Mike Kelley (artist)

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Mike Kelley
BornOctober 27, 1954
Diedc. January 31, 2012(2012-01-31) (aged 57)
Alma materUniversity of Michigan
Known forsculpture, installation, performance
AwardsWolfgang Hahn Prize[1]
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship[1]
The California Institute of the Arts Distinguished Alumnus Award[1]

Michael Kelley (October 27, 1954 – c. January 31, 2012) was an American artist. His work involved found objects, textile banners, drawings, assemblage, collage, performance and video. He often worked collaboratively and had produced projects with artists Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler, and John Miller. Writing in The New York Times, in 2012, Holland Cotter described the artist as "one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century and a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion."[2]

Early life[edit]

Kelley was born in Wayne, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, to a working class Roman Catholic family in October 1954.[3][2] His father was in charge of maintenance for a public school system; his mother was a cook in the executive dining room at Ford Motor Company.[2] In his early years he was involved with the area's music scene, which spawned bands such as Iggy and the Stooges, and was a member of the noise band Destroy All Monsters. In 1976, Kelley graduated from the University of Michigan and then moved to Los Angeles.[3] In 1978 he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with a Master of Fine Arts, where he admired the work of his teachers John Baldessari, Laurie Anderson, David Askevold and Douglas Huebler and fully embraced the ideals of the avant-garde.[4]


During his time at CalArts, Kelley started to work on a series of projects in which he explored works with loose poetic themes, such as The Sublime, Monkey Island and Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile, using a variety of different media such as drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, video, and writing. In the 1980s he became known for working with another type of material: crocheted blankets, fabric dolls and other rag toys found at thrift stores and yard sales. Perhaps the most famous work in this vein, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin from 1987, featured a mess of used rag dolls, animals and blankets strewn across a canvas, a way of investing a fictional childhood scene with some visceral pathos which was first shown at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles.[5] In 1988, Kelley created an installation called Pay for Your Pleasure, which featured a gallery of portraits of men of genius – poets, philosophers and artists included – subverted at the end by a painting created by a convicted criminal.[6] In From My Institution to Yours (1988) and Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (1992), Kelly appropriated photocopied drawings and other ephemera of vernacular office humor and moved it into more formalized environments where such crude materials are normally not seen.[7][8]

Kelley often employed soft, tangled toys as a satirical metaphor for Expressionist art. In Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991–99), an installation sculpture made from untidy clusters of toys suspended from the ceiling, a dozen monochrome plush-toy spheres, linked by a system of cables and pulleys across the ceiling, orbit around a central, rainbow-colored blob; ten large, geometrically faceted, brightly colored wall-reliefs are actually monumental dispensers of pine-scented air freshener, which automatically send their cleansing spray into the room at timed intervals.[9]

In 1995, he produced Educational Complex, an architectural model of the institutions in which he had studied, including his Catholic elementary school and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.[10] According to the Whitney Museum of American Art, the work's selective inclusion of institutional locations and features responds to "the rising infatuation of the public with issues of repressed memory syndrome and child abuse... The implication is that anything that can't be remembered is somehow the result of trauma."[11] In 1999, he made a short video in which Superman recites selections from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.[12]

Kelley was in the band Poetics with fellow California Institute of the Arts students John Miller and Tony Oursler.[citation needed]. In 1997–98, Kelley and Oursler presented the Poetics Project at Documenta X, as well as at venues in Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo; through video projections, sound, and artworks, this installation re-created their experience at CalArts as members of a short-lived band.[13] Along with his collaborations with Shaw and Oursler, Kelley was also known for working with artist Paul McCarthy in the 1990s. They collaborated on a series of video projects, including a 1992 work based on Johanna Spyri's classic children's book, "Heidi".[6] A 1986 Massachusetts Institute of Technology presentation of Kelley's performance Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile (1985) included a live performance by Sonic Youth;[13] the band later featured his orange-knit creatures on the cover and booklet of their 1992 record Dirty.[14] In 2010, he combined with Artangel to realize his first work of public art in Detroit.[15]

In November 2005, Kelley staged Day is Done, filling Gagosian Gallery with funhouse-like multimedia installations,[16] including automated furniture, as well as films of dream-like ceremonies inspired by high school year book photos of pageants, sports matches and theater productions.[17] In December 2005, Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz described "Day is Done" as a pioneering example of "clusterfuck aesthetics," the tendency towards overloaded multimedia environments in contemporary art.[18] "Day is Done" was Kelley "Gesamtkunstwerk", this body of work was initiated with 'Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (Domestic Scene),[19] the work was produced by Emi Fontana and first exhibited in her gallery in Milano in 2000. In the same year Emi Fontana and Mike Kelley started a romantic relationship that lasted for seven years, and led to Fontana relocating to Los Angeles.

Begun in 1999,[20] the Kandor project deals with the town of Kandor, on the planet Krypton from which the child Kal-El escaped to Earth, where he became Superman.[21] Kandor's depiction in these narratives is inconsistent and fragmentary, prompting Kelley to create multiple versions of it, cast in colorful resins and illuminated like reliquaries.[20] Kandor 4 (2007) includes a giant bell jar and an air compressor pump.[22] The installation Kandor-Con 2000 was first presented in the millennium show at Kunstmuseum Bonn and later at the Technical University Berlin (2007), the Deichtorhallen/Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg (2007); ZKM, Karlsruhe (2008); the Shanghai Biennial (2008); and the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2010). Kandor-Con 2000 is conceived – and continued to develop – as a work in progress. Throughout the exhibitions, architecture students built cardboard models of Kandor inspired by the original comics. These models were sent to Pasadena, where Kelley made scaled down casts.[23] Kandor 10A (2010), a yellow city housed in a hand-blown, pink glass bottle, is a grouping of tall skyscrapers situated within a full-scale rock grotto. Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude) (2011) is a pile of dark boulders and slabs forming a cave with a quarry-like foyer made from faux black rock and built on a scale that invites the viewer into the forbidden fortress. Set within the cave's inner recesses is a glowing rose-colored city-in-a-bottle.[24][22] Kandor 12, constructed in off-white resin and evocative of a group of chess pawns, or minarets, is encased in a shadowy brown bottle, which sits on a platform resembling a Greek column positioned in front of a chest of drawers and an illuminated translucent green wall.[20]

In 2009 Kelley collaborated with longtime friend and fellow artist Michael Smith on "A Voyage of Growth and Discovery", a six-channel video and sculptural installation piece.[25] This piece was conceived in 2007 and curated by Emi Fontana, produced by Kelley himself and West of Rome Public Art.[26] The work was first installed at the Sculpture Center, New York in 2009, The Farley Building (former Kelley studio) for West of Rome in 2010,[27] and The BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art in 2011.

The artist's last performance video was Vice Anglais from 2011.[21]

Kelley's work was inspired by diverse sources such as philosophy, politics, history, underground music, decorative arts and working-class artistic expression. His art often examined class and gender issues as well as issues of normality, criminality and perversion.[citation needed]

Kelley lived and worked in various places in Los Angeles, among them the Farley Building in Eagle Rock.[25]


On January 31, 2012, Kelley was found dead from an apparent suicide at his home in South Pasadena, California.[28][29][30][22] There is some thought that he did so from depression.[31] A spontaneous memorial to Kelley was built in an abandoned carport near his studio in the Highland Park section of L.A. shortly after news of his death. Mourners were invited via an anonymous Facebook page to "help rebuild MORE LOVE HOURS THAN CAN EVER BE REPAID AND THE WAGES OF SIN (1987), by contributing stuffed fabric toys, afghans, dried corn, wax candles…building an altar of unabashed sentimentality." The memorial was active throughout February 2012 and was dismantled in early March 2012, with the contents given to the Mike Kelley Foundation.[32]


Kelley began having regular one-man exhibitions at Metro Pictures Gallery in Manhattan in 1982, and at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles the following year. He subsequently started to gain recognition outside Los Angeles in the mid-eighties with the sculptural objects and installations from the series Half-a-Man. In 2005, he had his first solo show at Gagosian Gallery in New York City, which was representing him at his death. A retrospective, "Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes," appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993 and traveled to Los Angeles and Munich; a second retrospective appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona in 1997; and a third was at the Tate Liverpool in 2004.[2] In 2006, his show "Profondeurs Vertes" was presented at the Musée du Louvre (2006). A major retrospective exhibition was held after the reopening of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2012,[33][34] and traveled to the MOCA, Los Angeles in 2014. The many group exhibitions he participated in include the Whitney Biennial (1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, 2002, and 2012), Venice Biennale (1988 and 1995), Carnegie International (1991), Documenta 9 and 10 (1992 and 1997), and SITE Santa Fe Biennial (2004).[13]

In 2012, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit received a grant to complete Kelley's unfinished project Mobile Homestead, a large-scale replica of the artist's home in suburban Detroit.[35] The detachable facade of the home, set on a street-legal trailer, is meant to travel from city to city hosting art, educational and social services initiatives. During its exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Mobile Homestead hosts a series of "public service activations," including a lunch-making workshop led by the Local United Network to Combat Hunger, a School on Wheels donation drive, an American Red Cross Blood Services event and an L.A. Human Right to Housing Project/Community Action Network-hosted Rent Control Tenant Meeting.[36]

The Watermill Center staged an award-winning exhibition of Kelley's video and sound installations, as well as works from the "Kandor" series in 2012. The Exhibition, "Mike Kelley: 1954-2012," was voted "Best show in a non-profit gallery or alternative space" in 2012 by the International Association of Art Critics.[37][38]

On October 13, 2013, the largest exhibition of Kelley's works opened in the MoMA PS1 in New York City.[39][40] The exhibition titled, "Mike Kelley" included over 200 of his pieces from the 1970s until his death in 2012. This was the biggest exhibition of any kind that MoMA had organized since 1976.

On December 14, 2015, a selection of Kelley's videos, from the sassy/melancholy Superman Recites Selections from 'The Bell Jar' and Other Works by Sylvia Plath (1999) to the threatening histrionics of Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (Domestic Scene) (2000), as well as collaborative pieces, such as his minimalist exploration of sado-masochistic relationships in 100 Reasons (1991) – among others will be screened at REDCAT in Los Angeles.[41]


During the artist's lifetime, German art-book publisher Benedikt Taschen and Los Angeles-based businessman Kourosh Larizadeh were the principal collectors who bought Kelley's work in depth.[42] In 2001, Kelley himself donated three works by fellow artists William Leavitt, Franz West and Jim Isermann to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.[43]


The Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts was established by the artist in 2008 prior to his death and seeks to further Kelley's philanthropic work through grants for innovative projects that reflect his multifaceted artistic practice. The Foundation also fosters the artist's legacy more broadly and advances the understanding of his life and creative achievements.

Art market[edit]

In 2007, Kelley's Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991) was auctioned at Phillips de Pury & Company for $2.7 million, a price record for the artist.[44] The artist's Memory Ware Flat #29 (2001) sold for $3.1 million at Sotheby's in 2015.[45]

A selection of representative works[edit]

  • "Mike Kelley at Skarstedt", 2010[46]
  • "Haim Steinbach on Mike Kelley" at Overduin and Kite, 2008[47]
  • "Mike Kelley's Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry", 1992, Public Art
  • "Heidi", 1992, Video (in collaboration with Paul McCarthy)
  • "Pay for Your Pleasure", 1988, Installation
  • "Half-a-Man", 1987–91, Series of objects, drawings and installations


  • 2008 Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International[48]


  • Mike Kelley. (1999). Essays by Isabelle Graw, John C. Welchman and Anthony Vidler. Phaidon Press. ISBN 9780714838342.
  • Heinz-Norbert Jocks. (2001). Dialoge: Kunst und Literatur: Mike Kelley im Gespräch. Cologne: DuMont. ISBN 3-7701-5096-1
  • Foul Perfection. (2003). Essays and criticism, edited by John C. Welchman. M.I.T. Press. ISBN 9780262611787.
  • Interviews, Conversations, and Chit-Chat (1986-2004). (2005). Interviews by Mike Kelley, edited by John C. Welchman. JRP Ringer. ISBN 9783905701005.
  • Daniel Sherer. (2008). "Heidi on the Loos. Ornament and Crime in Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy's Heidi." PIN-UP 3, 59–62. Reprinted in Y. Safran, ed. Adolf Loos Our Contemporary (New York: Columbia GSAPP, 2012).
  • Educational Complex Onwards 1995-2008. (2009). Edited by Mike Kelley and Anne Pontegnie. JRP Ringer. ISBN 978-3-905829-80-8.
  • Mike Kelley. (2013). Eva Meyer-Hermann, Ann Goldstein, Lisa Gabrielle Mark. Prestel. ISBN 978-3-7913-5241-1.


  1. ^ a b c mikekelley.com Archived May 16, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ a b c d Holland Cotter, "Mike Kelley, an Artist with Attitude, Dies at 57," The New York Times, Feb 1, 2012, accessed April 22, 2012.
  3. ^ a b Marter, Joan, ed. (2011). The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art. Vol. 1. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9780195335798.
  4. ^ "Mike Kelley". Retrieved August 6, 2022.
  5. ^ "??". The Wall Street Journal. (subscription required)
  6. ^ a b Jori Finkel (February 2, 2012), Mike Kelley dies at 57; L.A. contemporary artist Los Angeles Times.
  7. ^ "Mike Kelley, Three Projects: Half a Man, From My Institution to Yours, and Pay for Your Pleasure" Archived May 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Renaissance Society, May 1988.
  8. ^ Doug Harvey, "Don't Look Back: Mike Kelley's Proposal", LA Weekly, December 11, 2003.
  9. ^ Christopher Knight (November 8, 2012), Review: A Mike Kelley sculpture makes its West Coast debut Los Angeles Times.
  10. ^ Mike Kelley MoMA.
  11. ^ Miller, John (2015). Mike Kelley: Educational Complex. London: Afterall Books: One Work. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-84638-152-2.
  12. ^ Adrian Searle (September 7, 2011), Mike Kelley: It came from Planet Bunkum The Guardian.
  13. ^ a b c Mike Kelley Guggenheim Collection.
  14. ^ "DIRTY". Sonic Youth official website. Retrieved on January 23, 2010.
  15. ^ Michael McNay (February 2, 2012), Mike Kelley obituary The Guardian.
  16. ^ "Day Is Done: Part 1". Electronic Arts Intermix. Retrieved April 11, 2012.
  17. ^ Davis, Ben. "I Want My Mike Kelley". Artnet.com. Retrieved on January 23, 2010.
  18. ^ Saltz, Jerry. "CLUSTERFUCK ESTHETICS". Artnet.com. Retrieved on January 23, 2010.
  19. ^ Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (Domestic Scene)
  20. ^ a b c Mike Kelley: Kandor 10 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34Kandor 12 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #35, January 11 – February 17, 2011 Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles.
  21. ^ a b Carol Vogel (July 12, 2012), Watermill Center Plans Mike Kelley Show New York Times.
  22. ^ a b c "The dark side of Superman". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  23. ^ Mike Kelley: 1954 - 2012, A Tribute Exhibition Including Works from the Kandor Project, July 28 – September 16, 2012 Archived July 29, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Watermill Center, Water Mill, New York.
  24. ^ Mike Kelley: Exploded Fortress of Solitude, September 8 – October 22, 2011 Gagosian Gallery, London.
  25. ^ a b "A Voyage of Growth and Discovery", May 26, 2010 – August 26, 2010 West of Rome, Los Angeles. Curated by creative director Emi Fontana.
  26. ^ A Voyage of Growth and Discovery - Vdrome
  27. ^ Electronic Arts Intermix : A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, Mike ... www.eai.org/title.htm?id=15073
  28. ^ The New York Times
  29. ^ Finkel, Jori (February 2, 2012). "Mike Kelley dies at 57; L.A. contemporary artist". Los Angeles Times.
  30. ^ Wall Street Journal March 14, 2013
  31. ^ "John Waters Opens Up About the Death of Artist Mike Kelley (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. February 3, 2012. Retrieved August 4, 2020.
  32. ^ Krasinski, Jennifer. "At the End of Tipton Way: On the More Love Hours Memorial to Mike Kelley". East of Borneo. Retrieved May 23, 2012.
  33. ^ Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: Exhibition Mike Kelley Archived January 27, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ Video about the Mike Kelley retrospective at Stedelijk Archived June 18, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ David Ng (November 15, 2012), Detroit museum receives grant to complete Mike Kelley art project Los Angeles Times.
  36. ^ Deborah Vankin (May 30, 2014), Mike Kelley's 'Mobile Homestead' rolls into Los Angeles Los Angeles Times.
  37. ^ Vogel, Carol (July 12, 2012). "Watermill Center Plans Mike Kelley Show". The New York Times.
  38. ^ "AICA Announces Best Show Awards - News - Art in America". www.artinamericamagazine.com. March 20, 2013.
  39. ^ MoMA PS1 presents Mike Kelley - On view October 13, 2013 – February 2, 2014
  40. ^ The New York Times, Art & Design - This Show’s as Big as His Career, By Holland Cotter, October 17, 2013
  41. ^ "Mike Kelley Single Channel Videos". August 21, 2015.
  42. ^ Susan Freudenheim (January 27, 2002), Singular Commitment Los Angeles Times.
  43. ^ Diane Haithman (January 24, 2002), MOCA Lists 2001 Acquisitions Los Angeles Times.
  44. ^ Kelly Crow (February 1, 2012), L.A. Artist Transformed Everyday Craft Materials Into Art Wall Street Journal.
  45. ^ Dan Duray (November 12, 2015), Records for Cy Twombly and Mike Kelley at solid Sotheby’s sale Archived November 15, 2015, at the Wayback Machine The Art Newspaper.
  46. ^ "Mike Kelley at Skarstedt, 2010".
  47. ^ "Haim Steinbach on Mike Kelley, 2008".
  48. ^ "Mike Kelley - Signals". blog.cmoa.org. Archived from the original on April 29, 2008.

External links[edit]