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Mike Kelley, Silence & Death

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Jori Finkel has an article in The Art Newspaper on the politics of talking, or not talking, about Mike Kelley’s suicide. She writes of the Kelley retrospective, now at MOCA Geffen,

“I’m relieved that art historians assessing Kelley’s legacy are not sensationalising his death or letting it overshadow his art, which has happened in some press coverage.… Nevertheless, the failure to acknowledge that Kelley died by his own hand, alongside the omission of his depression and drinking, smacks of wishful thinking.… Does the Stedelijk’s 400-page catalogue, billed as the ‘most comprehensive book on the iconoclastic American artist’, really have no room for a basic account of Kelley’s death and depression? Does art history as practiced today need to be blind to an artist’s biography? There must be some middle ground between people worshipping Van Gogh as the ear-slicing genius-madman and academics interpreting the work of Mike Kelley without mentioning his suicide.

“Above all, it seems highly ironic that an artist who brilliantly mined the realm of suppressed memory and subterranean imagery, who was fascinated by the Freudian mechanisms of repression, would become subject to these sorts of public denials and evasions.”

(Pictured, Kelley’s Personality Crisis, 1982.)

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  1. by brookside nag

    Finkel’s piece is bizarre. She must know that the Stedelijk project – exhibition and book – were worked on for quite a while by a living MK (that’s why the book contains an interview). The materials were not thrown together after his death. She seems to want it both ways – for his work to be looked at without a sensationalized account of the circumstance of his death (of which there were many, by the way, Artillery magazine, etc., etc) and yet she somehow accuses the crew that ended up carrying out the very comprehensive exhibition and book (under horrifying and grief-filled circumstances) as somehow avoiding the truth. It’s really a hurtful critique of Goldstein, Welchman at all and it’s not only strange but unfair.
    I know that David Foster Wallace killed himself, does his work demand to be seen through that lens in all compilations and critiques?

  2. by Lisa Gabrielle Mark

    As one of the editors of the catalogue in question, I feel compelled to point out how misguided Jori Finkel’s criticism of the catalogue is. As the previous comment states, the book was well underway before Mike left us, with his active collaboration. He had envisioned it should be “an overview,” structured so that the relationships between bodies of work could be more fully explored. In addition, there were some specific misunderstandings about his work that he hoped to address—for example, its relationship to issues of gender and feminism—which he did in the excellent interview with Eva Meyer-Hermann. He had reviewed the texts and essays and was editing the interview well into his final days.

    After Mike died, we were resolved to complete the book as he conceived it, which we did, under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. To expand the editorial focus at the last minute to make room some discussion of his death—or, worse, to diminish his astounding work by reading through the filter of his death—would have been to betray Mike’s trust in us. It never even occurred to us to do that. Blindsided, heartbroken, and grief-stricken, we carried on in his honor, while the news media dined out on the details of his suicide. What would be the point of mentioning the cause of his death when it was hardly a secret? Finkel accuses us of evasion and denial but we couldn’t evade or deny it if we tried, and sadly still can’t. To suggest otherwise is massively insensitive.

    Beyond wishing our book was something it was never intended to be, Finkel’s bizarrely self-referential article demands speculation on how Mike’s art might relate to his chosen death. But why is that so necessary? What does Finkel think can be gained from that exercise that the work does not already offer up freely? I hope that book never gets written—but if it is, it is a work of fiction. Don’t kid yourself: Mike’s reasons for ending his life could never be understood by anyone but Mike.

    In addition to the profound respect and admiration I have for Ann Goldstein, who dedicated herself to honoring Mike’s legacy with this exhibition and catalogue, I’m deeply grateful that Mike left us his life’s work to remember him by and to inspire us going forward. I hope the next words I read about the book are kinder than the ones you have included in this post.

  3. All Kell(e)y art was created and summed up far before this ones birth. Nothing has been added, except the self exhibitionism. The original was about us. Not I. And so lived life, if sadly.


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