The Phaidon Folio

The Artist as Critic: Mike Kelley on How He Shaped His Own Legacy

The Artist as Critic: Mike Kelley on How He Shaped His Own Legacy
Mike Kelley. Photo: Anna Summa, Getty Images

Artists tend to have love-hate relationships with critics. They can either make an artist's career at a young age, or structure their work into monolithic interpretations and recognizable "styles." Somehow, the late Los Angeles-based sculptor, performance, and installation artist Mike Kelley refused to play the critic's game. In this excerpt from Phaidon 's 1999 monograph Mike Kelley , the artist speaks with Isabelle Graw, founder and editor of the German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst, on the advantages of becoming your own best critic—even if it means inventing a fictional artist biography.


You are one of those artists who claim responsibility for analyzing and talking about their own work. The advantages are pretty clear; such exposition opposes mystification of the work, makes it more accessible, and negates the traditional idea of artists as incapable of speaking about their own practice. The possible disadvantage is that you narrow the possibilities of reception. Critics or others might respond to your work by simply repeating what you have said, potentially as the final conclusion about the work. Since your explanations are always very dense, allusive and witty, one likes to quote them. It makes me wonder what there is left for the critic to do?

When I was younger, I was so unhappy with what critics wrote about my work that I was forced into a position of writing about it myself. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I found that all these erroneous things critics wrote about me were then passed on from article to article, quoted as if I’d said them myself, as if they were my intentions. I think it’s just the opposite: me saying something about my work puts the critic in the position of having to openly disagree with me. Often critics write as if they’re speaking for the artist, and that’s not true.

Your texts are not always art critical texts; they can be wild manifestos, such as “Goin’ Home, Goin’ Home,” the text printed in the catalogue for “The Thirteen Seasons…” exhibition at Jablonka Galerie, Cologne, in 1995.

As opposed to a catalogue essay, that text was intended to mirror the aesthetics of the installation.

It was somewhat like poetry, yet it also operated as another figure in a visual proposition. You often use text in the same way as your drawings: they function as an occasion to say something.

My language usage in artworks is not just babble. Often there are jokes on certain critical or historical issues—and that can be seen if one reads closely.

Mike Kelley, Bad Acting, 1984 Mike Kelley, B ad Acting , 1984

So text not there to state “this is the meaning of the work,” but to offer another layer of propositions?

Right, issues are raised. Sometimes one has to distinguish between true issues and red herrings, and this calls for close scrutiny. I expect the reader to spend a little time with the work. I’m not interested in quick surface readings. This is especially important in relation to my works that have a socialized veneer, that seem to be a reiteration of mass cultural tropes.

You also oversee closely what is written about you in catalogues, through discussion with the authors. Have you ever thought that you would like the reception and interpretation to be more unpredictable, to be distant from how you think about the work?

No. When I don’t say anything about my practice I have found that its interpretations become even narrower, because they most often simply subscribed to contemporary intellectual fashion. I don’t think stating my intention prevents people from expanding upon the work. I believe my work definitely allows for an openness of readings.

I think it is legitimate to relate your work to that of other artists and art-fashions, in so far as your work is “debate specific”—a term the artist Mary Kelly has ued to describe her practice. Your work takes up debates centered on, for example, commodification, as contexts which allow one to understand the craft-related works, or a neo-minimalist use of plywood; very specific aesthetic conventions inform your work

In relation to commodification, my work would never have been discussed in those terms without me raising the issue. My work has been most often discussed in terms of its having a populist rather than a critical impulse. I myself had to contradict that. I had to say how my work operated in relation to various discourses, because no-one else would have done so. I’ve said this many times before: if you don’t write your own history, someone else will, and this “history” will suit their purposes.

Readers may project whatever meaning they want upon my work, but if they attribute their projections to me, I have a problem with that. They must take responsibility for their own reading. For example, one could say that Sod and Sodie Sock Camp. O.S.O. (with Paul McCarthy , 1998), with its fetishization of military aesthetics, could be read as pro-military, but many things in the installation work against such a reading.

Mike Kelley's Mobile Homestead in front of Michigan Central Depot, 2010 is available on Ar Mike Kelley's Mobile Homestead in front of Michigan Central Depot, 2010 is available on Artspace


You seem to feed aesthetic sensibilities and expectations as well.

It’s always been very important to me that my work has a socialized veneer. I’ve never wanted my work to be associated with the Dada sensibility—to be perceived as simply negational. I want the initial perception of it to elicit comfort, which then starts to break down. You come to recognize that it’s not what you thought it was. Works that are too negational on the surface repel viewers before they can become involved. I want the viewer to spend enough time with the work to discover all the jokes and perversities at play. If the work immediately insults viewers, they will just ignore it.


But in relation to your own work, you said before that biography is increasingly important. You acknowledge the highly mediated, highly constructed idea of your biography.

I felt I was forced to go to the biographical at the point when I became disguised with the general ahistoricitiy of the art world. Despite the fact that my biography might be fabricated, it’s not ahistorical. All the terms for understanding my work come from specific historical lineages. I did my recent paintings specifically in response to a very particular history of painting. They mimic the way I was trained to paint, they reiterate an institutionalization. My only control of this, perhaps fatalistic, worldview is through the overt construction of it as fiction; that’s my only power.

Identifying yourself as a working class guy or…

…being abused by my father, or finding myself in a bad school, or any common scenario that could “explain” my artistic motivations narratively. They work then takes this fabrication as its ostensible subject, yet its true meaning comes from how things don’t add up. Its manner of construction is much more telling than the narratives, because they are simply a pack of conventions.

How would you describe the defense mechanisms you build in order to prevent this “pathological” reading?

There are a number of strategies that I use to prevent people from buying completely into these common narratives. One is discontinuity; another is exaggeration. These could be seen as defense mechanisms relative to the general pathological references in the work, but they also function to make the viewer aware that these references are suspect.

Mike Kelley, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991/1999. Phot: Joshua White. Mike Kelley, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991/1999 . Phot: Joshua White.

When you describe this procedure it sounds very systematic. But I can imagine that it begins simply with, say, a preference for a certain shape?

Part of my methodology is to stop at a certain point and change direction. Part of my sublimatory aesthetic is to shift focus away from something once it starts to reveal itself. Yes, I might have a fondness for pink crystal, but the question is, what do I do with it? How do I make art out of it? I can tell you a biographical story that explains my interest in pink crystal but that closes the reading down and makes it too biographically specific.

I prefer to paly games of deferral, prolonging the eroticism of the viewing experience. Hopefully then, the erotics are experiential and not definitional.

Mike Kelley's Untitled (Paddle for Artist's Space), 1992 is available here on Artspace Mike Kelley's Untitled (Paddle for Artist's Space), 1992 is available here on Artspace

Your titles were a vehicle, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to add another layer. You have never used “untitled” extensively. I always associate “untitled” with a lack of courage or fear of being overly explicit. As if the artist dosen’t want to take any responsibility for meaning.

I think it implies that the artwork is a thing in itself, which I don’t believe. I like to think of the art viewing experience as a series of unfoldings, and of the title as the first moment. When I have used “untitled” as a title, it is usually to point towards this fiction of material self-sufficiency.


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