View of “Mike Kelley,” 2012–13. Photo: Gert Jan Van Rooij.

View of “Mike Kelley,” 2012–13. Photo: Gert Jan Van Rooij.

Mike Kelley

View of “Mike Kelley,” 2012–13. Photo: Gert Jan Van Rooij.

THE ARTIST IS A FICTION, and Mike Kelley famously prioritized that fiction, allowing his production’s motifs to follow suit. For example, his early “birdhouses” (sculptures from his CalArts days, back in 1978 and 1979) “were made specifically to comment on my class status and on clichés of maleness,” he reflected in a 2011 interview published in the catalogue to his posthumous retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum. “Building a birdhouse would be a typical masculine pastime in the suburb in which I grew up.” Years later, by contrast, he played at making “feminine art,” famously exhibiting old, abject stuffed toys, the kind you’d find at a yard sale. In adopting ostensibly male or female techniques or forms, Kelley said, “the point was to reveal gender as a construct, not to reinforce traditional gender roles,” and to use these constructs as mechanisms of production.

But Kelley goes on to discuss how the audience misunderstood these stuffed-animal works, tending to interpret them as having to do with childhood sexual abuse—Kelley’s own, some assumed. Instead of contradicting this perception, he tried to assume the personality imagined by the audience. As he put it: “I realized that these fears were projected upon me, the artist. . . . I decided to capitalize on that notion—not so much of sexual abuse, but institutional abuse: suggesting that my art education itself had been a form of mental abuse.” He took a paradoxical pleasure in such misunderstandings, embracing them as further confirmation of the idea that the artist is a fiction, just as gender is. For him, this fiction was emancipatory. Many, conversely, persist in viewing “authentic” identity as the vehicle of art production, but Kelley saw that fiction could be art’s primary language. The artist-as-fiction begins automatically at the moment the artist becomes an artist, as when a young person turns to art to anger his or her father or another authority figure, putting into play the concept of productivity as a way to become what it is feared he or she will become.

Kelley and his idea of what it meant to be an artist met with enormous success. He gave the impression that he enjoyed years of relatively independent, self- determined, almost “uncorrupted” production. Perhaps this was the result of his affirmative transformation of the audience’s perceptions into his own fiction of self, while other cultural producers in a similar situation position themselves in an imaginary struggle with their fictional audience, defending the purity and integrity of their artist-selves.

Curator Ann Goldstein had to deal with works that evince Kelley’s intense fictional impulse; consequently, the Stedelijk show revealed the limits that the contemporary museum might face in such an endeavor. How adequate can a museum retrospective be in accounting for Kelley’s variety of artist-personae? The exhibition—the first monographic show in the expanded Stedelijk’s new galleries—impressed one with a certain roughness of presentation, as if its aim were to be pragmatic and to fill the space with as much work as possible. The rooms were overflowing. But to me, this was the only possible way to present this show—it seemed in keeping with the artist’s own pragmatic fictionalizing of himself in opposition to modernist formalism and ideological elegance. As Kelley stated in 2005, “Popular culture is really invisible. People are really oblivious to it. But that’s the culture I live in, and that’s the culture people speak. My interest in popular forms wasn’t to glorify them, because I really dislike popular culture in most cases. All you can do now, I think, is work with this dominant culture and flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure it.” Furthermore, he said, his work “is in a sense a kind of anthropological study of American folk culture. These kinds of activities [for example, the performative elements in projects like “Day Is Done,” 2005] aren’t normal everyday activities, and so they’re very ritualized activities and in that sense are a parallel to art production, ’cause I see art as being a kind of ritualized part of culture that stands outside of normative behaviors.”

Misunderstanding has long surrounded the works. Sometimes—in the worst-case scenario—viewers perceive only the formal or abstract qualities of Kelley’s production. Someone standing next to me in the galleries, looking at a drawing, claimed that Kelley was more welcome and at home in Europe, because “we” Europeans can understand his work better without getting caught up in the bothersome and often painful subtexts. A long corridor dedicated to the romantic criminality of art felt like one of Kelley’s gestures targeting such careless, abstract judgments by the new bourgeois, and in this case European, audience. Pay for Your Pleasure, 1988, is a series of oversize banners, each containing a portrait of and a quote from a canonical thinker, artist, or writer. Each quote affirms the amoral, outlaw nature of the creative act. Kelley specified that every time the work is exhibited, a local criminal’s art must be incorporated into the installation, so here there was an oil-on-paper painting by a violent offender from Amsterdam. The undergroundish, dark expression blowing through the corridor was not the effect of the inclusion of the art of the criminal in the museum, but more a cool pessimism toward the idea of a criminal’s art being interesting as art, or even being art. And yet this idea is just another easy assumption, coming from a similar ideological family as the one expressed by my fellow museumgoer.

In the early days of his work, with his camp-trash aesthetic and punk antics, Kelley became for so many of us the epitome of what an artist should be—we admired the fact that he was a refuser, that he claimed he did not want to become a successful professional, as well as his obvious ambivalence toward being an art producer. And the exhibition reilluminated all the pleasures to be had in viewing the freewheeling production of these decades. But Kelley’s later works continued to be as underground and subversive as everything else he produced, even though the dimensions and scale seemed to blast the foundations of our earlier admiration. And if it is possible for there to be such a thing as an underground artist at present, I would suggest that Kelley’s career offers multiple potential models for this role. An earlier model, for instance, could be the character he plays in Raymond Pettibon’s 1989 video Sir Drone. It remains a great performance of the artist-as-fiction and the artist as enactor of external expectation, obeying outside demands like a stupid fool, and it even implies the pleasures to be had from such obeisance. But there are later models, too. His more recent “Mega Multi Media” installations (“Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions,” 2000–12, and the “Kandors,” 1999–2012, for example) seemed to rip apart the pristine architecture of the new Stedelijk. These works challenged the observer to imagine their containment by some other architecture than that of the museum. They would fit into fantastic or awkward new city complexes, in any huge mall or office center or headquarters in a sci-fi urban landscape. But even more than exemplifying the art that would adorn the interior walls and spaces of such complexes, these installations are the dream of these sites, a product of their collective brain. Transferred to the actual museum site, this notion led to the question, How much can the museum bear of this contemporariness?

Kelley’s more recent works appear to be claiming the voice and the place of the future of art within an utterly reformed frame of the museum. And it was not their high-tech capabilities or their far-reaching sounds, but this claim on the future—less in the sense of ideology than in the sense of simply looking ahead—that made the neighboring rooms of the Stedelijk’s general contemporary art collection come across as so disturbingly silent, so self-contained in reluctant elegance, and so assiduously demure content-wise. Yet it is itself a sign that the museum took a risk, and succeeded, in letting Kelley’s work capitalize on the very discrepancy of an architecture attempting to contain work that would flay it from the inside. These “Mega Multi Media” works pose the question of the museum’s future and its possible dissolution, positing the transformation of this museum-structure into something else, though what that might be is not yet clear.

“Mike Kelley” is on view through Aug. 5 at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; travels to MoMA PS1, New York, Oct. 13, 2013–Feb. 2, 2014; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Mar. 9–June 30, 2014.

Josef Strau is an artist based in Berlin and New York.

Visit Artforum’s archive at for articles on Mike Kelley by Ann Goldstein, Michael Smith, Tony Oursler, Paul McCarthy, Jim Shaw, and Kim Gordon from the May 2012 issue.