Mike Kelley Dies at 57: Blake Gopnik on the Los Angeles Artist’s Gift

The hugely influential L.A. artist is dead of an apparent suicide at 57. Friends and fellow artists tell Blake Gopnik how Kelley erased the boundaries between high art and pop culture—and of his growing isolation.

02.02.12 3:58 AM ET

Vintage monkey dolls made from socks, presented as museum-worthy art; a skillful painting of a dissected frog with a woman’s vagina for entrails; little scenes from Superman’s home planet, cast in colored crystal; videos of a grown man playing a baby in diapers, shot at Burning Man—just a small sampling from the range of works produced by Mike Kelley, the hugely influential artist who was found dead on Tuesday in his bathtub, at home in a suburb of Los Angeles. He was 57, and signs point to suicide. “Mike was a vortex of the art world here—a force whose influence is immeasurable around the globe. It is a profound loss, but he has left a legacy that will never fade. We are all so sad,” Annie Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum at UCLA, said through a spokesman the day after Kelley’s death.

“I always said he was a genius,” said Tony Oursler, a fellow artist and longtime friend. “He was a polymath: he studied literature and wrote as well as any critic, and his art was the best … It’s rare you see a person who used all those parts of his brain.” Oursler said the death took him by surprise. “He had a dark side to his personality—but lots of artists have a dark side ... He was an incredibly joyous guy, and he loved to have a good time.”

But other friends say that Kelley had been up front with them about his depression, and that they had started to worry. He developed a fear of driving and, living a half hour north of Los Angeles, had started to grow isolated. “I once tried to trade him a car for an art piece,” said Patrick Painter, a Los Angeles dealer. “But he had no interest in that.” The artist John Miller, a grad-school buddy of Kelley’s, explained that his friend made others do the driving for him, and that may have strained Kelley’s relationship with his latest long-term girlfriend. They broke up last fall, and Kelley is survived only by his older brother, George, and several nieces and nephews.

Over the last decade, Kelley had achieved tremendous success. He was represented by the powerful Gagosian Gallery, and some works sold at auction for more than $1 million. But that led to as much pressure as pleasure. “Sometimes he would feel like, ‘Yeah, I’m No. 1,’” Painter remembered. “At other times he would feel very depressed. He had a tough demeanor, but he was way more sensitive than people thought.” Miller said Kelley’s art stopped functioning as the “safety valve” it had once been. “I think as he kept raising the bar, his stress level increased, and it lost that sense of escape he had before,” he said. “Mike wasn’t always comfortable with the kind of acclaim he received. Ironically, he enjoyed being the misunderstood underdog rather than being the celebrity he eventually became.”

Kelley grew up in a modest suburb of Detroit, was an undergraduate in art at the University of Michigan and then got a master’s degree in fine art from the California Institute of the Arts. Cal Arts, as the school is always known, was famous at the time for the conceptual work of influential teachers such as Douglas Huebler and John Baldessari, and Baldessari remembered the young Kelley as “fueled” by a rejection of that cerebral tradition. He pointed to Kelley’s skills as an out-there performer: “He would give these monologue rants that were better than a Baptist minister.”

Miller said he remembers traveling to Long Beach with Kelley and Oursler to put on a performance, only to learn they had the date wrong. “Mike set up and did the performance just for the three of us,” Miller said. “He always performed in some respect.”

From early on, Kelley was almost as keen on music as on art—one of his teachers at Cal Arts was the musician and performer Laurie Anderson—and over the course of his career he was in any number of hybrid punk-art-rock bands. One of his last public appearances, Oursler said, was a performance with a Los Angeles noise group: “He said that that was one of the things that made him happiest … the social part of it—making some noise together.”

By the late 1980s, Kelley had become a name on the Los Angeles art scene. He got broader exposure in 1993 when curator Elisabeth Sussman gave him a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Sussman also has him on the list for the Whitney’s very latest Biennial, coming up in March, with a recent project that involved trucking a re-creation of his childhood home through the streets of Detroit. She credits Kelley with “this incredible awareness of what it is to be an American with working-class roots” (the sock monkeys; the Superman fixation) coupled with “an extreme cosmopolitan brilliance—someone who just digs below the surface and knows the subcultures.”

“Protean” is the term that comes to mind for Kelley, if such a fancy-pants cliché weren’t so far from his aesthetic. “He brought a dialogue with real pop culture and everyday life into high art—that was untouchable before [him],” said Oursler. Kelley didn’t so much make fine art about popular culture, as Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein had done, as erase the boundaries between the two.

Of course, some pop culture—especially the adolescent version of it that most fascinated Kelley—can have a nasty edge. My first review of a show by Kelley and Paul McCarthy, his frequent collaborator, described their “penile-anal-excremental videos and installations” as “laddish pranksterism.” What I wasn’t getting was that boys really do behave badly a good deal of the time, and that there ought to be art that takes that fact on.

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Kelley made an especially strong mark in the 1980s and ’90s as a pioneer of what’s sometimes called the “art of the abject.” “He took things that were in everybody’s attics and made a picture of what it was like. No one had ever attempted that in any kind of metaphorical way,” said photographer and painter Marilyn Minter. Although seven years older than Kelley, Minter admitted that she wouldn’t have made her early “hard-core-porn paintings” without his example. Other, younger followers were much more direct, even derivative, presenting trash and junk and raw nastiness as their version of Kelleyan art. But as Sussman said, “Young artists might put a few things in a gallery, but [Kelley] would turn it into an epic project.”

Oursler said that from their very first meeting at Cal Arts he’d seen Kelley as the consummate poet: “Everything about him was tuned in to an aesthetic frequency—whether positive or negative.”

—With reporting by Isabel Wilkinson