Jori Finkel: The life and death of Mike Kelley

When I visited Los Angeles on spring break in 1992 during my final year of university in New York, lured by the promise of sunshine and tennis courts more than by any cultural event, I happened to catch “Helter Skelter: Los Angeles Art in the 1990s”, a generation-defining group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA).

Kelley’s Banana Man Costume, 1981

Mike Kelley’s work in the exhibition—which elevated dirty jokes and low-brow comics—irritated me, amused me and made me rethink my sunny clichés about California. So did his show at the Whitney Museum of American Art the following year, the one the New York Times critic Roberta Smith compared to the bedroom of an unwashed polymath teenager.

Kelley helped to open my eyes to the art community in Los Angeles. He is the reason I moved here to join it.

At least those were my first rapid-fire thoughts on the Wednesday in early 2012 when I first heard about Kelley’s death. I reached for my Whitney and MoCA catalogues. As the art reporter at the Los Angeles Times, I had the responsibility for writing his obituary.

It was a challenge. I had about five hours to file the piece so it could make the morning paper. I didn’t know Kelley well but we had friends in common, who I called that day while they were nearly speechless with grief, still processing the news.

Then there are the expectations of the genre. An obituary thrives on categorical distinctions: such and such was the inventor of the wireless remote control or so and so was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I wanted to give Kelley credit for his early 1980s work in post-punk performance, video and installation art and touch on specific contributions like his “performative sculptures”—those museum objects that double as theatrical props or musical instruments, a trend which is everywhere today.

Yet his restless intelligence—often aimed at exposing the filthy, grotesque or irrational urges beneath the veneer of civilised society and culture (and the hypocrisies of minimal art and the polymorphous perversity of childhood)—makes all of those categories, even the big one of “conceptual art,” seem restrictive and insufficient. My writing felt flat compared to the keenness of his curiosity and range of his vision.

And the circumstances of his death were tricky to deal with. It was difficult to confirm the fact of his suicide at that time, let alone know what to make of it. As a journalist do you even attempt to explore causes, seeing that your best source on the subject isn’t here to confirm them?

Since then a range of writers and curators have faced similar challenges. How, if at all, does Kelley’s death change our understanding of his art? Are we more likely to see themes of mortality or trauma in his work because of the circumstances of his demise and the depression preceding it? And when you’re filling galleries with his art so soon after his suicide, where exactly do you put this elephant in the room?

Now that Kelley’s retrospective is at MoCA (until 28 July), after versions staged in New York (MoMA PS1), Paris (Centre Pompidou) and Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum), we have the chance to see how the curators and critics in his hometown address this work-life tangle.

Already, some Kelley supporters are nervous about the museum’s annual fundraising gala—the sort of red-carpet event that Kelley tended to avoid and despise—being tied to the opening of his show and scheduled for the same weekend. This just might be Philippe Vergne’s first real test as MoCA’s new director: how will he handle the awkward balancing act of celebrating the power of Kelley’s work while also honouring his virulently anti-pomp sensibility?

The show that Emi Fontana co-organised with Andrea Lissoni for the Hangar Bicocca in Milan last summer paid tribute to Kelley’s work and to his life through a literally dark exhibition design. “Mike Kelley: Eternity Is a Long Time” featured ten installations, mainly from the 1990s, spread out in a massive warehouse with great swathes of space between them. Since Kelley had a sort of “horror vacui”, to quote Fontana, always driven to fill the void himself, this presentation was particularly disturbing.

Strange reticence

I saw the show late at night, and it was hard for me to shake the feeling that his videos in particular were desperate but vibrant flashes in the darkness. Seeing the oven featured in one installation, widely read as a nod to Sylvia Plath’s suicide, was hard to stomach. When I learned during the cab ride back to my hotel that my job at the Los Angeles Times had just been eliminated in a round of layoffs, it seemed like a minor nuisance compared to what I had just been through.

The Milan show also addressed his death in another way: a slim exhibition essay notes that the last two years of his life “were marked by a profound existential malaise, possibly brought on by the feeling that he was hostage to a system whose assent he had sought”. It goes on to suggest that the preparation for his big retrospective “may have accentuated his sense of anxiety [about] the attempt to historicise his work”.

The hefty Stedelijk Museum catalogue published in 2013 for that retrospective, on the other hand, says remarkably little about his death or depression. Ann Goldstein, the then-director of the Amsterdam museum, calls his death “sudden and tragic” in her foreword. In an essay about Kelley’s musical roots, Branden Joseph addresses the death only in a footnote, which reveals that his essay was originally titled “Live/Dead” as a nod to the 1969 Grateful Dead album.

For the Stedelijk book, the art historian and president of the artist’s foundation, John Welchman, edited an interview with Kelley conducted close to the time of his death, but even Welchman’s preface to that text seems strangely reticent. The artist’s drinking and stint in rehab never come up. “He was not in good shape when the interview took place, nor for the most part when he reviewed it” is Welchman’s most forthcoming comment on the subject.

While MoMA PS1 and MoCA both opted to use the Stedelijk catalogue, released in September 2013, the Pompidou published its own book for its smaller version of the retrospective. It does roughly the same thing, mentioning Kelley’s death only a few times and rather euphemistically at that, at one point referring to the artist’s “disparition soudaine” (literallysudden disappearance).

I’m relieved that art historians assessing Kelley’s legacy are not sensationalising his death or letting it overshadow his art, which has happened in some press coverage. They are also resisting the urge to mythologise. Thankfully, there is no Bas Jan Ader treatment, casting the artist’s death as the ultimate performance piece, a willfully tragic extension of his art.

Denials and evasions

Nevertheless, the failure to acknowledge that Kelley died by his own hand, alongside the omission of his depression and drinking, smacks of wishful thinking. And anyone who assumes that biographical analysis is necessarily sensational or simple-minded should immediately read Olivia Laing’s new book, The Trip to Echo Spring, a startlingly insightful study of alcoholism and creativity in the work of six writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.

Does the Stedelijk’s 400-page catalogue, billed as the “most comprehensive book on the iconoclastic American artist”, really have no room for a basic account of Kelley’s death and depression? Does art history as practiced today need to be blind to an artist’s biography? There must be some middle ground between people worshipping Van Gogh as the ear-slicing genius-madman and academics interpreting the work of Mike Kelley without mentioning his suicide.

Above all, it seems highly ironic that an artist who brilliantly mined the realm of suppressed memory and subterranean imagery, who was fascinated by the Freudian mechanisms of repression, would become subject to these sorts of public denials and evasions.

Jori Finkel is the Los Angeles correspondent for The Art Newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times

Published Wed, 26 Mar 2014 12:07:00 GMT

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7 Apr 14
15:28 CET


I think the reticence is in part a tribute to Mike's protection of his own privacy. I worked with him for years and liked him a lot. Neither of the two explanations I heard right after his suicide seemed persuasive to me. I think one reason for the reticence is that no one has a very good explanation. I dare say there are other reasons too, but I think the problem with suicide is always that it is first a surprise but soon people think of reasons why. I think Mike was always a bit gloomy and that it is unlikely that a search for a specific reason or trigger will probably always be unconvincing. He was a complicated person.

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Jori Finkel

Jori Finkel is the Los Angeles correspondent for The Art Newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter @jorifinkel