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Mike Kelley (artist)

Mike Kelley
Born October 27, 1954[1]
Wayne, Michigan, U.S.[2]
Died c. January 31, 2012(2012-01-31) (aged 57)
South Pasadena, California, U.S.
Alma mater University of Michigan
Known for sculpture, installation, performance
Awards Wolfgang Hahn Prize[3]
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship[3]
The California Institute of the Arts Distinguished Alumnus Award[3]

Michael "Mike" Kelley (October 27, 1954 in Wayne, Michigan  – c. January 31, 2012 in South Pasadena) 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 and education 1
  • Work 2
  • Death 3
  • Exhibitions 4
  • Collections 5
  • Legacy 6
  • Art market 7
  • A selection of representative works 8
  • Contributions 9
  • Publications 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Early life and education

Kelley was born in Wayne, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, to a working class Roman Catholic family in October 1954. 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 city'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. 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.


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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6][7]

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.[8]

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.[9] In 1999, he made a short video in which Superman recites selections from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.[10]

Kelley was in the band Poetics with fellow California Institute of the Arts students John Miller and Tony Oursler.. 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.[11] 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".[5] 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;[11] the band later featured his orange-knit creatures on the cover and booklet of their 1992 record Dirty.[12] In 2010, he combined with Artangel to realize his first work of public art in Detroit.[13]

In November 2005, Kelley staged Day is Done, filling Gagosian Gallery with funhouse-like multimedia installations,[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] "Day is Done" was Kelley 'Gesamtkunstwerk", this body of work was initiated with 'Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (Domestic Scene),[17] 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 relation that lasted for seven years and made Fontana relocating in Los Angeles.

Begun in 1999,[18] the Kandor project (2007) deals with the town of Kandor, on the planet Krypton from which the child Kal-El escaped to Earth, where he became Superman.[19] 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.[18] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[18]

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.[22] This piece was conceived in 2007 and curated by Emi Fontana, produced by Kelley himself and West of Rome Public Art.[23] 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,[24] and The BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art in 2011.

The artist's last performance video was Vice Anglais from 2011.[19]

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.

Kelley lived and worked in various places in Los Angeles, among them the Farley Building in Eagle Rock.[22]


In 2012, Kelley was found dead of an apparent suicide in South Pasadena, the cause of death being carbon-monoxide poisoning.[25][26][27] 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.[28]


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 planned after the reopening of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2012,[29][30] and will travel 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).[11]

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.[31] 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.[32]

On October 13, 2013, the largest exhibition of Kelley’s works opened in the MoMA PS1 in New York City.[33][34] 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.


Kelley's works are included in major public and private collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Broad Collection and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Tate Gallery in London, the Falckenberg Collection in Hamburg; and the Museum Brandhorst, Munich. 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.[35] 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.[36]


The Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts was established by the artist in 2008 prior to his death. It will continue to make grants to institutions in line with Kelley's wishes and established practice. Friend and active supporters of Kelley, former MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel and art historian John C. Welchman serve as co-directors of the foundation.

Art market

Kelley was represented by Metro Pictures Gallery, New York, from the early 1980s until 2005. Patrick Painter Inc. in Santa Monica was Kelley's primary representative on the West Coast.[35] Galleria Emi Fontana represented him in Italy until 2009. From 2005 to 2008 he was represented by the Gagosian Gallery. In 2015, Hauser & Wirth became the worldwide representative of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, in charge of exhibitions, publications and sales of Kelley’s work.[37]

In 2007, the artist's Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991) was auctioned at Phillips de Pury & Company for $2.7 million, a price record for the artist.[38] Kelley was represented by Gallery Emi Fontana, Milan, from 2000 to 2009 when the gallery closed its doors. Fontana continued to work with the artist on public art projects in Los Angeles through West of Rome.

A selection of representative works

  • "Mike Kelley at Skarstedt", 2010[39]
  • "Haim Steinbach on Mike Kelley" at Overduin and Kite, 2008[40]
  • "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[41]


  • Foul Perfection. (2003). Essays and criticism, edited by John C. Welchman. M.I.T. Press. ISBN 9780262611787.
  • Mike Kelley. (1999). Essays by Isabelle Graw, John C. Welchman and Anthony Vidler. Phaidon Press. ISBN 9780714838342.
  • Interviews, Conversations, and Chit-Chat (1986-2004). (2005). Interviews by Mike Kelley, edited by John C. Welchman. JRP Ringer. ISBN 9783905701005.
  • Educational Complex Onwards 1995-2008. (2009). Edited by Mike Kelley and Anne Pontegnie. JRP Ringer. ISBN 978-3-905829-80-8.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d Holland Cotter, "Mike Kelley, an Artist with Attitude, Dies at 57," The New York Times, 1 Feb 2012, accessed 22 April 2012.
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^ The Wall Street Journal 
  5. ^ a b Jori Finkel (2 February 2012), Mike Kelley dies at 57; L.A. contemporary artist Los Angeles Times.
  6. ^ "Mike Kelley, Three Projects: Half a Man, From My Institution to Yours, and Pay for Your Pleasure", Renaissance Society, May 1988.
  7. ^ Doug Harvey, "Don't Look Back: Mike Kelley's Proposal", LA Weekly, 11 December 2003.
  8. ^ Christopher Knight (8 November 2012), Review: A Mike Kelley sculpture makes its West Coast debut Los Angeles Times.
  9. ^ Mike Kelley MoMA.
  10. ^ Adrian Searle (7 September 2011), Mike Kelley: It came from Planet Bunkum The Guardian.
  11. ^ a b c Mike Kelley Guggenheim Collection.
  12. ^ "DIRTY". Sonic Youth official website. Retrieved on 23 January 2010.
  13. ^ Michael McNay (2 February 2012), Mike Kelley obituary The Guardian.
  14. ^ "Day Is Done: Part 1".  
  15. ^ Davis, Ben. "I Want My Mike Kelley". Retrieved on 23 January 2010.
  16. ^ Saltz, Jerry. "CLUSTERFUCK ESTHETICS". Retrieved on 23 January 2010.
  17. ^ Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (Domestic Scene)
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ a b Carol Vogel (12 July 2012), Watermill Center Plans Mike Kelley Show New York Times.
  20. ^ Mike Kelley: 1954 - 2012, A Tribute Exhibition Including Works from the Kandor Project, July 28 - September 16, 2012 Watermill Center, Water Mill, New York.
  21. ^ Mike Kelley: Exploded Fortress of Solitude, September 8 - October 22, 2011 Gagosian Gallery, London.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ A Voyage of Growth and Discovery - Vdrome
  24. ^ Electronic Arts Intermix : A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, Mike ...
  25. ^ The New York Times
  26. ^ Finkel, Jori (2 February 2012). "Mike Kelley dies at 57; L.A. contemporary artist".  
  27. ^ Wall Street Journal March 14, 2013
  28. ^ Krasinski, Jennifer. "At the End of Tipton Way: On the More Love Hours Memorial to Mike Kelley". East of Borneo. Retrieved 2012-05-23. 
  29. ^ Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: Exhibition Mike Kelley
  30. ^ Video about the Mike Kelley retrospective at Stedelijk
  31. ^ David Ng (15 November 2012), Detroit museum receives grant to complete Mike Kelley art project Los Angeles Times.
  32. ^ Deborah Vankin (May 30, 2014), Mike Kelley's 'Mobile Homestead' rolls into Los Angeles Los Angeles Times.
  33. ^ MoMA PS1 presents Mike Kelley - On view October 13, 2013–February 2, 2014
  34. ^ The New York Times, Art & Design - This Show’s as Big as His Career, By Holland Cotter, October 17, 2013
  35. ^ a b Susan Freudenheim (27 January 2002), Singular Commitment Los Angeles Times.
  36. ^ Diane Haithman (24 January 2002), MOCA Lists 2001 Acquisitions Los Angeles Times.
  37. ^ Randy Kennedy (January 29, 2015), New Gallery For Kelley New York Times.
  38. ^ Kelly Crow (1 February 2012), L.A. Artist Transformed Everyday Craft Materials Into Art Wall Street Journal.
  39. ^ "Mike Kelley at Skarstedt, 2010". 
  40. ^ "Haim Steinbach on Mike Kelley, 2008". 
  41. ^ [1]

External links

  • Official site
  • "105 Minutes with Mike" 2004 Video Interview by Gerry Fialka and Eli Elliott.
  • Biography, interviews, essays, artwork images and video clips from PBS series Art:21 -- Art in the Twenty-First Century - Season 1 (2001).
  • Mike Kelley at Gagosian Gallery
  • "Tomorrow Never Comes" Steven Stern on Kelley, Frieze, March, 2006
  • Daniel Sherer, “Heidi on the Loos. Ornament and Crime in Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s Heidi.” PIN-UP 3 (2008), 59–62.
  • Mike Kelley is a member of Project X Foundation for Art and Criticism, publisher of X-TRA
  • "I Want My Mike Kelley" by Ben Davis, Artnet Magazine
  • "Clusterfuck Aesthetics" by Jerry Saltz, Artnet Magazine
  • Mike Kelley and the Conceptual Vernacular
  • Exhibitions and works at Jablonka Galerie
  • Exhihibition and work at Perry Rubenstein Gallery
  • Kelly Crow (14 March 2013), The Escape Artist Wall Street Journal
  • Mike Kelley at Kadist Art Foundation
  • Mike Kelley Kapsul Image Collection
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