Mary Kelly - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer and Mixed Media Artist
Fort Dodge, Iowa
Biography of Mary Kelly
Mary Kelly was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1941, just months before the United States entered the Second World War. While the trauma of the war would haunt her as an adult, it fed into her creative practice. "When I was growing up amid the echo of the Second World War," Kelly has said, "we thought our parents had totally failed to prevent the holocaust." Artistically inclined from an early age, she left Iowa for Minnesota in 1959, to attend the College of Saint Teresa, a Catholic women's teaching institution in the small town of Winona, where she majored in visual art and minored in music, graduating with a B.A. in 1963.
Early Training and Work
Having set her sights on Europe, with its culture of freedom fighting and appetite for radical change, Kelly then studied art and art history at Florence's Pius XII Institute, which awarded her a Master of Arts degree in 1965. Instead of returning home upon completing graduate school, she went to teach art in Beirut, Lebanon, which, during the 1960s, was in the midst of a cultural renaissance. Fascinated by this new and different Middle Eastern capital in rapid transition, she decided to settle there for a few years. In speaking of this formative time in her life, when she was exposed to Beirut's French-leaning intelligentsia and learned of Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic theories and Karl Marx's social- political ideas, she has said: "(Beirut) was a shockingly different world but not the one you know today. It was a very cosmopolitan place when I was there. It was still very patriarchal and a little like the structure of Ancient Greece, with women cooking and taking care of the children and men out in the world. But people were so knowledgeable, so highly educated."
In 1968 Kelly returned to Europe, first visiting Paris to take part in the radical student uprisings of that watershed year. She later reprised the indelible experiences of that critical period in her multi-media, site-specific installation called Circa 1968 of 2004. Kelly soon left Paris behind and moved to London where she went to live in an all-female commune, while studying for a postgraduate degree in Fine Art at Saint Martin's School of Art, which she earned in 1970. As a student at St. Martin's, she found rich, fertile ground for new ideas and met many likeminded artists who would influence her on both personal and political levels, including the sculptor Ray Barrie, whom she would later marry. As she has noted, "There were ... some very progressive people at St. Martins when I was there: Gilbert and George, Richard Long and my partner Ray Barrie. I was a painter, but I hung out with the sculptors, a lot of whom went into film and photography."
Having remained in London after her postgraduate studies, Kelly was initially attracted to the rising trend of Conceptualism and actively participated in the debates shaping the movement while becoming involved in student and other political developments. She soon found herself drawn to the ideas animating the second wave of Feminism, which was rapidly rising around her. Throughout the 1970s, she joined various Feminist groups and collectives, and as an active member of the Women's Liberation Movement, she fought alongside thousands of women for greater gender equality. She focused on issues of women's labor and reproductive health, including access to universal childcare and abortion. As a member of the Berwick Street Collective, she worked on the iconic film Nightcleaners (1972-75), which documented young mothers forced to take on night shifts to financially support their families. Kelly was also a founding member of the Artists' Union, which was set up to advance artist workers' rights and to give value to the processes of cultural labor. With union members Margaret Harrison and Kay Hunt, she created Women and Work: A Document on the Divisions of Labour in Industry (1975), using documentary photography and film to study more than 150 female workers at a metal box foundry. Looking back, she recalls a sense of burgeoning optimism about that time: "When we were talking about a new form of family back then, the context seemed very hopeful. Communal living, pre-school care; it felt that those things were imminent."
Kelly's early phase in England was a career-defining period. Of this dynamic time, she has said: "London was absolutely formative for me. Not least because I was very young. Everything was happening then. Everything was on fire." As she became an outspoken Feminist and embraced the women's movement famous slogan, "the personal is political," she began making individual artworks that followed the same ideological path as her collective works, but what distinguished them was the inclusion of intimate material from her ordinary, everyday life. Just as her Feminist predecessor Miriam Schapiro had done with Minimalism, she began to resist those parts of Conceptualism that tended toward the depersonalized and the detached, and, instead moved toward the personal and the compassionate. Despite the theoretical foundations of her art, Kelly has always maintained that she deals "with the most elusive, imprecise things, like feelings and emotions."
Following her early experimentation with collective action, Kelly began work on a very personal, individual project after becoming pregnant with her partner, Ray Barrie. In her early film Antepartum (1973), she focused the camera lens on her unborn baby as it moved slowly within her abdomen, echoing the aesthetics of repetition and real time duration that marked London's experimental film making of the time, as in Yoko Ono's Fly (1970) that painstakingly documents a real fly as it deliberately explores the nude body of actress, Virginia Lust.
Upon giving birth to her son, Kelly, in 1973, who took her surname as his first name, Kelly gained a tangibly real understanding of the dual roles working mothers faced, as she, too, found herself torn between the need for an intimate connection with her child, yet hungry for a career as an artist. She now had a personal and visceral grasp of the inspiration that had instinctively animated her early collective works on women's issues. At the time that she gave birth, though, she was still living in a commune, where she had a network of women around her, recalling, "my son was born in a communal situation and that was so important."
Not long after giving birth, Kelly began chronicling the development of her child as well as of herself as a young mother, revealing, through a series of intimate artworks, personal moments of both loving tenderness and painful struggle. Her documentation of this time would continue for the next six years, coming together as the career-defining Post-Partum Document (1973-79), which she described as revolving "around the recurring themes of body, money, history and power."
Kelly first exhibited Post-Partum Document at London's Institute for Contemporary Art in London in 1976, where she gained attention as the first woman to hold a solo show in the influential gallery space. She also caused a media frenzy by including dirty nappy liners on the gallery wall, but she has argued, "I didn't set out to shock. I was formed in the moment of conceptualism. My models were Art and Language (the English conceptual art group). I was carrying out an interrogation. I wanted to deal with the stuff of life; which I felt they weren't doing. I wanted to engage people emotionally and intellectually at the same time."
Following on from Post-Partum Document, Kelly committed herself to leading the Feminist cause through her art. "Feminism made everything I did from Post-Partum Document on very consistent," she has said. "I was working from what I call my discursive psyche." Yet her interest in male-driven psychoanalytic theory placed her in a complicated double bind, because it was rejected by many fellow Feminist artists, like Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann, and Marina Abramović, who focused on the objectification of the female body. By contrast, Kelly opened up a discourse that was more about a woman's state of mind, addressing intellectual, psychoanalytical, or wider social concerns.
From 1985-86, Kelly was an Artist-in-Residence at Kettle's Yard and New Hall in Cambridge where she began work on her large-scale series Interim (1984-9), exploring themes around women's relationship to history, money, and power. It was an uplifting period of creativity for the artist, who found she was able to share ideas with likeminded thinkers, including art historians Norman Bryson and Margaret Iversen. She remembered back, "I think this was probably the first time we put sexuality, psychoanalysis, feminism and conceptual art together on the same platform."
In 1989, after spending two decades abroad, Kelly returned to the United States after joining the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where she continued to develop Interim (1984-89), exhibiting the completed series in its entirety at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990. Kelly's long-time supporter, the art critic Craig Owens, organized a ground-breaking symposium around the display, On the Subject of History, which cemented Kelly's reputation as a key player in the Feminist and postmodernist debates of the period.
After her engagement with the Whitney Museum of American Art, Kelly remained in the United States with her family. Throughout the 1990s, she continued working on ambitious series, expanding her scope to address issues of war and the paralyzing emotion of fear, drawing upon her own experiences as a child during the Second World War. These large-scale installation works included Gloria Patri (1992), Mea Culpa (1999), and the monumental The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi (2001), featuring a soundtrack by composer Michael Nyman.
Since the 1990s, Kelly has established herself as one of her generation's most important art educators. In 1996 she was the first woman to become a Distinguished Professor of Art at the School of the Arts and Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. There she founded the Interdisciplinary Studio Area and the Graduate Group Critique, exploring alternative methods where, "the artist doesn't speak and everyone else does the reading (critiquing the artwork), which I think is very much informed by feminism." After twenty years at UCLA, she was again recognized as an outstanding professor when, in 2017, she was appointed the Judge Widney Professor at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California, an important post she still holds today. That same year, The Getty Research Institute honored Kelly by acquiring her extensive archive.
In recent artworks, Kelly has explored the points where collective and personal memories come together, as in Circa 1968 (2004), a retrospective look back to the political student uprisings in Paris of the 1960s, first exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 2004 and Love Songs (2005-07), a restaging of Feminist protests from the 1970s. New works have also incorporated lint, as a common material loaded with female, domestic associations. Ingeniously printed and pieced together into intricately woven networks, many of these lint pieces illustrate graphic scenes relating to the oppression of women during war.
Kelly continues to live and work in Los Angeles with her husband Ray Barrie and is represented by Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York. In 2007 Kelly and Barrie were commissioned by Documenta XII to produce Multi-Story House (2007), an illuminated three-dimensional model narrating the development of Feminism since the 1970s, highlighting the hard-earned freedoms for which women have fought. Today, she has a home studio in Los Angeles surrounded by light, overlooking mountain hillsides and greenery, about which she writes, "It's a quiet setting. I love to come back here after I've been travelling; it's very conducive to work."
The Legacy of Mary Kelly
Kelly's pioneering, diaristic approach to making art through gradual, methodological practices has been especially influential on following generations of women artists, both directly and indirectly. Parallel approaches and methods can be seen in work by these younger women artists, for example, whose careers' followed Kelly's.
In Adrian Piper's work, we see the same sparing displays of autobiographical subject matter for which Kelly is known. Piper's mixed-media What Will Become of Me (1985) looks clean and orderly on the surface but upon closer examination, one discovers its studied scientific veneer is made up of the artist's own collection of skin bits, strands of hair, and fingernail clippings as a way of addressing a very personal matter, her ethnicity. Collected and deployed for aesthetic purposes, just as Kelly saved her son's dirty nappies for visual and emotional effect, Piper placed these cast offs from her own body into a neat row of honey jars, contemplating, through her human waste, the traces she will leave behind after she dies. This time-based work is open-ended, intended to be completed only when Piper's cremated remains are collected into the very last honey jar and placed at the end of the shelf, as way of bookending her life.
Tracey Emin is another, younger conceptual artist known for her autobiographical and confessional work that is interdisciplinary and, generally, installation-based. If Emin creates discrete objects, as in her bound book Exploration of the Soul (1994), she still mixes media, in this case photography and appliqué stitching on white calico fabric. Like Kelly's work, this piece has an important element of time and it shares extremely intimate details of the artist's life. It is based on the first thirteen years of her life, "from the moment of my conception to losing my virginity against my will," the artist has said. "The book is a mental journey - my coming to terms with beauty, innocence and evil combined."
Kelly's questioning of socially prescribed gender roles and her use of time-inflected, multi-media installation formats also had an important legacy effect on the late Helen Chadwick.. Chadwick expanded on Kelly's discourse about gender representation and the body, for example, in her best-known, site-specific installation piece, Piss Flowers (1991-92). To create the final large-scale presentation of twelve bronze sculptures enamelled in white, Chadwick used ephemeral means, first forming large mounds out of frozen snow and then laying metal-shaped outlines of flowers onto the frozen ice crystals. Subsequently, she and her partner David Notarius took turns urinating into these templates. Where the cold snow melted away upon contact with the warm urine, Chadwick then made plaster molds that formed the basis for the later bronze sculptures. Chadwick considered the flowers to be a "metaphysical concept for the union of two people expressing themselves bodily."
Many other contemporary artists have also extended Kelly's conceptual approach and her interdisciplinary methodology. Sonia Boyce, for example, focuses on the nature of racial representation through drawing, print, photography and performance art, while Berni Searle uses photography, video, and film, enhanced with three-dimensional found materials, to stage meandering narratives about the female body and the complex history and racial struggles of South Africa.