This is an oral history pieced together from interviews with people who knew Mike Kelley personally and professionally. Details are subject to the imprecision of memory; interpretations are those of the writer, and are by no means definitive, or "Truth" with a capital "T," if there is such a thing.
"Home." A simple, innocuous word imbued with an almost ineffable concept – not the plaster-walled structure in which a family resides, but the very idea
of family itself, of safety and security in a place of absolute belonging. A sanctuary.
spent his whole professional career searching for his home. But his relationship with home was complicated, and his own internal conflict over the concept presents itself in his work – pieces that manage to be simultaneously subversive and sentimental.
The early years
Kelley grew up in Westland, a son of working class parents in the late 1950s/early 1960s – still the golden age of Detroit industry. There are no indications that his childhood was anything but an unremarkable one, suburban and banal. He grew up, graduated from the University of Michigan, then moved to Los Angeles where he attended the California Institute of the Arts and earned a Masters in Fine Art, becoming a millionaire artist of international acclaim. He never came home again, not for any significant length of time, and he died from carbon monoxide poisoning after dragging a gas barbecue grill into his bathroom in his home in an exclusive neighborhood of South Pasadena.
Having works sell for millions of dollars and displayed in the permanent collections of MOMA and the Guggenheim is a far cry from the Ann Arbor basements where Kelley's artistic career started with the performance noise-rock proto-punk experimental performance outfit Destroy All Monsters
Kelley met fellow artist Niagara
– who would also grow to international prominence for her paintings of fierce, empowered femme fatales – at orientation at the University of Michigan, something she laughs about now. "I can't believe I even went to something called that!" In her, Kelley identified a fellow outcast. "We kind of clicked how freaks do."
Niagara introduced Kelley to Cary Loren; Kelley brought Jim Shaw into the group. So it was that Destroy All Monsters was formed, inspired by punk and metal music, beat culture, and monster movies. "We didn't choose noise music; it chose us," Niagara says. "A day after our first practice we decided to have a band and play a show. There was this New Year's Eve party we wanted to play. We weren't asked
to play. We played 'Iron Man' until they asked us to stop!"
DAM performed together until they graduated and Kelley and Shaw moved to California. The group's actions were fastidiously documented by Loren (in photos and tape) and Niagara (in her diaries). DAM continued on in a new incarnation, but for Kelley those early years left an indelible impression. "Mike seemed a pretty cool character, very business-like," Niagara says. "But he was very emotional under the surface. He was very sentimental, which was adorable. He would go back to DAM because that formed so much of his identity, even though it only lasted a few years in the basement."
In 1994, he and Loren worked with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore to compile a three-CD boxed set of music, artwork, and notes from the few years the original lineup was together. In 2011, Kelley co-curated an exhibition at PRISM Gallery in Los Angeles called Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters 1973-1977
, showing work by all four original members. The show's opening was a grand reunion for them. Niagara brought her diaries along.
"My last memory of him was him laughing hysterically at the dinner table because of a memory from the diary (Niagara) brought with her," says local "visual anthropologist" (and former owner of CPOP Gallery) Rick Manore. "He was pantomiming doggy style (sex) on the dinner table in a fucking room full of movie stars in the Sunset Towers with the biggest art dealer in the world. Niagara always knew how to bring the best out of him and keep him light."
"We had lots of laughs," she says. "He had this loud laugh. He would laugh so hysterically for so long you'd get scared."
The DAM show ran Nov. 19, 2011 to Jan. 7, 2012. Kelley, the man who laughed the hardest, committed suicide on Jan. 31.
"I think he used up his body," Niagara says. "People say he could have cleaned up. I don't think that was possible. He just burned himself up." She likes to imagine that's he's simply on vacation; that, much like a child might do, he just ran away. "He was a multimillionaire. He needed rest. He went on vacation and just disappeared."
Portrait of the artist
Twenty- and thirty-somethings living in Detroit might not even know Mike Kelley's name
. If you're under 35 years old, Kelley left Detroit before you were born. A hugely influential artist of the past quarter century, Kelley's work is seen as a savage critique of American class and popular culture, but while his massive installations of dirty stuffed animals and crocheted blankets – "garbagey things," Niagara says with affection – won him critical acclaim, his esoteric work didn't have the mass-marketable appeal for the generations raised on pop art not as a statement but as an aesthetic.
Not that widespread popularity mattered. Kelley's pieces sold for millions of dollars. (His record was $2.7 million for his piece Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites
– in effect, a bunch of stuffed animals arranged by color and formed into large orbs that were suspended from the ceiling.) He never had to sell another piece for as long as he lived to still die a rich man.
In 2011, Kelley was represented by Larry Gagosian, the most powerful art dealer in the world. At the PRISM show, Kelley confided in Niagara that he hadn't sold a single piece at his last three shows. "The art bubble had burst," Manore says. "Mike started to fall through the cracks when the economy dried up. Avant garde
didn't sell anymore. All that money people spent on speculative art … they stopped speculating." Instead of spending $1 million on sock puppets and dirty stuffed animals, buyers fell back into their comfort zone – Warhol and the like. "He thought he had become irrelevant."
Three weeks before he died he told Niagara that if he had to make it in the art world today he couldn't do it, that he wasn't a good enough painter or sculptor to have success on those merits alone. "He was able to create a mythology," Manore says. "He was doing low brow for the high brow before the low brow had a name. He was the enfant terrible
. When the economy was robust, he gave the middle finger to everybody and they ate it up."
Just two months prior to his conversation with Niagara at PRISM, an art critic in London shredded his latest exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery
, a Superman
-themed show called Exploded Fortress of Solitude
, another low-meets-high exploration on the themes of home and childhood, this time adapting a storyline about the Man of Steel's home city on his home planet that was first introduced in Superman
comic books when Kelley was a child. In a review that read as a mockery of not just this particular show but of Kelley's entire oeuvre
, critic Adrian Searle concluded, "Kelley has been thinking about this stuff for more than 20 years. What does it all add up to? You almost expect to see a dead horse up there on the screen, getting a good flogging. Kelley overdoes it, time and again. Ah, you might say, but that's the point. It's what he does, to the sound of all that cinematic thrashing."
"Probably in the back of his mind he always thought, 'Eventually they're going to call my bluff,'" Manore says. "And they did."
A mixed media artist who incorporated painting, sculpture, drawings, found objects, writing, performance, video, collages, and assemblage in his works that forced people to take in the whole rather than the individual parts – a visual story-teller and myth-maker who used low-brow materials and imagery to subvert the intellectual elitism of the art world from within – Kelley rose to international fame. The harder he pushed, the more they loved him.
Critics have written volumes trying to analyze, deconstruct, and simply explain Kelley's work, but the most important point to make is this: he was fucking with you. "Mike made a career giving the art world, the curators, and the buyers the middle finger and making a living on it," says Manore.
As Warhol did before him, Kelley sought to expose the commercialization of art, ridiculing the absurd amounts of money collectors would spend on whatever they were told was good by making art that was ugly, profane, and equally absurd. "He said, 'Fuck you' and everyone said, 'Ohhhhh, that's great, yeah, fuck you,'" Manore says. "Mike pushed it as far as he could: 'How can I say "Fuck you" even more?' It's not about beauty or imagery; it's about intent, and the intent was that the art world thinks way too much of itself." An ideological contemporary of Marcel Duchamp, Kelley saw the only thing left to do was to take art to its logical and disgusting end. "Mike did that: 'Here you go, art world. Here's shit on a platter.'"
He first became famous for taking stuffed animals found at garage sales and arranging them on hand-crocheted blankets (a skill he learned from his mother), obvious plays on his recurring themes of home and childhood that were terribly suburban and banal. They would eventually sell to museums for millions. He used middle-class imagery to expose upper-class privilege and excess; inevitably, he became part of the very system he was railing against. It was all about the art of irony that in the end went too far.
A product of time and place, when the art world was already doing some serious navel-gazing over what should come next, Kelley was swallowed by the very culture he was trying to subvert. And, ultimately, he came to depend on it – a parasitic relationship he both thrived on and despised.
During the DAM days, he would tell Niagara and the others, "I hate these motherfuckers," talking about being bullied in school. "We were all freaks in different ways," Niagara says, but Kelley was desperate for acceptance. "That's the way he wanted to be accepted, through his artwork … I think it was funny that he got accepted by rich people, the 'popular' kids that never accepted him before. Those weren't the people he wanted to impress. He was always complaining about the museums, the rich people he had to hang out with. He didn't even like it. 'Yeah, but they love your stuff.' But on the other hand rich people just like what they're told to like. It was a weird cycle that might have got to him. He was so famous in the art world … from insulting the people that (were) supporting him."
"His continued attempts to reject the canon of art were accepted as part of the new canon of art," says Vince Carducci, Detroit art critic and publisher of the Motown Review of Art. "Even in his last interview he said if he were young he would never choose to be in the art world. You can see in this interview his disenchantment. His oppositional attitude was clear, but why be so oppositional when his pieces are selling for millions?"
But you could say opposition and conflict were the very things that defined Kelley as an artist. His work played on themes of class anxiety. Usually interpreted as commentary on the abject condition of the suburbs – that they're boring and miserable – there is also an unavoidable tinge of "methinks the artist doth protest too much." He left the suburbs at a time when working class families in Detroit were fleeing to them for the promises of a better life. He never looked back, but spent decades examining the same themes over and over again, selling those very pieces steeped in suburban iconography to international jet-setting millionaires who were certainly not the same people he grew up with in suburban Detroit. His last work, Mobile Homestead
(completed posthumously), is a full-scale replica of his own suburban home in Westland (he actually tried to purchase the house itself, but the home owner wouldn't sell). This was not a man who despised his suburban childhood. This was a man who was obsessed with it.
In October 2006, when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
(MOCAD) was about to open, Kelley told then-director Marsha Miro that he wanted to build a public sculpture that would be a recreation of his childhood home to be used as a community gallery permanently located on a grassy lot with a portion designed to be mobile in order to provide various sorts of public services. And he wanted it to be at MOCAD. The London-based arts organization Artangel, which specializes in site-specific works, partnered with MOCAD to make it a reality. "It is my wish that the community gallery will not simply be an outpost of MOCAD, but that it represent the cultural interests of the community that exists in proximity to it," Kelley wrote in 2011.
In the fall of 2010, MOCAD held a dedication for the mobile portion of the homestead. Kelley came. He wanted it to be like a country fair and collect money for a good cause. They worked with Gleaners Community Food Bank. There was food and music. Kelley broke a bottle of champagne over the house and they all waved good-bye to it as it drove down Woodward. After that Kelley approved all the drawings for the permanent home. "He couldn't handle things that weren't just right. He needed it to be perfect," Miro says. When he died in January 2012, "There was no question we should go forward with it."
Construction began last fall, and last Saturday Mobile Homestead
opened to the public that included wealthy art buyers, overdressed scenesters, grubby hipsters, fledgling artists, and legends of the Detroit art community like Niagara and Jerry Vile
The full work consists of the house itself, which will "function as a community gallery – in concert with various local community groups" (Kelley wrote), the removable mobile façade that will provide public services (including a book mobile, giving away the donated books currently found inside), the basement that mirrors the floor plan of Kelley's childhood home (the separate rooms will be for covert use "for private rites of an aesthetic nature," as intended by Kelley, and are not accessible to the public), and a series of videos produced by Kelley himself that pay homage to the history and the home lives of the working class people in the area, featuring interviews with workers, bar and shop owners, church officials, and residents. The videos open with the traditional gospel standard, "Going Home."
On the subject of home and childhood, Miro says, "(Kelley) opened this whole exploration of the personality of a person, in the sense of childhood as a subject, repressed memories as a subject, what kind of fantasies we have about a place when we look back and how that affects how we see the future." Kelley himself, who raged against repression in his art, wrote that sometimes "one has to hide one's true desires and beliefs behind a façade of socially acceptable lies."
is without a doubt Kelley's most unabashedly sentimental, sincere work – no more trickster installations; no more socially acceptable lies. It was truly his homecoming, the culmination of decades spent analyzing his own relationship to his sense of home under the pretext of class warfare. It is a celebration of suburbia in the center of the city. It's home is Detroit because it has to be, because Detroit is Kelley's home. Even though he lived thousands of miles away, he never really left. From DAM to Superman, his home life and childhood informed his art for the whole of his career. Mike Kelley spent his entire life searching for the home he left in Detroit. He never found it, but instead gave it to us.
With thanks to Niagara, Rick Manore, Marsha Miro, Vince Carducci, and Cary Loren for providing insight and context into the life and work of Mike Kelley
. Mobile Homestead is open to the public Thursday - Saturday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. For more info go here.