by John Miller

February 6, 2012

Mike Kelley (1954–2012)


A Personal Remembrance

by John Miller

­On Wednesday, February 1 at about 11:00 am I received a telephone call with news I never expected to hear: Mike Kelley had committed suicide. The caller was Jim Shaw. His tone was matter-of-fact, grim and mournful, but also frustrated. I knew that Mike had been wrestling with personal problems, but expected that he would take these in stride as he had always done before. Jim, however, knew otherwise. He had been perhaps Mike’s closest confidante. His frustration was that of someone who had done everything in his power to save his friend but failed nonetheless. Shocked as I was, I am glad that I had learned the news from Jim because he was so insightful and utterly unsentimental.

Upon hanging up, I realized that I too was responsible for contacting Mike’s other friends. Mike Smith called from Austin. We tried to figure out who should call whom. As the day wore on, a steady stream of phone calls and emails progressively built up. A couple of reporters called as well. I felt stymied by my inability to offer a comprehensive understanding of Mike’s suicide. Even now I feel that all explanations and observations must inevitably fall short of the brutal fact that my friend took his own life. What became increasingly clear, however, as the impact of Mike’s death rippled progressively outward, was the extent of his importance—personally, artistically, culturally—to a sprawling community that cared not only about him, but each other as well.

Here, it is important to stress that a community is not simply a loose collection of well-meaning individuals. Rather, it is something with a discrete structure and a logic. Nothing makes this more clear than Mike’s work, Educational Complex, an architectural model constructed from foam core that amalgamates the floor plans of every school that Mike ever attended. Mike reconstructed the floor plans from memory, facetiously claiming that the spaces he could not remember were sites where he had been abused. This claim was an allusion to repressed memory syndrome, a response to trauma, typically sexual abuse, in which one unconsciously blocks a traumatic memory in order to maintain psychological equilibrium. Among psychologists, repressed memory syndrome is highly controversial. By the mid-1990s, California courts rejected its status as legal evidence. While the non-existence of evidence doubtlessly intrigued Mike in this work, he used it to put forward a kind of allegorical institutional critique: the abuse exacted by the institution concerns exclusion and legitimation, nothing less than a matter of symbolic life and death. The predominant institution in both Educational Complex and in the massive artistic community revolving around Mike Kelley is, of course, the California Institute of the Arts.

CalArts was founded by Walt Disney in the 1960s and moved to its current campus in Valencia, California, in 1969. Although Disney conceived of CalArts as an interdisciplinary trade school, from the beginning it was run by and for artists.  They, in turn, called into question what a trade might be. As the school’s first president, Dr. Robert W. Corrigan, put it, “We’re a community of artists here, some of us called faculty and some called students.”(1) The early years were a fabled, anarchic period. Classes only began two weeks into the semester. Students and teachers who showed up before then were uncool. Wearing any kind of bathing suit at the school swimming pool, also uncool. The school, through Disney funds, covered all the students’ art supplies. Teachers spontaneously took their students on field trips to New York City. Here too, the school picked up the tab. Set in California’s high desert, against the backdrop of a planned community organized around the theme of golf, CalArts was a dysfunctional yet utopian oasis. Even now, it remains pointedly non-academic. Admission is based solely on an applicant’s “creative talent,” not on grade point averages or SAT scores.

What does it mean for an institution to embrace such an apparently democratized, egalitarian, and free-form approach? Ultimately, it yields, for better or worse, a less clichéd and more subtle kind of cultural capital. Call it an inverse elitism. CalArts’s openness was all about legitimation struggles, the recalibration of social values. In Mike’s oeuvre, this appears as an inclusiveness that turns the habitual avant-garde/kitsch distinction inside out. Often his work targets the vernacular, which, by definition (verna means slave in Latin), is a subordinate form. This approach allowed Mike to aggressively dilate what is considered the rightful focus of esthetic inquiry. Vis-à-vis developments in art history methodologies, it coincided with the emergence of cultural studies and visual culture. As Mike himself put it in an interview, “Popular culture is really invisible.  People are really oblivious to it. But that’s the culture I live in and that’s the culture people speak. My interest in popular forms is not to glorify them, because I really dislike popular culture in most cases.”(2) Here, I think Mike is addressing the past for the most part. Largely as the result of his work, popular culture is no longer invisible in the way it once was. Rather, Mike has made his generation of artists and those that follow painfully aware of the invidiousness of esthetics at every level. It is this radical re-positioning that has made him so central to so many. But I take his avowed dislike of popular culture with a sizeable grain of salt. In the same interview, Mike turns to his file of yearbook photos of high school performances—photos from which he conceived his extravaganza Day Is Done—with glee:

This shows how I organize things. So here’s a whole group of photographs of people covered with cream pie or other goop. Here’s a whole group of photographs of people gagged and tied up. Thugs, for example. Here’s a photo of a guy dressed as a soldier threatening a guy who’s kind of dressed as a sissy with a knife. Here’s a group of hazing photos where upper-class types are demeaning lower-class types. A whole group of photographs of people in pig pens. A whole group of photos of people dressed as presents. Slave Day! Slave Day is one of my favorites. It’s where people are demeaned and have to wear ridiculous costumes and are sold on an auction block. (3)

Here, the casualness of Mike’s observations belies his trenchant critique. He forces his audience to recognize the forms of repression inherent in the differential of social class. Moreover, he refuses to idealize the esthetics of subordinate classes. Rather, he showed how they too can serve to discriminate against those with even less status. This, of course, offers a skeptical understanding of esthetics in general and of art education in particular.

In mounting such a critique, Mike faced problems that are by no means unique to him, but perhaps he felt them more acutely. First, there is no outside to the apparatus—and one must count art schools as quintessential ideological apparatuses insofar as they produce and reproduce the hierarchies of social class. Nonetheless, this apparatus is what bonds us—namely his friends, acquaintances, colleagues and viewers—to Mike, what causes us to identify with his art, and what prefigures our collective existence as a community. It is also what imbues even the nominally desublimated artwork with the invidious logic of distinction. The inevitable success of Mike’s work transformed him from underdog to celebrity. He hated that. It fed into what became his crippling agoraphobia. As hard as Mike worked to produce a more potent form of art, his resulting celebrity status confronted him with an irresolvable contradiction: that esthetics always necessarily manifests social hierarchy. I consider Day Is Done, as an installation, a performance, and as an epic film, to be one of Mike’s most important works. Based on yearbook photos, it is an unflinching examination of legitimation and exclusion through the lens of high school life. After seeing his performance at the Judson Church, I teased him that he had become quite the arts maven, producing a work that encompasses poetry, film, dance, and theater, not to mention painting, sculpture, and photography. Ironically, this sweep complements the Disney-esque Gesamtkunstwerk, a sensibility certainly unmistakable in Fantasia, but also fundamental to the definitive rupture that CalArts came to represent in the discourse of American art education. While Mike’s passing counts as a tremendous loss to a broad artistic community, its also forces a seismic shift in how our community conceives of who it is and what it does. What Mike achieved cannot be repeated. Day is done.

(1) “California Institute of the Arts,” (accessed February 4, 2012).

(2) “Mike Kelley: Day Is Done/Art 21 Exclusive,” (accessed February 4, 2012).

(3) Ibid.

John Miller is an artist and Professor of Professional Practice in the Department of Art History, Visual Arts Concentration at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex (detail), 1995.

1Mike Kelley, Educational Complex (detail), 1995.

Mike Kelley, Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #32 (Horse Dance of the False Virgin), 2004-2005, from Day Is Done, 2005.

2Mike Kelley, Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #32 (Horse Dance of the False Virgin), 2004-2005, from Day Is Done, 2005.

  • 1Mike Kelley, Educational Complex (detail), 1995. Synthetic polymer, latex, foam core, fiberglass, and wood. 57.75 inches × 192.18 inches × 96.12 inches.
  • 2Mike Kelley,Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #32 (Horse Dance of the False Virgin), 2004-2005, production still from Day Is Done, 2005.
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