A retrospective exhibition looks back on a life's work of an artist. A few decades ago, this was an honour typically accorded to either dead Old Master or Grand Old Man, a dead Old Master in the making. The Old Masters used to be the artists of the Renaissance through Romanticism. It was fairly easy to say who was and who wasn't an Old Master. You just had to pay some attention to the slides passing before your glazed eyes and not nod off too often in 'Introduction to Art History', so that come finals you could tell the difference between the bulls of Lascaux and The Raft of Medusa. Nowadays, even the first avant-gardists, like Manet and the Impressionists, qualify. Ludicrously, you might characterise Seurat as the Old Master of Pointillism; Signac, I guess is the Old Minor. The Cubists, Fauves, Futurists, Dadaists, Expressionists, Surrealists, even Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko: they are old, they are dead, and yes, they are masters. So are living artists on the way to joining the great dead when they are viewed 'in retrospect'? And just what does it mean to have a 'mid-career' retrospective - isn't that like jumping the gun on art history, pretending to write it when, at best, one can try to take the temperature of the Zeitgeist, at worst slavishly serve the immediate interests of the art market?
One thing a retrospective - living or dead, mid-career or the whole damn life story guarantees for the artist is that people who don't already hate you will hate you. Mike Kelley's show, titled ‘Catholic Tastes’ is for some people, nothing but an opportunity for sour grapes: 'He doesn't deserve that, what about X, he was on to that in '73.' For another, rather less brazenly vulgar crew, it's a sporting event in which they can get competitive about their closely monitored feelings of jaded ennui: 'Yes, of course, the stuffed animal pieces were great when they came out five years ago, but please, enough already? When is he going to give up that trick and move on? Is he just going to coast, like some Helen Frankenthaler of abject art?' the fact that these people on some occasions may be right does not invalidate a general principle of poison-toadying. A stopped clock is right twice a day. In short, the youngsters want to knock daddy down and eat his flesh. This is the implication of influence. This is what it really means to be he single most influential artist working in America today. (Aside from the dog-eared Freud text, advanced readers are here referred to the collected writings of Harold Bloom, in particular The Anxiety of Influence.)
The installation of the Mike Kelley retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art is crowded. There's too much to see, even for the repeat visitors, the fans, me. At the opening, a friend complained to me that the cram-in-as-much-as-you-can installation severely compromised the show. 'The afghan piece with the bumps' - Lumpenprole (1991) - 'could be so beautiful, but all this other junk detracts from the image. It almost makes me think Mike Kelley isn't as great an artist as I'd always thought he was.' I don't recall if the other junk was Ageistprop (1991), in which case it belongs with the afghan as an installation. Still, it's interesting that a fan of Kelley's work would immediately take such a vehement exception to the Whitney's installation. Still it's interesting that a fan of Kelley's work would immediately take such vehement exception to the Whitney's installation on purely formal grounds: the floor piece looks less beautiful when there are wall pieces detracting from its visual integrity. The prole can do without the prop, because indeed it is nice enough to look at that it doesn't need the help of the 'dialectic'.
The first rooms of the exhibition are the most dauntingly crowded and confusing in their installation. One wall is papered up and down with Kelley's drawings and working sketches, many of which are wonderful, but the sheer profusion defeats any effort to take them all in. But there is more still: Meditation on a Can of Vernors (1981-84), Monkey Island (1982-83), The Sublime (1981-84), and the famous Sonic Youth collaboration, Plato's Cave, Lincoln's Profile, Rothko's Chapel (1985-86). The relics or props of performance pieces, most of these objects and photographs really are inscrutable. I confess: I am a lazy art critic; I couldn't be bothered to read all the texts. And furthermore, Father Confessor, I hate performance art and Mike Kelley is no exception. I tried to watch a videotape of Banana Man (1982) and found it exhaustingly boring but not in the least soporific - and hence, useless. Another artist, a friend of mine and a fan of Kelley's work, told me when i said I was having a hard time digesting the plenitude of Kelley's retrospective, 'It's all about generating ideas, so many ideas going on when most artists stake entire careers on just one idea, repeated over and over again ad nauseam.' Point taken, but I'd rather find myself stupified by the pretty son et lumière of Einstein on the Beach than listen patiently while artists scream at me. Call me bourgeois. (In fact Kelley did. At a public talk at the Whitney, the artist declared: 'I'm not out to kick the faces of the bourgeoisie. They have to understand that they're being attacked. Otherwise, why bother? Art functions as the ultimate equaliser - blue-collar exoticism for an upper-class audience.')
The Whitney's pell-mell installation has the odd, and no doubt unintended effect of confirming the impression that Kelley's work actually improves as it approaches the condition of conventional art objects. The later rooms, with their floor pieces and their wall pieces, paintings and sculptures of sorts, have far more visual integrity (in the sense of unified impression as opposed to some vague spiritual essence of artistic honesty) than the messy and chaotic stuff that opens the show. It turns out to be an unexpected vindication of painting and sculpture as vehicles of legible artistic expression. As Kelley's work approaches the form of conventionally understood art works, the radicality of his content becomes more apparent. There is little to be gained in inventing a new language when no-one can understand you; the innovations necessarily come from within pre-established forms, even if the hidden agenda is the destruction of those very forms. In the wonderful discussion that the Whitney organized between Kelley, his former CalArts teacher Laurie Anderson, and former fellow band member and artist John Miller, Kelley spoke derisively of Dada-inspired art: 'You walk out on things that just scream "Fuck You". If it's too crummy right away then it's just the aesthetics of crumminess, another idealization. The object has to say at first, "I want you to look at me." Start with the hallmark version of beauty, then move on to the Burkean sublime.' (Here Miller wryly queried, 'Really?')
Kelley's success has been an 'enabler' for scores of artists of widely varying qualities mining the teenage white-trash wasteland for material. He didn't necessarily 'influence' in any linear fashion the work of near-contemporaries like Jim Shaw and Raymond Pettibon. But his tremendous success allowed for their successes by creating a context in which art like theirs could be understood. Any number of younger artists, often dullards without an inkling of what a cogent conceptual programme might entail, have taken advantage of art's version of a papal indulgence: what I call the 'Kelley Dispensation'. There are legions of crumminess mongers working the art world these days. Formal perfection is out - so '80s. Junky-looking is in - so '90s. But how many artists working within the limits of the Kelley Dispensation work from the real premises of his art and how many blithely contradict its inner logic? Compared to some, Kelley now looks almost pristine: the cheap-looking felt banners seem artfully composed, and the stuffed animal-on-blanket assemblages appear lovingly arranged.
No longer do we live in a period in which we can confidently predicate the radicality of form as a necessary concomitant of radical content, the cri de coeur of both the forthrightly agitprop and ironically subversive historical avant-gardes. Distrusting agitprop no less than idealistic formalism, Kelley has frequent recourse to debased vernacular expression, like that of comics. (Here is my opportunity to rehash the high-low dichotomy, but I don't feel like it. Remember, I'm super-lazy.) The fact is that Kelley's most effective undermining ploys depend on high-art references more often than the scribbles of the proles. The famous wall hanging More Love Hours Than Can Ever be Repaid (1987) takes a formal cue from large-scale Abstract Expressionist painting. If you're severely near-sighted, as I am, all you have to do is remove your spectacles and stand at a sufficient distance from the piece for it to resemble the sort of heavily impastoed, Hans Hoffman-esque push-pull abstraction in which Kelley was tutored as an undergraduate art student at the University of Michigan. And is the huge Miró retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art this season the only reason that Arena #1 (Blue and Red) (1990) reminds me of the Catalan surrealist? What about Untitled (Yarn) (1990), a cotton blanket strewn with black yarn that uncannily resembles a Jackson Pollock circa 1948? Certainly these yarn pieces work as some of the funniest 'institutional critique'-type sneers at the expense of the people who buy them. I remember once witnessing a gallerist instructing staff installing one of those pieces. She consulted a photo of the piece as it had been installed elsewhere: 'No, no, it's clumpier over there,' she said, pointing to one corner of the blanket. Kelley makes good jokes - smart jokes, the best kind of critique - at the expense of Modernism and of an art world that still subscribes, at least unconsciously, to its powerful myths. But doesn't Modernism really have the last laugh?
Laurie Anderson: Why is mime so repulsive?
Mike Kelley: Because mimes refuse to speak. That's why artists of a certain generation of artists are pretty repulsive, too.
Dialogue #1 (An Excerpt from 'Theory, Garbage, Stuffed Animals, Christ') (1991) is a formally simple multimedia piece: the blanket, a stuffed-animal bear and a stuffed-animal bunny, a boom box playimg a tape of Kelley ventriloquizing the toys' voices, two chairs of simple Modernist design in which you can sit and listen to an interesting conversation. Kelley endows his playfellows with squeaky, cartoonish voices, but with slightly bizarre inflection that tips you off that this is definitely not Saturday morning kids' fare:
The best way to fuck something up is to give it a body.
A voice is killed when it is given a body. Whenever there's a body around you see its faults.
Theory proves that.
The body of a famous critic came to our class the other day.
Now we don't believe its writings anymore.
Its writings became theatre.
And the presence of all that flesh made us think of all the things the writings didn't speak of.... of what was left out.
Authoritative voices must be disembodied to work.
A philosopher should never be seen!
It's so sad - it makes you think of money, prostitution.
We would never make that mistake.
We would never give ourselves a physical manifestation.
So our voice keeps living, living by becoming an abstraction...
And on it goes. I found Dialogue #1 the most touching work in the show (I know the effect is supposed to be counter-empathic, but it affected me) - the most poetic, and at the same time ineluctably damning. But damning to whom - the audience, the critics, metaphysics from Plato to Hegel, Kelley himself? Kelley never stops making the mistake that the fuzzy metaphysicians speak of. He can't shut up, he won't leave the object alone, he insistently inserts a voice - a voice that rightly or wrongly will be assimilated to our person. Sometimes he foists himself on you, either in the disembodied form of photos and videos, or as the artist live, in performance.
The discussion between Kelley, Anderson and John Miller was a kind of performance: the artist's body was there, speaking, joking, laughing, interrupting the others. Do we believe him less for seeing him? Kelley returned repeatedly to his blue-collar origins as the key to his art. The blue-collar rap recurs with such frequency that one begins to hear the murmurs of an old and archetypal story: poor kid from Detroit moves to LA and becomes a star - the American Dream, art-world style. He was certainly dressed for the part, in jeans, black leather jacket, his long hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. Kelley seems like an honest sort of guy, someone you'd like to have for a friend. But who's he kidding with this outfit, querellous voices hiss in the background. We all realize that the tremendous critical acclaim Kelley has achieved has had a very substantial financial concomitant, which is to say that we know that Kelley is butt-rich. In the shrivelled art economy of the 90s, his is still a success story, perhaps the paradigmatic 90s success story. Another friend, this one from the Whitney Independent Study Program, sputtered after the talk, 'It's all bullshit, bad boy clichés and posturing. How can he seriously talk about transgression? This rock and roll persona doesn't address the issues of contemporary art production, it just dreams nostalgically about being a teenage punk. Who cares about his friendship with Kim Gordon? Look at him, he's a rich man inching up on middle age.' (For the record, I've never heard this person speak kindly of another living artist with the possible exception of Dan Graham, who incidentally had his own punk thing going on.)
There is so much in the Kelley show that you realize how accustomed you are at looking at almost nothing and thinking it's the cat's pyjamas. Kelley referred to this during the talk, 'The worst thing in the world is to be called an obsessive artist. "Hey, this guy's obsessed with Cornflake boxes. Wow!" Well, no, not wow. It's just mystification.' For confirmation of this unkind assessment of obsessive artists, one need look no farther afield than the Vija Celmins retrospective downstairs. A fine artist in her way, but shown to such poor advantage at the Whitney: a roomful of deserts, a roomful of night skies, a roomful of seas. It's still the aesthetic of less-is-more, the triumphant aesthetic of our time against which Kelley tries to rebel; less to look at means more myth, more mysticism, more mystification. At Cal Arts it appears Kelley was the odd man out, aside from the crucial support of Anderson and David Askevold. The emphasis then had been on formal, material, and conceptual reduction. It was bad to do art that was too full, because fullness entails a body, and in those days bodies could not be used. To use a body - any kind of body, not simply a representation of a human body - well, that was un-PC. The art had to be as evacuated as possible, minimal, stripped bare. Faced with this imperative, Kelley decided to use his own body and turned to solo performance.
This is the performer's body, whose image adorns the elaborate catalogue produced for the retrospective: Mike Kelley dressed as a janitor, mopping up. Kelley began as a painter trained in Hans Hoffman's pedagogy, switched to performance at Cal Arts, the props for the performances became relics, and Kelley, cresting a wave of extraordinary success, became a 'painter' and a 'sculptor'. The janitorial image is hilariously heroicized: the mop could be Kelley's gladiatorial spear, or maybe the flag planted at the top of the fatal hill when the US soldiers finally defeated the Japanese at Iwo Jima. So Kelley has become a monument, a hero to some, a secular saint to others. The catalogue, like the exhibition, is titled Catholic Tastes, referring to the artist's religious background and to his aesthetic and intellectual catholicity. The catalogue is Kelley's hagiography. Well, he's still funny.
First published in Issue 14