THIS ended up being one of the toughest stories I've written in a long time, emotionally or otherwise. The assignment to track down friends and associates of Mike Kelley, the longtime Los AngelesaArtist who -- it's thought -- killed himself at his South Pasadena home a few weeks ago -- almost broke me. People close to someone who's died are always tender; after a suspected suicide, it's even more difficult for an outsider to get a rounded sense of a subject.
It's difficult simply to say what Kelley's art looked like: Did he do installations? Paint? Was his work rumpled and messy, or were his lines clean? Was he about sculpture, or film? We could probably say that Kelley's work was as far as possible from the serene, sensual, and pop products of the '60s generation -- Ruscha, Irwin, and so on -- but beyond that, it's hard to define what he did visually: Kelley's work was more idea-driven, and wide ranging in terms of form, than almost anyone I can think of.
My piece, "Losing Faith," from the April Los Angeles magazine, is HERE. I knew Kelley entirely through his work, but I got the picture of an extremely magnetic, intellectually rigorous and deeply funny character. (Some of this comes across in the art; some of it doesn't.) Here is a link to some Kelley on PBS's Art21. (He's of course best known in indie circles for the cover of Sonic Youth's Dirty.)
His old friend, poet Amy Gerstler, was important in giving me a sense of the artist as a young man. “I wouldn’t say I saw it coming,” she said of his death. “I was completely shocked and horrified. But he had a lot of pain in him. From childhood. We were lucky we had him for so long.”
Filmmaker John Waters, who collects Kelley’s work and knew him as a funny guy who didn’t suffer fools, was startled as well. “To me his work always satirized depression,” Waters told me. “All that stuff about recovered memory, building his childhood home to travel around… I thought it was something he had when he was younger, that he was commenting on it. I always thought that his humor would save him.”
Photo courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art