Published  30/10/2013

The Mike Kelley Retrospective

The Mike Kelley Retrospective

The Museum of Modern Art, PS1, Long Island City, New York
13 October 2013 – 2 February 2014


Mike Kelley’s retrospective at PS1 is not for the fainthearted. Nor is it for the lighthearted, for those who expect art to be fun. Kelley’s art is there to challenge, provoke and complicate our view of the world in which we live and the things we make.

The entire PS1 museum complex dedicated to the artist’s life-long career does the job, bringing together more than 200 of his works, made during his 35-year-long creative path. Coming in the wake of his tragic death, it is the first posthumous survey of his work and the Museum of Modern Art’s unprecedented decision to devote the complex to one artist pays tribute to Kelley’s legacy and testifies to the recognition of his stature in American art.

The exhibition is organised by a consortium of museums and curators, including Ann Goldstein, director of the Stedelijk Museum, Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, and The Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 Curator Peter Eleey, in cooperation with the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. A comprehensive catalogue accompanies the exhibition, illustrating the majority of Kelley’s works and featuring informative essays by John C Welchman, Branden W Joseph and George Baker.

Kelley’s art is multifaceted and multilayered, incorporating performances, music, video, installation, sculpture, works on paper, and combinations thereof. As far as his subject is concerned, he never stays on the surface, but investigates the abject, the suppressed, the unconscious, the dark side of the human psyche. Because of its explicit psychological foundation, this art is still elusive in terms of the preference for a media, approach, or style. Like the Dada and Surrealist artists whom Kelley claimed as his predecessors, he subverts conventions, defies expectations, and breaks the rules of aesthetics. Even the beginnings of his artistic practice are difficult to determine because they bifurcate into his experiments with music and his formal training as a visual artist.

While an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the early- to mid-1970s, Kelley cofounded a proto-punk band, Destroy All Monsters. In its orientation toward noise-making, provocation and the allegorical protest against the commercialisation and demise of classic jazz and rock music, the band members identified themselves with the provocative, mocking, parodic aesthetics of camp. They went on stage expecting to be thrown off immediately. When Kelley attended graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts at Valencia, he intended to study with a pioneer of electronic music, Morton Subotnick, but he was not allowed to because of his lack of formal musical training.1 Instead, he studied visual art with such people as John Baldessari and Michael Asher, making sculptures and installations with which he was not entirely satisfied. Quite logically then, Kelley’s interest in sound, rock music, subversive anti-aesthetic and multimedia art-making led him to performance, which launched his career as an artist.

His performances, generated for a decade beginning in 1976, were carefully structured critiques of idealised modernist conventions regarding performativity in general and the space in which it takes place in particular. They explored interaction between people, objects, writing and vocalisation. Eventually, they metamorphosed back into installations, complete with sophisticated video productions, drawings, paintings, schematic constructions and other props that would comprise a contextual environment for experiencing and making sense of this material.

Kelley’s performances were never things-in-themselves intended to be restaged in their original condition, but rather they were contextual events, complex investigations of specific issues that he thought to be relevant to the state of the American mass culture at that time. The installations derived from them are notoriously complex and multilayered. As Kelley said: “I have always appreciated complexity in artworks; the fact that works are high-minded or silly is less important than their complexity. That’s the true content of the work – its structure.” And, as an important addendum to this declaration: “You’re never going to see my shows again as they originally were. Viewers of a survey exhibition have to realise that they are only seeing a kind of series of fragments of a whole.”2

The artist’s retrospective at PS1 should be viewed with this avowal in mind. The exhibition’s curators have done an extraordinary job of piecing together disparate parts of Kelley’s oeuvre into a comprehensive overview. Because of the non-linear nature of his art, the exhibition is organised conceptually, rather than chronologically, following the major projects and thematic concerns that occupied the artist throughout his career. The retrospective opens with the feature-length film Day Is Done: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #2-32, shown in a tent in the museum’s courtyard.

Having been conceived as part of a monumental project consisting of 365 sections continuously shown in a 24-hour event, the film features only a small portion of the project: a series of videotaped performances based on photographs of extracurricular activities found and restaged by the artist. Because Kelley worked cyclically, elaborating on the ideas staged in a project over and over again, we find portions of this same project on the second floor, where we see videos that were not included in the film, but rather made part of an installation, which itself functions as a stage for display of strange, aberrant, paranormal manifestations of the seemingly innocuous ways of mass culture.

Each of the three floors of the museum is compartmentalised in such a way that a large project that may span several years occupies a suite of adjacent rooms, forming a coherent unit of an exhibition space. For example, on the first floor, Kelley’s multiple sculptures of Superman’s “lost homeland” Kandor, which function as a collective symbol of “the utopian city of the future that never came to be” are grouped together in a comprehensive installation, which also includes videos and sculptural objects that can be related to the idea of a lost utopia. On the second floor, the installation of the aforementioned Day Is Done in one wing of the building is counterbalanced by Educational Complex, from which it sprang thematically, in the opposing wing. On the third floor, the artist’s remarkable birdhouses and performance props, made when he was a student at the California Institute of the Arts, are coupled with his 2006 installation Rose Hobart II. It is difficult not to notice that the shape of Rose Hobart II – a large, black, megaphone-shaped structure into which we are invited to crawl in order to view through a peephole a shower scene from a sex comedy, Porky’s – mimics that of Perspectaphone, an early performance object, which Kelley used to collide the notions of the mechanical amplification of sound and the manipulation of vision through perspective.

Curatorial competence does not remove all the obstacles in understanding Kelley’s complicated work, but it opens up a way of approaching it that makes sense given the depth of pain, desperation, and commitment that went into its creation.


1. Interview with Eva Meyer-Hermann. Mike Kelley, exhibition catalogue, edited by Eva Meyer-Hermann and Lisa Gabrielle Mark (Munich: Prestel, 2013),page 372.

2. Ibid, page 376.

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