Mike Kelley - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor, Conceptual, Performance, and Video Artist
South Pasadena, California
Biography of Mike Kelley
Childhood and Education
Born in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan in 1954, Mike Kelley grew up in a working class family as the youngest of four children. Ten years separated Kelley from his older siblings and, as a result, he spent much of his childhood alone, reading in his room. His father, a maintenance worker for the public school system, was not very involved in his children's lives. By contrast, his mother, a cook at Ford Motor Company's cafeteria, was, in Kelley's words, "a complete control freak." Growing up, he had a tumultuous relationship with his parents. In high school, he once wore a thrift-store dress to school just to upset them. His parents were devout Catholics, but by the time Kelley was in first grade, he remembers thinking that religion "was a load of shit."
It was during Kelley's adolescent years that art-making became a serious career option for him. He decided to become an artist in part because "at that time, it was the most despicable thing you could be in American culture. To be an artist at that time had absolutely no value. It was like planned failure." Kelley's parents did not approve of him pursuing such a career, but being the stubborn teenager that he was, he defied them. His father disowned him as a result. While in junior high, Kelley's art teacher, a closeted gay man who taught crafts, would become a surrogate father, supporting him in his interest in art and later inspiring him to incorporate low-brow culture into his work.
Kelley grew up during a time in which Michigan's cities were facing severe crises caused by rapid deindustrialization, the civil rights movement, and economic downturn. This environment fostered a degree of cynicism in the young Kelley, eventually leading him to embrace the anarchist counterculture. Kelley became an avid participant in both the politically far-left White Panther Party and the underground punk music scene. In 1973, while attending the University of Michigan, he co-founded an improv noise band called Destroy All Monsters. Kelley and fellow artist Jim Shaw quit the band three years later to attend graduate school in California.
Enrolling at the California Institute of Arts (CalArts) in 1976, Kelley encountered two teachers who would strongly influence his practice: the conceptual artist John Baldessari and the performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson. Fully embracing the ideals of the avant-garde, Kelley explored as wide a variety of media as possible, including performance, video, writing, and traditional crafts. He also began a second experimental band, The Poetics, with his roommates and fellow installation artists Tony Oursler and John Miller. At CalArts, Kelley was especially drawn to performance art and craft media because each, in different ways, posed a challenge to the category, and accepted practices, of fine art. Graduating in 1978, he opted to remain on the west coast, shunning the lure of the New York art world.
Mature and Late Period
After his time at CalArts, Kelley first found success in Europe, with shows in Germany and France garnering particular attention. But while his reputation grew steadily during the 1980s, Kelley's art-world stardom only fully arrived in the subsequent decade. 1992, in particular, proved to be a watershed year, marking the beginning of Kelley's career on the graduate teaching faculty at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he would remain a professor until 2007. He acquired a reputation here as a supportive but tough teacher, whose critiques were always brutally honest. In addition, 1992 saw Kelley participate in the landmark group exhibition, Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, along with fellow California artists and collaborators Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon, Paul McCarthy, and Chris Burden. The show consisted of artists whose works shared "a common vision in which alienation, dispossession, perversity, sex, and violence either dominate the landscape or form disruptive undercurrents," as the show's press release proclaimed. Considered among the more important group exhibitions of the early 1990s, Helter Skelter gained a great deal of attention, and finally secured Kelley's reputation in the United States.
In addition to his teaching and artistic practice, Kelley remained a prolific writer throughout his career, penning articles and essays on a wide range of subjects from art, film, and architecture to subcultural topics as various as Ufology and Mexican wrestling. As in his art, Kelley himself was a man of contradictions. As the art journalist Kelly Crow reveals, "He hated to drive or fly - his agoraphobia and anxiety growing worse over the course of his life. His artworks earned him a fortune, yet he shopped mainly at secondhand stores and wore a pair of his father's red loafers for years. He painted just about every bedroom he ever had a particular shade of cucumber green."
In 2012, at the age of 57, Kelley committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, just as plans for his first major international retrospective were taking shape. He was found in the bathtub with a Smith & Wesson revolver, Xanax, vodka, soda, and a barbecue grill that he had lit after covering the room's vents with duct tape. Taped to the wall beside him was a photo of his ex-girlfriend, Trulee Grace Hall, a young design student whom Kelley had met several years after he stopped teaching. Their relationship had ended a few months prior to his death, and Kelley had also been struggling with numerous personal issues including depression, alcoholism, and the recent passing of his mother and brother. His self-inflicted death shocked the art world, but there were signs. Just before his death, he had confided to a few close friends that he was struggling to keep his faith in art and had threatened to stop making it. In his final interview, for Artillery Magazine, the critic Tulsa Kinney wrote that "...we sat in a darkened living room, and he left the curtains drawn. As we spoke, he blankly stared straight ahead, replying to my questions in a deliberate monotone."
The Legacy of Mike Kelley
Kelley eventually became the leading figure in the Los Angeles art scene, and his championing of Los Angeles led to its international ascendancy as an art capital, paving the way for a generation of future artists to make the city their home, including those - like painter Mark Grotjahn and sculptor Sterling Ruby - who had moved to Los Angeles specifically to study with the artist.
Kelley has had a significant impact upon the subsequent course of contemporary American and European art. The art historian Thomas Crow explains that "he was a figure who was a bridge from the breakout 1960s generation of Minimalists and Conceptualists, who took art away from a rather austere sense of itself and made it into something that could touch on almost every aspect of experience."