Thursday, February 2, 2012

More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid. - Ever.

Mike Kelley, Dearborn, October 27th, 1954 - South Pasadena, January 31st, 2012. Photo by Cameron Wittig / Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, via

Dear Mike,
They say you’re gone. It crushes me, but I have to accept it. I am shocked by the depth and extent of my grief. After all, we weren’t close.  I have been weeping ever since the news started to trickle through my phone yesterday morning. To tell you the truth, I was surprised my friends showed so much concern about my well-being, it’s not as if something has happened to me. And then I started crying my eyes out. Today I discovered one could cry in one’ sleep, and wake up crying. I know you’d be deeply embarrassed by so much sentimentality, and by such a public display of it.  If you were still here, you would make an incredibly funny, sick joke about it.  I’m sorry I’m being all so cheesy on you, but then, it is your own damn fault after all.  Not because of the way we left us, but because of all the works you made. Your work.
At first, I really hated it. It bothered me so very much, it was so grating, so annoying. 
At the very last minute at the Sorbonne, when I was all set to become yet another Duchampian scholar, I lied through my teeth to my supervisor, saying he had previously agreed I’d write my dissertation about your work, and would he please sign up my Mike Kelley  topic on the official form. You smiled when I told you that, the one and only time you looked genuinely flattered about something.
Not the story about my lie (I don’t think I ever told you), just that I had hated your work so much I had felt compelled to research it thoroughly, and devote several years to it, and by doing so, radically change the entire course of my life. You see, when I had first seen it in person (at the Jeu de Paume, in a group show), there was this stupid TV show in France endlessly making fun of our own white trash, our own primitive hillbillies, reinforcing the classist stereotypes my upper crust brethren in the French art world always insisted didn’t exist. So I misinterpreted your work as participating in the same working-class bashing. Please forgive me, as you know my English was particularly bad at the time, I had never set foot in the United States then, and literature about your work wasn’t yet as abundant as it has become in the latter years. In short, I knew jackshit about your work, and even less about you.
Of course the one thing I got correctly was that your work, after all, did deal with issues of class, and that is the reason why it was - and still is nowadays- so intensely subversive.  You didn’t articulate it as the crushing of the 99% majority by the 1% corporate minority, but you did point out the invisibility of vernacular culture, under the pervasive rampant consumerism operated by Late Capitalism. You wouldn’t have said it in such crude terms, because you were one of the subtlest minds I’ve ever met, and you hated art that spewed propaganda. As you said, propaganda is just that, and you didn’t see the point of preaching the choir. Unlike what your critics said, you were, for one,  never crude. Only a dim-witted New York art critic would think your work had anything to do with perversion, or that you would only be “a titan of the Los Angeles art world”. As if your influence hadn’t been felt so deeply nationally and abroad: you had a first-class international standing more than a decade before the United States woke up to your achievements (if one excepts the 3 or 4 successive Whitney Biennials you were in from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s). Right now, in Los Angeles and New York, you can be certain a few panicked curators and museum directors are frantically trying to devise plans to solicit donations of your work to complete their meager collections, because they thought they’d rather invest in New York artists first rather than properly represent the artistic production made here. From My Institutions To Yours, indeed.

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin, 1987. Stuffed fabric toys and afghans on canvas with dried corn; wax candles on wood and metal base, 90 × 119 1/4 × 5 in. (228.6 × 302.9 × 12.7 cm) overall plus candles and base. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee  89.13a-e, Photo courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

I’ve always been puzzled at all the epithets hurled at you by the provincial critics in New York, the kind who had never traveled the world, let alone crossed the Hudson river.  No wonder they ignored your international impact and influence. There were all kinds of controversies going on in the 1990s, of course, and you were often lumped together with wildly different artists, but all in all your work wasn’t “scatological”, as I’ve often read, nor “perverse”, though I’d agree it is transgressive - intellectually and formally. There might have been five or six works where shit was involved, figuratively, out of a production that at the time must have reached a few hundreds pieces, and the works where feces where depicted were the logical and conceptual conclusion of a larger ensemble. Well, like shit always is, right?
 “Master provocateur”, they say, and this I know you’d have enjoyed, but that wasn’t the aim, it was the result. Unlike younger artists today who thinks they have to be provocative at the expense of thinking out their work through and through, yours was designed to matter, intellectually and visually. You often introduced new shapes to do so, such as (in the early 1990s) the "blob", for lack of a better word, often made with chicken wire sprayed with rapid-setting compressed Styrofoam, and painted with slightly repulsive but widely available commercial colors, such as "puke pink", and a light brownish color you told me was called “fawn”, after which you joked you spray-painted Bambi colors. Rachel Harrison’s works own more than a passing resemblance to those sculptures you made referencing conspiracy theories alien abductions and fake repressed memory syndrome, a response to all the people who thought your work was about child abuse. Because your work was so complex and mixed so may different layers of meaning and references, people often clutched at straws trying to superficially grasp what is was “about”. From their own misconceptions, they leaped further and assumed you had yourself suffered an abusive childhood. You’ve denied it consistently, and because I knew you and I knew you never bullshitted anybody  -  it was a freaking waste of your time – I always believed you, besides, you would have never made work about it. But you ended up making fun of the rumors by making work about the “aesthetic abuse you had suffered in art school under formalist/modernist education”, which was totally hilarious of course, but also lead to such beautiful pieces as Educational Complex. 
As time went by, your work became increasingly beautiful, in a roundabout way, since you never addressed “beauty” as an intellectual pursuit of yours, rather, for a very long time, what you made amounted, at least in my mind, to the conscious construction of an idiosyncratic anti-aesthetic, build of the constant flotsam and jetlag of American vernacular and popular culture. All the while commenting on the visual codes of modern and contemporary, but by exploring oft-neglected elements. When Surrealism was decried in  1990s art historical and theoretical circles as a mannerist, retrograde movement whose only output of consequence was photography, you claimed Magritte and Dali –those sellouts! – as a major influence. You were enamored of Peter Saul several decades before he got ‘rediscovered’. You wrote about Paul Thek and Öyvind Fahlström when they were everything but fashionable, keeping their flame alive.  When you made the stuffed animal pieces, they were primarily floor pieces responding not so much to Minimalism – for which you always has utter contempt – but to the process art of Barry LeVa.  Who, at the time, was almost forgotten in many art circles. I never told you how hard it was to find documentation on LeVa in France in the 1990s.

 Mike Kelley, from the Kandors series, 2011 - photograph FBC!

 What was challenging for your audience was that you were interested, as you said, in things that were superficially invisible to the culture at large, yet operating within such deep sub-levels that they could operate seismic shifts –whether we’d like it or not.  In this respect, you brought up to the surface the weirdest shit ever, Mike Kelley, and to make it more palatable to us, you’d wrap it up in your incomparable wit and humor.  You didn’t dig up “stuffed animals”, you hunted and gathered hand-made used, smelly toys and then, yes, stuffed them right under our noses. The first time I saw Craft Morphology Flow Chart, it stank. It reeked of urine, stale sweat, dirty old socks and that acrid smell of incompletely dried woolen fabric. Mostly, as I recall, it smelled of fear. It was a morgue, this installation, after you had decided to kill off the decidedly non-cute stuffed animals that were threatening to become your visual trademark as an artist. You were too smart to let your work reach a point of formulaic non-return, and you didn’t like your audience to mistake your visual vocabulary for a golden goose, so you killed it, and by doing so you expanded your exploration into death.  As G.B. said yesterday, a lot of your work dealt with death, the death of a culture, the death of ideas. Objects were dead things to you, and that celebrated essay you wrote wasn’t titled “The Uncanny”, it was called Playing With Dead Things.
You played. You mocked your own work. I mentioned the smell; you were so well aware of it you made another piece where clusters of hanged stuffed animals were displayed next to giant deodorizers, periodically releasing industrial-strength artificial scents. That stank worse than death, and you knew it.

Mike Kelley,  Sigmund Freud figurine gifted by yours truly, photography FBC!, 2011.

Yesterday, when everybody was wondering and lamenting why, oh why, Mike, I saw people saying: “but he had so much fame and success”. If they had known you, they’d be aware you never cared for these whatsoever, that you were weary of fame and success,  that it didn’t befit you ti be a "top artist". Success only mattered to you as a mean and vehicle to make more work. One sold-out show was money reinvested in making more work, in exploring more subjects, in collecting more junk to research not so much the dark recesses of America’s collective unconscious, but the mechanisms of it.  The way the collective unconscious and its refuse worked. Money served to invest in a bigger studio, in storage space, in more materials, in hiring staff.  A more boring lifestyle as yours there has never been, and anybody looking for scandal in your private life would be better off looking at your run-of-the-mill US politician. You worked, worked and worked, and when you had to collaborate with institutions for retrospectives you complained it wasted too much time you’d rather had used to make more work. You didn’t like things to be easy, and when you suspected your work had reached a point where it could become stale, you’d shift and research various projects to push it further afield, in a different direction. Some time there was collateral damage with dead ends and loose threads, but that was the necessary by-product of constantly experimenting. Whether those shifts might have cost you a following, you didn’t give a shit about it.
As a matter of fact, you’ve always been uneasy and slightly bemused by your own success. As you stated many times, when you decided to become an artist in late adolescence, it was all but an invisible profession, the chances of success were equal to zero. Not only that, but coming from a working-class background, when nobody in your family had ever gone to college, when you had no money in the world to yourself, choosing to be an artist as your profession was the most romantic, and you would say political decision as far as having a “career” was concerned. It was political for you, because it was useless to society, it didn’t exist in the media, it was invisible to all but a small fringe of like-minded people.  Until recently you taught at Art Center, because, as you often told me, an artist “ought to have a day job”. You never mistook the job of being an artist with the desire for self-promotion usually disguised under the slogan “art can change the world”. Because you knew it didn’t, and it wasn’t going to do it anytime soon, and only idiots would use that slogan to try and justify their own half-baked output.
It wasn’t really important for you to be a top artist, a powerful one, a revered one, or even a well-loved one, all you were concerned about was to make art that mattered. Art that moved people, even if it rubbed them the wrong way. Especially if it rubbed them the wrong way!  As long as it was meaningful to you, then eventually it would become meaningful to others, eve if they misunderstood it along the way. It was the price to pay after it was unleashed in the wide world, even if the misunderstandings sometimes infuriated you.
 Often you told me of your contempt for younger artists trying to find success by all means, however despicable these might be, at the detriment of making art that mattered, that made sense. I think what you meant is that artists, as such, if they have a responsibility, is to go and try not to be subservient to the system, however difficult it might be. I sometimes misunderstood your opinions about it, thinking they were indicative of your deep-seated insecurities, thinking maybe you were afraid of new artists coming up on the scene. It always pained me to see how insecure you were, because you were so incredibly smart and bright, and deep. You pushed every single project as far as you could, intellectually, and the vastness of your general  knowledge was mind-blowing. I would have tons of other things to say about your work, as indeed I have already devoted years of my life to it. God knows I must have bored quite a lot of students with marathon lectures about it.  Like you, I never truly believed art could change the world, but I knew it could change the life of people, since yours changed mine so radically. I moved halfway across the globe to talk to you and study your work, in a city where I didn’t know anybody, in a country I had no interest in, in a language I didn’t master. I’ve met countless people who moved to Los Angeles to become your students at Art Center and whose life was changed by you and your teaching. Today we’re all missing you and wishing you’d stay with us.

I am very thankful for the way your work made me rethink all my formal training, all the seemingly immovable landmarks of art history I had been made to think were the shit, how it made me have a hard look at aesthetics, and maybe made me much more demanding of what artists should do. I’m heartbroken you decided to leave us, and I’m sad I never really got to tell you how much your work mattered, like very few other artists’ work do. I think what you’ve done is of the magnitude of what Duchamp accomplished, and as such isn’t properly understood yet – certainly not by me.  I had told you a few times of the joy I had when I was translating some of your writings, how blown-away I had been when seeing the Uncanny show, and many other things. But when I spotted you across the courtyard at the Welcome Inn on Sunday, I didn’t run to say hi to you, and this forever I will regret. I was talking with L & T then, saying how you always complained I was never calling and getting together with you, and that since being hit in car accidents my pathological fear of driving was getting in the way of socializing with you. Yesterday morning when I woke up and went to meet P.S for lunch –whose work you always told me you loved, “because I’ve never seen anything that looked like it”, I thought I should give you a call to see if you’d like to go to the flea market one of these days.  I didn’t know that you had already gone.

No doubt more and more tributes are going to pour in the next few days. No doubt some greedy merchants and collectors are already aligning their assets to see what profit they can make out of your passing. I should say your death. You’ve always been super straightforward, and you weren’t big on euphemisms, you would scold me to use one. "Be direct!".  I’m not going to comment more about your work, but just reminisce and throw pell-mell some favorite memories of you. I miss you already, you reluctant genius, you.

Your piercing, unsettling, very deep blue eyes, so dark blue they often came out as black in photographs. How you hated having your picture taken – I am glad, in passing, that picked that really beautiful photograph of you I have reposted above. How you could sing really well, in a deep, crooning voice.  How you were almost as short as me, and how we could compete about who had the smallest hands (me). Your very nasal voice, and how, when I first came here, you were always concerned I wouldn’t be able to understand your Michigan accent, even though you always articulated so well that for the longest time, you were the only person I could have a conversation with! That maniacal laughter of yours, that sounded a bit like a hyena, and how it lasted such a long time.  Itw as a legendary laughter, for sure. How you could always be so self-deprecating and make the sickest, funniest joke. One of my favorite moment with you was before a show you had in Paris, and we were talking about music, and somehow I said something like “Mike, I always thought [as a kid] you wanted to be a rock star”, without missing a beat you were all like “oh no, I always wanted to be a porn star”, and I said “come on Mike, it’s not too late”, and then you went “Ooohhhh  you have no idea, I could only have been a fluffer!”, and we laughed and laughed and laughed. How many straight men would have been able to say that joke? Only you.
Things we disagreed about: The Doors, Philip K. Dick, Edgar Allan Poe (you liked, I didn’t). Things we both liked: buying junk at flea markets, music – you knew obscure stuff from all over the world. We went to look for some Oum Kalthoum CDs for you in Paris, and you told me how much you loved drone music. I remember also on that same trip you picked up a Johnny Depp badge and a PSG football club scarf, because you found both to be super cheesy, but that you actually confused  Johnny Depp with Leonardo diCaprio. Your green jacket, that I dubbed the “leprechaun green jacket”, as I often thought you were a mischievous leprechaun sent in this world to wreak havoc on us. No one but you could get away with wearing that particular shade of green. You were proudly Irish, the way Irish-Americans are, though I don’t know whether you actually ever set foot in Ireland, and you always bought little Irish trinkets, and being you of course you had to make fun of that particular subculture, to the point you made a few artworks and installations connected with shamrocks and Guinness. 
How you could have enough distance about your own work that you knew when some of it was crap, the inevitable consequence of experimenting all the time in the studio. You called me one day to enlist my help to have one of my colleagues remove a piece from a show because you would have been so embarrassed if it had been chosen to represent your work. We both agreed you were really not a good draughtsman, as you often said, “I was trained as a painter”, and what a great sense of color you had and how you were always super embarrassed when people paid you compliments. How you were hiding in the offices at Gagosian during your own openings by fear of the crowds and the general circus, and only came out at Day Is Done because your brother was there. I had given you a Sigmund Freud figurine on that evening, because your birthday was near, and I was thrilled to see you had reused it last year for your Colonel Saunders piece. You bought me lunch in Paris at the Café Beaubourg once, and were concerned I might not have had such a good time because I had only drunk water. You joked I was a cheap date, I failed to point out to you that in Paris, Perrier was more expensive than wine.
 How solicitous you were when we were running into each other on the days when I had migraines. How you, in fact, good lapsed Catholic boy, very rarely cursed.

We’d rummage through slide documentations of old works, particularly the ones you had made in Australia, and you would tell me they didn’t exist anymore, and that if you had the time and opportunity, how you would like to remake them. You made me aware of cultural differences in a way nothing else could have, and you were always correcting whatever misconceptions I (and everybody else) could have about your work. No, you didn’t know about Marcel Mauss until after you had made the pieces about gift-giving, rather, you had been influenced by Mary Douglas, whom you had been made aware of by Dana Duff.  When I had said I thought the YBAs couldn’t have been made possible without you (and by this, I meant “being accepted as valid”), you correctly pointed out they were already making work at the same time, if not slightly earlier, as you. You told me a lot about the Los Angeles art community and history that was here when you came West, that unlike everybody’s misconception, Cal Arts wasn’t the only game in town. You were so curious, open and alert.  You were always so supportive, agreeing to be a reference for job searches for almost anybody who asked, writing support letters for grant applications, artist visa applications and other situations where it was critical you’d be here for your friends and your former students.
You gave us all so much, while probably not being aware of it. I am so sorry you decided to quit, because more than ever, your voice is being needed. I cannot blame you if you decided you couldn’t participate in the system anymore, but I am going to miss you a lot, and I am going to remain indebted to you for the rest of my life. More Love Hours Than Can Ever Been Repaid. Ever.


dduff said...

Thanks much, Noellie. This meant a lot to read right now.

April Durham said...

Noellie, this is beautiful. I appreciate how you open your heart and mind here. Take good care. April