Artist Mike Kelley, known for his found-object assemblages and musical performance art, passed away in Los Angeles of an apparent suicide at the age of 57 on Wednesday, an associate of the artist confirmed to ArtInfo.
Kelley was a prominent artist in the L.A. scene, with a career that included a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum, as well as solo shows at the Louvre, the Hirshhorn and the Gagosian Gallery. His work is in the permanent collection of many of America’s most prominent contemporary art museums. He had recently been selected for inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial.
“I am so devastated. Mike is our great Los Angeles artist. He’s the one that changed the game for a whole generation,” said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the L.A. Times. “If one could point the finger singularly, he’s it. As an artist, a curator, as a kind of passionate advocate for this community and his generation, he’s a real giant.”
Kelley was born in Detroit, and his art career began with music: He formed the punk band Destroy All Monsters, and their music incorporated elements of performance art. He moved to California to attend CalArts, and there founded another band, Poetics, with fellow artists John Miller and Tony Oursler. Kelley studied under John Baldessari and Laurie Anderson. One of Kelley’s designs, featuring a yarn doll, graces the cover of Sonic Youth’s “Dirty” album.
In a 1996 review of the Hirshhorn exhibition “Distemper: Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s,” former Washington Post critic Joyce Jones evaluated Kelley’s art:
That Mike Kelley also addresses memory, or rather a repression of it, isn't immediately apparent in the bright flux of jack-o'-lanterns, Santas and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers that populate his paintings. But the Los Angeles artist has long used pop imagery to comment on the darker aspects of society. In these works Kelley applies the psychiatric theories of repressed memory as a symptom of abuse to his own art education. That's an appealing idea for any art student who's been forced to emulate the aesthetic heroes of an instructor. On "The Giving Old Man" (1994), Kelley first simulates the authoritarian formalism of Hans Hoffman then gets his revenge by painting a smiling, waving, defecating Santa Claus.
Still, Kelley rebelled against the label of a “bad boy” artist, as he told PBS’s Art21.