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Elisabeth Sussman

Energy and Intelligence

Since Mike Kelley will be in this year’s Whitney Biennial, which I am co-curating with Jay Sanders, I was recently in touch with him. From the beginning of our working relationship and friendship in the mid-1980s, he was always frank in any conversation, and this year, in December, he did not hide his sadness and frustration. Nonetheless, he agreed to show the videos he made in connection with his “Mobile Homestead” project for Detroit and he contributed a superb text about the project to the catalogue. This may have been his last work.

I think back to the beginning of our real work with each other, which was “Catholic Tastes”, his mid-career retrospective at the Whitney in 1993. It is hard to know where to begin, in describing this wonderful show. Mike was, as in everything he ever took on, completely involved in all the aspects of curating, writing, installation, and catalogue design. For the exhibition, we had to compile a checklist of gigantic proportions. Even at that time, he had done so many performances and exhibitions, and each of these events had produced writing, drawing, photographs, and objects. The checklist names and groups them all: “The Poltergeist”, “Meditation on a Can of Vernors”, “Australiana”, “The Sublime”, etc. The installation packed the Whitney’s fourth-floor gallery. One brilliant decision of his was to completely cover the entry wall to the exhibition with 74 nasty, black-and-white “Garbage Drawings”. Not your usual attractive invitation to a big show. Another was to spread out all the different types of stuffed animal works across four back galleries transforming that space into some kind of perverse nursery. “Lumpenprole”, the ultimate anti-Andre floor work – a huge afghan with lumps beneath it of stuffed animals filled a huge space, and, a grand finale gallery, was filled with the bizarre sculpture he had made recently for ­dokumenta 9 – the “Colema Bench” and the “Orgone Shed” as well as a few other large crude wooden pieces that Mike claimed were from plans found in books for hobbyists. Much of this work struck the supposedly sophisticated New York audience as curious. Much of the regular Whitney audience had not seen his work, and really didn’t know, at that point, the California scene that had nurtured him. Nonetheless, the exhibition was a huge critical success for Mike, despite his misgivings that it might mark the end of his career. All this work on the Whitney exhibition, which had a magnificent, smart catalogue designed by Lorraine Wilde, with a cover showing Mike posed as a janitor and essays by all the people in L.A., and by then Europe, who had watched the early performances and exhibitions and could write with authority – all of this was done against the backdrop of Mike’s curating a landmark exhibition of historic and contemporary figurative sculpture, “The Uncanny” for Sonsbeek 93, in Arnhem, creating major work for the Carnegie International, and, of course, many other projects.

The energy and intelligence, the focus of Mike was then and remained unparalleled over the 25 years that I knew him. He was always a friend, always willing to hear me out, argue, and contest any idea I put forward.