BY Dan Fox in Thematic Essays | 15 DEC 21
Featured in
Issue 224

Mike Kelley: Destroy All Critics

On the tenth anniversary of Kelley’s death, Dan Fox rereads the artist’s writing and criticism

BY Dan Fox in Thematic Essays | 15 DEC 21

If Mike Kelley were alive today, he would probably tell me I’ve got him all wrong. Critics were always getting him wrong, he claimed. ‘I was so unhappy when I was younger with what critics wrote about my work […] I was forced into a position of writing about it myself.’ He wanted to snuff out received opinions, to control the narrative – something many artists like to do but won’t admit. The word ‘forced’ evokes something extracted under duress, as if Kelley’s choice was between either typing or death, but the sheer volume of his writing, published over the course of some 30 years, suggests that prose was a rewarding part of his life.

The young Kelley wanted to be a novelist, but felt he had no talent for fiction. So, he switched his attention to making art and, in doing so, proved himself wrong about the writing. Kelley drew on autobiography, history, current affairs, sex and the psyche for his work, just as novelists do. He wrote criticism, driven by what he loved (pop culture), what he opposed (the canon) and what puzzled him, which is what confounds all authors: the self. If he had written novels, they may not have been so different from his art. Stories of Satanic rituals conducted in secret basements beneath high schools and art colleges. Fan fiction about Superman. Tales of UFO abductions and poltergeists. Crime capers set in the 1960s underground, featuring a cast of Weather Undergrounders, psycho ‘G’ Men and assorted, acid-addled mindfuckers.

Mike Kelley, notes and drawing, c.1978. Courtesy: © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and DACS, London

He received a conceptual art training at CalArts, where, in the late 1970s, language was valued over images. Photo/text work dominated. ‘Studios were unnecessary for the contemporary art student,’ Kelley recalled in his 2003 collection, Foul Perfection. ‘It was often joked, though, that a studio was necessary, but only one big enough to hold a typewriter.’ His writing evolved out of performance. The 1985 essay ‘Urban Gothic’, for instance, switches between a quasi-neutral voice, a fin-de-siècle decadent, a 1940s pulp novelist and a Victorian colonial explorer. This suggests that his anti-critic origin story was itself a performance of something – perhaps the myth of the misunderstood artist hog-tied to a vulgar art system. Kelley’s essays surfaced in alternative periodicals more frequently than in mainstream art publications, where the critical record could have been reset before the biggest professional audience. According to his friend, the art historian John C. Welchman, he dismissed art journals as ‘trade magazines’ fluffing the market and was ‘especially disappointed by the kind of criticism that does nothing more than describe, acting, in effect, as a kind of bookmark for prospective buyers.’1 Description is never transparent. It’s evaluative; there are always details the critic decides to foreground or exclude – about the shape something took, the ideas behind it. Kelley must have understood this: he wrote lengthy accounts of his own work and was skilled at using description to train his audience’s focus.

Peter Saul, Self, 1987, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1.8 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: © Peter Saul, George Adams Gallery, New York, and DACS, London

In the essay ‘Artist/Critic?’, introducing a volume of writing by the artist John Miller, Kelley recognised his antagonism towards critics as ‘a common cliché […] the stuff of Hollywood comedies.’ This didn’t stop him from arguing that, ‘for the most part, there has been a division of labour in the art world between those who produce art and those who comment on it. And, as all of us know, those who possess language have an advantage over those who do not.’ Perhaps this was true in 2002, when Kelley wrote the piece – if disingenuous, given the centrality of language to his work. Yet, that decade would see curators assert a new kind of authority over critics as their profession became more powerful in the art industry, as the field of curatorial studies grew and as high-profile artist-curators began to appear. (Because curators are involved in the production of exhibitions, only curators have the insight to write criticism, was one specious argument I heard a lot in the early 2000s.) Kelley’s beef seems quaint now that those who possess the power of institutional language – through the production of catalogues, museum didactics, lecture programmes and so forth – are so closely involved with artists in the presentation of their work.

Mike Kelley, notes for The Monitor and the Merrimac, c.1979. Courtesy: © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and DACS, London

No artist’s words should be worshipped as Holy Writ. Kelley muddied the interpretation of his work deliberately. ‘Some Aesthetic High Points’, written for a monograph published in 1991, baited those tempted to draw causal connections between his life and work. A Bildungsroman in miniature, it describes a patriotic poster competition he and a friend won as teenagers, a puerile prank at a Catholic high school dance, concerts by Sun Ra and The Stooges, being an extra in a Hermann Nitsch performance. Kelley later noted how often the piece was ‘cited as serious commentary on my aesthetic concerns’, missing the joke altogether. He resisted psychologizing his work. ‘I had to make it difficult […] by giving a lot of false information.’ Ra coined the term ‘myth science’ to describe his unique philosophy, a fusion of science fiction with ancient legend; Kelley, who borrowed it in 1995 for the title of his essay on Öyvind Fahlström, seemed to understand it at face value as a modus operandi.

But you can’t write seriously about other artists, as Kelley did, if you’re being loose with the facts just to mess with your critics. He used anecdote to generous effect. His tone would turn conversational, tempering his occasional cantankerousness with humour and vulnerability, drawing readers on side. He wrote about being a student at CalArts, about making art with David Askevold, Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler, Jim Shaw and others. (Almost always men.) Accounts of how this movie or that band from his youth shaped his thinking. In 1976, so one story went, he invited Fahlström to speak at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where Kelley was an undergraduate. Fahlström was in New York. He was shy and reluctant to accept the invitation, but Kelley pestered him into it. Kelley didn’t know how to organise a talk. The faculty didn’t care, the AV equipment was wrong, there was an embarrassing dinner, they got pulled over by the police, Fahlström lost an important notebook. ‘I was ashamed by how things had turned out and never spoke to Fahlström again.’ It’s a rare artist who would admit something like that today, to risk looking bad rather than ‘honoured’ and ‘grateful’.

Robert Crumb, Zap Comix, no. 1, 1968, cover. Courtesy: M. Steven Fox and Comixjoint

‘We still expect artists to conform to some clearly constructed evolutionary timeline that somehow guarantees their art-historical development,’ he wrote in ‘Shall We Kill Daddy?’ (1997), an homage to his CalArts teacher Douglas Huebler. Kelley argued that Huebler had been excluded from canonical accounts of conceptual art due to ageism: he was born in 1920, two decades before most artists associated with first-wave conceptualism. Huebler had worked his way through a number of aesthetic approaches before arriving at the photo/text material he’s best known for, rather than landing, typewriter under the arm, as a perfectly formed 1970s conceptualist. Kelley’s observation – and note that ageism was less often acknowledged in the 1990s art industry than today – was typical of how he went to bat for artists he felt had been overlooked. He was suspicious of art history and drawn to those left out of the picture. ‘Official art culture is much more effective in its control of history than Republican strategists,’ he spat.2 His criticism was preoccupied with revising the orthodox narratives of postwar art history, especially those forged in New York: from abstract expressionism to pop to minimalism to conceptual art and beyond. This was a Midwesterner transplanted to California who had come to understand the New York canon as a regional scene ‘presented as national sentiment’.3

Mike Kelley, notes for The Big Tent, c.1979. Courtesy: © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and DACS, London

Kelley excelled at the gleefully perverse, free-wheeling argument, at art history seen through the wrong end of the telescope. In ‘Foul Perfection: Thoughts on Caricature’, an essay for Artforum written in 1989 (followed up in 2001 by the companion piece, ‘On Some Figurative Artists of the Late 1960s’), he argued for the place of artists such as Robert Crumb, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul and Basil Wolverton in the modernist framework. Caricature, as one of his theses went, was about making things look worse than they are, but also about making things look better. By this measure, minimalism, with its spiritually deluxe Platonic solids, was a caricature of the cosmos, a distortion no different to those of a monstrous Wolverton drawing. It was abstract art that was ‘transgressive’, not these artists, because, for the average American, the reductiveness of abstraction would have seemed more alien than cartoons of people. In Kelley’s view, the underground comix artists of the 1960s – Crumb, for instance, who was showcased by Zap Comix – were no different to those making land art and happenings. They were all working outside of the gallery, whether that was on a comic strip or in the Utah desert. The ‘cruel and ugly depictions of the human form’ found in a painting by Nutt or Saul were a neo-expressionist reaction to the cool classicism of the 1960s New York movements: in Kelley’s view, no less objectionable than Willem de Kooning’s unpleasant paintings of women.

Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava, Caltiki, The Immortal Monster, 1959, film still. Courtesy: Arrow Films and Esther Hunziker

Their political attitude was not morally clear-cut either, unlike the ‘academic Puritan agitprop of the Hans Haacke variety.’4 These artists were neither high art nor low. For Kelley – invested in genre trespass, pop culture and the stranger fringes of American society – their categoric ambiguity was to be championed. Welchman holds that Kelley’s truculence was ‘one of several measures of his “badness” as a writer’, by which he meant that he played with ‘the strategic permissibility of a “bad style”, the relative dysfunction and opacity of which challenge the operating systems that occasion it’. (In the conventional sense of ‘bad writing’, Kelley was unfortunately prone to meandering far off topic, to generalising about his hates and to over-detailing his loves.) Being ‘bad’ made his writing fun. His collected video work synopses read like J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) retold by John Waters. One Hundred Reasons (1991): ‘Simply a tight shot of Bob [Flanagan]’s ass being pounded while I recite each reason.’ Fresh Acconci (1996): ‘a specialized subcultural erotica for the art world’. Superman Recites Selections from The Bell Jar and Other Works by Sylvia Plath (With Reference to Kandor-Con 2000) (1999): ‘does exactly what the title describes’.

Mike Kelley, Notebook Drawing: Genius and Madness, 1978, ink on lined paper, 28 × 20 cm. Courtesy: © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and DACS, London

His frankness was refreshing. The short essay ‘Marcel Broodthaers’ (1999) begins by saying: ‘I don’t really like the way [the work] looks.’ ‘“Museological” practices […] All of this leaves me cold.’ He confesses that he finds himself ‘feeling stupid in the presence of his work, because I’ve been suckered in by it’, then tries to account for what keeps holding his attention. Kelley’s disarming honesty about what he dislikes in Broodthaers’s piece is what gives weight to his arguments in favour of it. He accords Broodthaers respect by making the effort to find common ground, however small. In ‘Hollywood Filmic Language, Stuttered: Caltiki, the Immortal Monster and Rose Hobart’ (1992), Kelley opens with a long quotation from the film theorist Christian Metz. Shortly after, as if unable to contain his enthusiasm any longer, he ditches the semiotics lesson and lists all his favourite scenes from Caltiki (1959) with the enthusiasm of a kid gabbling about a horror movie he shouldn’t have seen: ‘The pulsing blob in its Tupperware case […] the trek of the madman after he escapes from the hospital. I particularly like when he falls face down into the flower patch.’ He admits to never having seen Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) and gives a beautiful account of what simply attracted him to the idea of it.

Michael J. Weldon, Psychotronic Video, no. 3, 1989, cover. Courtesy: The Internet Archive

Kelley was driven by the fan’s compulsion to share. Many of his significant essays pre-date the internet age. They were written before the era of album reissues and ‘curated’ playlists, when obscure books and films were discovered through word of mouth and years could be spent searching for them. His essays might lead you to Ted Post’s 1973 horror film The Baby, to psychedelic cabaret troupe The Cockettes, Paul Thek, or one of the creepy items in his exhibition ‘The Uncanny’ (1993). He offered tokens of subcultural knowledge, not dissimilar to the way the Psychotronic Video Guide lovingly catalogued grindhouse films in the 1990s or V. Vale’s long-running RE/Search publications reported from the wilder shores of punk. (There was some crossover between Kelley and RE/Search: both covered the work of the anarchic performance group Survival Research Laboratories [SRL].) Then the web outpaced them all, stripping them of their recondite secrets.

Time laps all writers, even beloved artist-critics. SRL once parodied the aesthetics of far-right American militias and now their satire has become a frightening reality. Thek, in 1992, was under-appreciated. This century, his work has been the subject of significant institutional exhibitions. Kelley felt US museum culture could never be politically radical: ‘It will be a cold day in Hell when you see a major American museum mount a show of the cultural production of the Weather Underground or Black Panthers.’ Emory Douglas, who gave the Panthers their visual identity, has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the New Museum, New York, and London’s Tate Modern. Kelley’s beloved Chicago Imagists – Nutt and Co. – now have the scholarly respect they deserve. The story of abstraction has been rescued from just a few men in mid-century New York. Does this signal a better art world or an art world better at disguising its conservatism? I imagine Kelley, the healthy sceptic, would have ticked the second box.

Mike Kelley, sketch for Three Valleys, c.1979. Courtesy: © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and DACS, London

He was eventually caught in a trap that snares many iconoclasts: success. The industry celebrated him, blunting the force of his anti-institutional criticism. After all that time spent challenging the art system, it begged the question: why would you want to be part of something you don’t respect in the first place? In ‘David Askevold: The California Years’ (1998), Kelley makes a comment about the Pictures generation artists: ‘The general fear of being controlled by other people […] is part of the reason, I think, for the rise of the appropriation art movement. You become the thing that you fear or desire out of choice, rather than against your will.’ Narrative control, again. But he’d tell me that’s just too much psychologizing.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 224 with the headline ‘Destroy All Critics’

Main image: Survival Research Laboratories, Split Head, 2017,  steel, aluminium, polychrome and remote control, 74 × 264 × 261 cm. Courtesy: © Survival Research Laboratories and Marlborough, New York; photograph: Pierre Le Hors

1    John C. Welchman, introduction to Foul Perfection, 2003, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, p. xviii

2    Mike Kelley, ‘Death and Transfiguration’, in Foul Perfection, p. 144

3    ‘Obscured Visions’, interview for Artforum, March 2002

4    Kelley, ‘Death and Transfiguration’, p. 145

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).