Kelley’s art has often been understood — by its content, which is generally pulled from the pop- and mass-cultural landscape of the US: stuffed animals, horror films, comic strips. In this way, it’s relatable for general audiences, something they can both identify with and identify as ‘subversive’ in a high-art context. A content-based reading also favors a biographical one, or, in Kelley’s words (same interview): “People confuse ideas that I reference in my work with my personal opinions.” When Kelley committed suicide, his darker pieces — videos containing explicit violence, prints claiming “abuse” by the art establishment, and more — seemed to take on a more personal meaning.
Women artists are subjected to biographical readings often; men less frequently, but still some of the time. I think it’s inevitable with artists who use themselves in their work, as Kelley did (he acted in many of his own videos). What’s more, for viewers who aren’t themselves artists or well-versed in art history — even for those who are (myself included) — content is usually the primary way into a piece, the part we latch onto right away. That’s not a bad thing. But with someone like Kelley, whose work is much more complex than the sex, junk, and violence it’s made up of, it can also lead to misunderstandings.
As I was reading that Kelley catalogue interview, which took place not long before his death, another passage stood out to me. Speaking about his Kandors, a series of glowing, pulsing sculptures that depict the capital city of Krypton, Superman’s home planet, Kelley said, quite bitterly:
But, then, for some reason, critics rarely talk about formal concerns in my work. … Instead, it’s more “bad boy” crap. “Mike Kelley is a nerdish comic book fan.” That’s simply not true, or what that series of works is about.
And I realized that I, too, had been fixating on the “bad boy crap.” (I had actually been thinking about Kelley in relation to the other “bad boy” lately on view in New York, Chris Burden.) Rarely do I give artists’ own interpretations of their work too much credence, but this time it resounded, because it was the answer to the Kelley puzzle I had been trying to solve.
Kelley’s best works don’t succeed solely because he took crappy materials like discarded stuffed animals and showed them in galleries and museums; what made (and makes) “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages Of Sin” brilliant is the form it takes, the fact that the tapestry is roughly “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,” in the words of LA Times art critic Christopher Knight. Kelley was a master of both the high and low — the “allowable” and the “repressed,” as he called them — and his greatest virtue was in bringing the two together in a way that emphasizes their tension.
There are excellent examples of this throughout the MoMA PS1 show. For a series called Garbage Drawings (1988), Kelley appropriated panels from The Sad Sack comic strip by eliminating everything in them besides the garbage. The finished pieces look simultaneously like comic-strip backgrounds and abstract meditations on form. In another series called Missing Time Color Exercises (1998, 2002), Kelley created paneled grids in which he laid out, chronologically, covers of the dirty humor magazine Sex to Sexty. For spots where he was missing covers, Kelley placed single-color panels “precisely mixed to fit the existing chromatic sequence,” according to the wall text, a wry nod to minimalism and Color Field painting. The grids become pleasant and soothing, even as the Sex to Sexty covers show bawdy illustrations. “An assault on abstraction was central to Kelley’s practice from its start,” George Baker writes in his catalogue essay, “Mike Kelley: Sublevel.”
Kelley was particularly excellent at creating this kind of uneasy coexistence in three dimensions. One of the best pieces in the show — and probably the most Instagrammed — is “Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites” (1991/1999). The piece features big hanging clusters (satellites) of stuffed animals, with custom-made monochromatic “deodorizing units” arrayed on the surrounding walls. Grouped based on color and bound together in tight balls, the stuffed animals become subsumed in the whole, vehicles for a more classical and formally minded artistic expression of shape and color. The polygonal wall units add to the feeling of a highly designed (and commodified) experience. Yet, when you get up close and start staring into the satellites, this unity falls apart — you pick out a bear here, a tiger that reminds you of the one you had growing up there.
Other installations function similarly. The centerpiece of Kelley’s Black Out project (2001) re-creates a modernist sculpture of astronaut John Glenn in colorful shards and debris dredged from the Detroit River. “Rose Hobart II” (2006) looks like a beautifully designed and crafted design object, or perhaps a riff on minimalist sculpture, but it’s actually a vehicle for claustrophobic and voyeuristic movie viewing, set to the soundtrack of disquieting experimental music by Morton Subotnik.
And then there’s Day Is Done (2004–05), Kelley’s 25 video installations based on found photographs of extracurricular school activities. The videos are a campy blend of shlock horror and pre-internet high-school aesthetics: vampire as school administrators making phone calls in the office, children singing in a Christmas play, an operatic mummy. Their source material and content are unquestionably lowbrow, even as their production value is high (Day Is Done was Kelley’s first project under the auspices of Gagosian Gallery, which paid his production costs for the first five years, Kelly Crow reported in the Wall Street Journal). The sets, meanwhile — a doorway marking the entrance to a terrifying barber shop, a model country house, a gravesite — are simple but meticulously constructed. The installation of them together (MoMA PS1 is showing seven of the original 25) makes for a chaotic, curated carnival that’s both immersive and off-putting, earnest and ironic.
In some ways, it’s almost unspeakably obvious to point out the importance of form to Kelley’s work; great artists are great because they’re able to take their ideas and successfully execute them. But in the case of Kelley, it seems worth reiterating that he wasn’t all comic books and crap (literally) — or rather, his ability to transform comic books and crap into compelling artwork was perhaps unparalleled. Or maybe it was the other way around, and he was actually transforming art itself — as Baker writes, “to narrativize Kelley’s seemingly obsessive relation to modernism would be to imagine it given over to the parasite, to envision it infected or occupied from within.”
As others have pointed out, much of Kelley’s work looks familiar today; pieces of junk and photographs of defecation no longer register as surprising inside museums. But that’s part of why it’s important to think about why Kelley, when he was on, was so excellent. (There are lesser moments here, like the Kandors, which are generally too glossy and too shallow.) I’m reminded of the argument that Maud Newton made in the New York Times Magazine about David Foster Wallace (another brilliant artist who committed suicide) three years ago: that he inadvertently spawned a generation of lazy literary imitators, or in her words, “opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.” The point being that writing in the style of DFW won’t make you DFW. The same goes for Kelley. Anyone can throw some stuffed animals together and call it art, but not anyone can do it well.
Mike Kelley continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through February 2.