PRINT May 2012

Ann Goldstein

Mike Kelley, Catholic Birdhouse (detail), 1978, two parts, house: painted wood, composite shingles, 22 x 18 1/2 x 18 1/2“; title drawing: ink on paper, 9 1/2 x 6”.


MY MEMORIES OF MIKE KELLEY go back to my early days as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 1986, I was given oversight of an unprecedented $250,000 purchase fund for emerging and underrepresented California artists, called the El Paso Natural Gas Company Fund for California Art—one of those dream assignments—and Mike was among the eight artists in my first round of selections. Art historian Howard Singerman, who was LA MOCA’s publications editor and very knowledgeable about Mike’s work, advised me on the acquisition. We knew we wanted a group of works from Monkey Island, 1982–83, his pivotal performance and installation of drawings, paintings, sculpture, and objects. The drawings had a strong foundation in language, combining image and text in the powerful black-and-white compositions that coherently structured seemingly improbable, associative connections and memories, including a childhood encounter with the sexuality of a monkey in heat. (I recall Mike telling me how he had been told that the monkey’s buttocks were red because it had hurt itself and its mother had painted them with Mercurochrome.)

When we met with Mike to choose the pieces for acquisition, I was drawn to language-based and figurative drawings such as Shock, 1982 (in which Mike actually used Mercurochrome as paint), The Bug Eye, 1982–83, and The Bells, 1982–83. We purchased all of these, among others (and I had the distinct privilege to install The Bells in my office on and off during my LA MOCA tenure). But in our discussion, Mike emphasized that it was important to him that the acquisition also include some of the diagrammatic works, such as Expansions and Infinite Multiplication, both 1982; it would not be correct to have just one aspect of Monkey Island represented. For him, any representation of this work in a museum collection had to tell the story correctly, indicating the symmetrical structure of multiplication, which was depicted in the diagrams. What I took away from that first meeting was not only a substantial selection of works (eight in all, most of them multipart), or even just an understanding of a specific project, but also a keen sense of Mike’s motivations as an artist and of his overriding desire to make choices that would get it right.

Mike used binary structures as a means to communicate as an artist, setting up correspondences between order and chaos, the analytic and the associative, the practical and the speculative, belief systems and propaganda, the everyday and the uncanny. He not only maintained a balance between these opposed yet codependent positions; he pitted them against each other to undermine their authority and certainty. In using them to structure his work, he also played with their polarity, accepting their contradictions and interchangeability. The goal was always the same, whether it was concerning the production and reception of his own work or the way in which he approached how the history of the work of others was written, including taking that history into his own hands as a writer and curator at times: He wanted to get it right and set the record straight, and his approach was always extremely thorough.

Mike assembled a collection of work by other artists, including his peers and also artists of older and younger generations who were important to him, among them Kenneth Anger, David Askevold, Öyvind Fahlström, Bob Flanagan, James Hayward, Martin Kippenberger, John McCracken, John Miller, Francis Picabia, Lari Pittman, and Cindy Sherman. Over the years, beginning in the early 1990s, he generously donated fifteen works from his collection to LA MOCA, starting with gifts of his own artwork and then adding key works by artists he strongly believed in: John Altoon, Ana Barrado, Cody Choi, Douglas Huebler, Jim Isermann, William Leavitt, T. Kelly Mason, Peter Saul, Marnie Weber, Johanna Went, and Franz West. Gifts from artists are always particularly special and meaningful, both for museums as recipients and for the artists whose works are donated. In many ways, Mike approached his gifts like our best curators and collectors, intending them to make a difference, to expand the collection in new directions or introduce an unexpected moment that punctuates and repositions what is already there. Every work that he gave meant something to him, but he didn’t give simply because he believed in the museum—for him, it was about the story he wanted LA MOCA to be able to tell with its collection. He wanted to ensure that LA MOCA, too, would get it right.

I was privileged to know Mike as a friend, and for years my husband and I, with a number of friends, gathered at his house for Thanksgiving. Staunchly traditional, Mike believed it wasn’t a real Thanksgiving meal unless it was homemade. He would personally oversee the preparation of the basic components of the meal, which I recall included two kinds of dressing (in the bird and out of the bird), two kinds of gravy (giblet and smooth), and two kinds of cranberry sauce (whole and jellied). Even Thanksgiving dinner had a binary structure, and it was important to be thorough.

About a year ago, I saw one of Mike’s early birdhouse sculptures, Catholic Birdhouse, 1978, in a private collection. The work, whose title alludes to the religion of his upbringing, is key to Mike’s oeuvre and is one of a grouping of similar sculptures he presented in his CalArts MFA exhibition, which played Minimalism against craft and portended themes he would revisit throughout his thirty-five-year career. A very large version of a traditional birdhouse with a peaked roof, it features two holes, one above the other: One, big and smooth-edged, is labeled with the handwritten statement THE EASY ROAD; the other, much smaller in diameter and splintered around the edge, is labeled THE HARD ROAD. Mike’s death brings me back to this work—rough/smooth, easy/hard, heaven/hell. These are the binary options offered in a religiously indoctrinated life. They represent impossible choices. Yet Mike’s resourcefulness led him to take those decisions into his own hands, dismantling their authority with his brilliance. Now, his life and oeuvre have suddenly concluded, and it is in the hands of others to make the decisions concerning his work, to do our best to get it right, to participate in the writing of history, and to set the record straight.

Ann Goldstein is director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.