One of the most extraordinary experiences of art I’ve ever had came a few years ago, when I took a walk through the painting and sculpture galleries of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’d once worked there, and the collection was as familiar and as comforting to me as the furniture in my own house. Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed, all over again: There was Impressionism, Cubism, abstraction, each unfolding from the last; there was Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian; then Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, and so on, up through the art of the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’m simplifying what was already a somewhat simplified view of history and how it progresses, but there it was, and it was a grand and deluxe experience, a triumph of intelligence and good taste. Until you got to the end.
At the end there was a gallery with this … thing in the middle. It was series of four garish knitted afghans, which looked like they’d spent the last 20 years collecting schmutz at the bottom of a closet. They were laid out in a row on the polished floor, and on each was a homemade stuffed toy, the sorts of things caring parents make for little children, who chew and drool on them, drag them through the dirt, feed them sodden bits of breakfast cereal, and so on, until they become tattered and foul, indelibly soiled with the grubby disjecta of childhood.
The piece, Untitled (1990), was made by Mike Kelley, and it’s difficult to describe how powerful and strange it was. Kelley had foraged the blankets and dolls from the bins of thrift stores and arranged them in their sorry pageant, and the effect was impossibly sad, shabby, and decrepit; but there was also something thrilling about it. Even the hallowed galleries of MoMA couldn’t redeem the work; the very force of its abjection seemed to abrogate the gravity of the collection that it capped. I won’t say that it disqualified or negated the beauty of all those Picassos and Pollocks, but it certainly threw into question the beliefs on which the museum is predicated: that art is precious and aesthetics is pure, that form is significant and objects can be redemptive. The adults who had originally knitted these things made them out of love, and the children who used them loved them so much they rotted. You stumbled upon this dirty little scene, and you could feel the sacred truths just crumbling.
Kelley, whose most recent show opened recently at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, was the last artist—and by last, I mean both “most recent” and “last ever”—to pull off the great gambit of 20th-century art: He made things that, upon first inspection, you would think had no artistic qualities whatsoever, things that were not and could not possibly be art, let alone significant art. And yet there they were, in a gallery or museum, and after you spent some time with them, you began to think, Yes, of course this is art; and after a little more time, you began to realize that it was very significant art indeed. It now falls to me, and art writers like me, to exercise, for the last time, the great gambit of 20th-century criticism, and explain why.
Kelley lives in L.A. now, and he’s very tightly associated with the art world there. But he was born in Detroit, in 1954, and grew up working-class and Catholic, and almost every discussion of his work includes some mention of his background. His class matters because he has a fearless, wiseass sense of humor, an underdog’s way of undermining everything without seeming to aggrandize himself. (He was once asked to contribute an interior to a Frank Gehry design for an ad agency. His plan involved cutting line-of-sight holes in the walls between the conference room and the copy room and stenciling enormous reproductions of office-cubicle cartoons—“What part of NO don’t you understand?” etc.—on the walls. It was never built.) The Catholicism matters because he’s obsessed with the impurity of the human body in a way that you can only really come to if you were taught at a young age that purity was a real possibility. And Detroit matters because it’s everything the art world isn’t: Midwestern, industrial, down on its luck; and because the city’s favorite son, Iggy Pop, was one of Kelley’s earliest inspirations and remains the character he most resembles.
This, after all, is a man who once did a series of lumpy, irresolute studies of nondescript refuse called Seventy-four Garbage Drawings and One Bush; who has parodied both feel-good Catholic poster art and feel-bad outlaw underground cartoons; whose work often involves fantastically complex arrays of drawings and objects, which reference the elaborate history of man’s attempts to better himself, jumbling Freud and Longinus, Brecht and George Washington, with scatological jokes and plaintive doodles, until the entire course of Western civ. comes out looking sad and stupid, homely and benighted, and yet, for all that, the only history we have. Kelley is a prophet of the art of failure, of rant and embarrassment, of endless self-scrutiny and fetishistic analysis, of charts and typologies and comparisons. (One piece is called Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile, and you’d be surprised at the connections that can be drawn among the three.) And all of it leads to the conclusion that something—everything—is wrong, with art, with the human animus, with the world and all its institutions.
No art is without precedent, and Kelley’s has a certain affinity with, for example, the Italian Arte Povera movement, Bruce Nauman’s early videos, some lesser-known artists like Paul Thek and Jim Nutt, and the Bad Painting associated with people like Neil Jenney —all from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when Kelley was in art school. But Kelley’s work has a punkish attitude that’s all his own, an impious energy that eats away at boundaries that no one else even sees. He has worked, for example, in pretty much every medium known to the visual arts: painting, drawing, sculpture, video, theater, performance, appropriation, installation, photography. He’s also written prose and recorded music and, not incidentally, collaborated with at least a dozen of his contemporaries. No other artist I can think of, not even Rauschenberg, has worked in so many different forms with equal success, and without making one of them central.
Of course, he isn’t particularly good at any of them, if “good” means “especially skilled, in an obvious way.” But so what? Concern with the medium, as such, is one of the great bugaboos of modernism, with its general emphasis on pure painting, pure photography, pure sculpture, and so on. Kelley’s work is deeply, deliberately, and joyfully corrupt, and mastery is one of the first things to go.
Still, he knows how to make objects of enormous power, objects that live as objects, and that’s what counts. I think I could walk into any collection in the world and spot the Mike Kelley piece immediately (and this despite his many imitators), which is more than I could do with, say, Brice Marden. You can tell the Kelley work because it’s the stuff that itches, the stuff that reeks, the stuff that looks like it needs a good bath. (A curator once told me that the museum she worked for had bought one of Kelley’s stuffed-animal pieces, only to discover that it was infested with bugs. They called him to ask whether it was OK to fumigate it, or whether the bugs were part of the art. I don’t know what his reply was.)
Above all, you can tell the work by its furious and almost celebratory insistence on anatomizing all that is base about the world. There is nothing smug about Kelley, as there is about so many artists with a similarly critical bent; he’s never snotty, although he’s often very funny. He’s a connoisseur of rage and dismay, and if he has his way we’re all in it together. “I make art,” Kelley once said, “in order to give other people my problems.” As a definition of artists’ motivation—at least, a partial definition of a certain kind of artist’s motivations—it’s as good as any I’ve ever heard; and the art that emerges from it is as brilliant as any being made today.