Mary Kelly

American Photographer and Mixed Media Artist

Born: June 7, 1941
Fort Dodge, Iowa
Because my studio practice is project based, involving extensive research that often overlaps with interests in activism and pedagogy, the concept, as well as the material form of an archive, is central to the way I work.
Mary Kelly

Summary of Mary Kelly

At her very first solo show in London in 1976, Mary Kelly caused a media sensation. The tabloid headline including "dirty nappies" will always be associated with this iconic Feminist and her career-defining work Post-Partum Document (1973-79), in which she incorporated the messes of her everyday domestic life, in this case, the soiled diapers of her newborn son, causing a momentary sensation but changing art forever. Kelly went on to become one of the foundational figures of Conceptual and Feminist art not only through her wide-ranging artistic practice but also her equally important work as an educator and writer. Coming of age during the transformational 1960s, she radically re-framed the modes of traditional artistic representation she had learned as a student of painting. She established herself as a ground-breaking postmodernist and committed activist who preferred a multi-year, project-based art inspired by socially-relevant ideas.


Progression of Art


Documentation V

Documentation V (1977) is one element of Post-Partum Document (1973-79), the landmark interdisciplinary installation that took Kelly six years to make and caused a media sensation when it was first exhibited. Its central subject is the time-honored theme of motherhood. In tracing the growth and development of her son's life from a newborn baby to a six-year-old child and her own experiences of this dynamic process over time, this work examines various aspects of the mother-child relationship, uniting them in one large-scale presentation as opposed to focusing on a single moment staged in a discrete form.

In Documentation V, Kelly presents three scientific displays - two moths on the left and center panels and a side view of a woman's vagina on the right. In the central panel, she includes an excerpt from an intimate conversation between her and her son, Kelly, in which she explains to him the facts of life: "Son: do babies come from bottoms? Mother: No ... from vaginas. Girls have three holes, one for poops, one for wees, and one where babies come out - that's the vagina."

Kelly's image and text exploration of human reproduction with her son can be traced to her fascination with Lacanian psychoanalysis, specifically to the idea that the unconscious mind is structured like a language. In explaining the genesis of this project, she has said: "He [Kelly] would bring me a snail and say, 'Do you have a hole in your tummy?' I couldn't figure it out. What did they have to do with each other? Finally, I juxtaposed the questions and specimens with a kind of non-answer in the form of a diagram representing a full-term pregnancy and a list of medical terms."

Kelly's blending of image and text in this jarring way is characteristic of Conceptual art, inviting comparisons between seemingly disparate elements. At the same time, though, her complex, private subject matter challenges the simplified forms and de-personalized content of Conceptual art, marking a paradigm shift within the overall Conceptual movement. If Feminist artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro were intent on revising history to include the feminine in their response to Minimalism, Kelly was committed to challenging the constraints of Conceptualism by introducing Feminist themes seen from her first-hand perspective.

Post-Partum Documentation is Kelly's most significant early work because it deploys many of the theories and methods for which she became well-known as a contemporary artist. While the work generated controversy among the public for its inclusion of her son's dirty diapers, it advanced the artistic discourse by being rooted in an idea that was extensively researched and then executed with a clean, scientific precision that belied the intensely personal thoughts and feelings animating it.

Classified specimens, proportional diagrams, statistical tables, research data and index - Australian National Gallery, Canberra Collection


Nightcleaners Part I

Kelly's Nightcleaners (1975) is a black-and-white video belonging to her collaborative film work of the 1970s. Made with the Berwick Street Film Collective in London, this video documents a series of young mothers forced to take on "invisible labour," cleaning office blocks at night in order to care for their children during the day and support their families. As a new mother herself, Kelly empathized with the plight of these young women, who were being underpaid and overworked. "They couldn't work in the day," she lamented, "because they had to look after their children, but they didn't have enough money without working. So, they had to work at night. It's what we called the social sexual division of labour."

This image is a still photo taken from the documentary video, showing working women at a protest rally fighting for fairer employment conditions. The film was initially intended as a campaign piece, an early expression of postmodernist Agit-prop, if you will, to raise awareness about gender pay gaps and other inequalities women suffered in the workplace. In spirit, it echoes the contemporaneous work of fellow Feminist and Conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who similarly focused on the themes of motherhood and domestic labor. Since its making, Nightcleaners has taken on iconic status, and, now, it is widely recognized as a landmark in experimental British cinema of the 1970s.

The video's epochal importance has been noted by film critic Tony Rayns: "[This is] a film that places the nightcleaners' campaign within a series of broader political discussions formulated as an `open text' which asks as many questions about its own status as a film as it does about the socio-political issues that are its subject. No engaged person should overlook its challenge."

Black-and-white video with sound - Lux Film Archive



Interim (1984-89) followed Post-Partum Document as Kelly's second large-scale installation.

Divided into four sections and requiring five years to complete, this monumental work, refers, as its title implies, to the in-between stage in life a woman faces after maternity and before old age, the period writer Liza Buzytsky refers to as "the provisional time of a woman's mid-life, after her visibility as a procreator has waned." Kelly herself says of the work, "The question I want to raise is, 'What is a woman?'"

Each part is comprised of six panels named after the passionate attitudes that the then-famous psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot attributed to hysterical women in the late-nineteenth century, from ecstasy and eroticism to menace and supplication. Photo silkscreened images of clothing items appear like disembodied ghosts, designating each part of the installation and offering alternative viewpoints on dress and fashion as symbols of self and status.

Like Post-Partum Document, Interim creates an interwoven platform for representing modern female identity, which is complex and multifaceted, constructed from the past, yet continuing to evolve in the present and change into the future.

Deliberately ambiguous and open ended, Interim firmly established Kelly as a leading Conceptual installation artist, motivated by socio-political ideas and the effective use of textual information and unusual juxtapositions to create an alternative form of potent storytelling.

Laminated photo positives, silkscreens, acrylic on Pexiglas panels, Dimensions variable - Installation view, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York


Gloria Patri

Comprised of three series of related metal sculptures - shields, trophies, and insignia - Gloria Patri spreads out across dramatically lit gallery walls, forming a multi-faceted work that encourages viewers to look up, down, and all around. Above the shields, in the center row, six aluminium trophies appear, each attached with a heroic male figure that carries one letter, together spelling out the word GLORIA. This refers to the work's title "Gloria Patri," which means "Glory to the Father" in English and alludes to the well-known Latin hymn that is widely used in various Christian liturgies.

In characteristic Kelly fashion, Gloria Patri presents a highly loaded theme in a clean and studied manner that seems entirely objective on the surface. Underneath her veneer of precision, though, she addresses her subject as anything but neat and tidy. After all, Kelly had a military-age son at the time of the Persian Gulf War (the conflict happening at the time), a personal, biographical fact that cannot be ignored, just as her having attended Catholic school must be taken into account when considering the influences behind Gloria Patri.

In using military, heraldic, and competitive motifs, Kelly suggests how society shapes the male gender, gearing it not only toward achievement and success but also toward the glory of patriotism. The real-life quotations on the trophies (the real-life stories from the war in Iraq), however, undercut any hint of idealism, as do the broken logos above them. "When you get up close to the shields and enter into the individual stories," Kelly writes, "the scenario of mastery and control fails."

At the same time, by contrast, Gloria Patri implies how female stereotypes are generated and perpetuated by social norms. This kind of questioning of gender stereotypes by Kelly, from the dawn of her career to the present, has been instrumental in the development of postmodern art, opening up a wider discourse on the complexities of modern identity.

Etched and polished aluminium, Dimensions variable - Installation view, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles


Circa 1968

Made in 2004, Circa 1968 looks back in time, marking a shift in Kelly's work to a reflective glance at the radical social changes proposed by the student movement and progressive Left of the 1960s.

At the centerpiece of this less complex but no less potent installation by Kelly is her appropriation of an iconic image taken by Jean-Pierre Rey in 1968 for Life Magazine. It is from Rey's documentary series on the student demonstrations that shook the streets of Paris during that watershed year, protests in which Kelly participated after first leaving Beirut and before settling in London. In this image of Caroline de Bendern - later dubbed "Marianne of May 68," after the allegorical figure representing republicanism - she sits on the shoulders of Jean-Jacques Lebel, holding a raised Vietcong flag, resembling the heroine in Eugene Delacroix's famous painting of the French Revolution, Liberty Leading the People (1830).

By skillfully printing this historical photograph onto lint gathered from her home dryer, Kelly deliberately makes the image appear fuzzy and indistinct, a visual characteristic that she enhances by subtly animating it with projected light noise. In this way, Kelly collapses personal and collective memory, giving Circa 1968 both autobiographical and cultural significance. At the same time, she questions the accuracy of our recollections of the past.

In a contemplative work like Circa 1968, made almost forty years after the event to which it refers, Kelly also begins to wonder about waning idealism. For her, the revolutionary events of 1968 represented here did not turn out to be as life-altering as she and many other radicals had hoped. Beyond politics, she likens her sceptical sentiment to the plight of Feminism, which has been thwarted, as she sees, its utopian dreams dashed and its battles for equal rights still playing out around the world today.

Detail of installation view, Compressed lint and projected light noise, Dimensions of this central image: 100 X 105 X 1.25 inches


Love Songs

As part of her continuing retrospective assessment of Feminism, Love Songs is a complex, large-scale installation that examines the political and ideological legacies of the early Anglo and American women's movement of the 1970s. It marks an important turning point in Kelly's career and in Feminist art, reading like an elegiac ode to the movement.

First exhibited at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, in 2007, the project observes ideas from two generations of Feminism - firstly, those who came of age in the 1960s, which would include Kelly, and, secondly, those who were born afterwards. In her musings about the activities and conflicts of two eras of Feminist activism, specifically, and the fate of Feminism, generally, Kelly describes her aims with this project, to express what is left "after the specific demands of the moment have faded, and what, if anything, is passed on from one generation to the next."

This installation at Documenta in Kassel was presented in four parts. Within a large rectangular space, its centrepiece appeared, almost magically. Made with her husband, the sculptor Ray Barrie, and called the Multi-Story House, this one-room structure glowed warmly, luring visitors in to peruse archival material that addresses Feminist activism and its place in an intergenerational dialogue. Installed on each of the surrounding gallery walls, respectively, were three supporting component parts describing different important protests and celebrations of the women's movement.

Another retrospective look at Feminism, Love Songs invites us not to forget and raises awareness about the gains of the women's movement by one of the preeminent artists who lead its charge. Yet, Kelly also highlights the ongoing problems that continue to persist. The gender gap has narrowed, but it is still not closed. "Rather than a nostalgic evocation of the 70s," she writes, "this work synthesizes past and present, exploring the ongoing investment of the artist and performers in both the history and current relevance of sexual politics."

Laser cut cast acrylic panels etched with text, wooden frame architectural structure, fluorescent light, glass floor, black-and white film loops, black-and-white transparencies in light boxes, color video

Biography of Mary Kelly


Mary Kelly was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1941, just months before the United States entered the Second World War. While the trauma of the war would haunt her as an adult, it fed into her creative practice. "When I was growing up amid the echo of the Second World War," Kelly has said, "we thought our parents had totally failed to prevent the holocaust." Artistically inclined from an early age, she left Iowa for Minnesota in 1959, to attend the College of Saint Teresa, a Catholic women's teaching institution in the small town of Winona, where she majored in visual art and minored in music, graduating with a B.A. in 1963.

Early Training and Work

Having set her sights on Europe, with its culture of freedom fighting and appetite for radical change, Kelly then studied art and art history at Florence's Pius XII Institute, which awarded her a Master of Arts degree in 1965. Instead of returning home upon completing graduate school, she went to teach art in Beirut, Lebanon, which, during the 1960s, was in the midst of a cultural renaissance. Fascinated by this new and different Middle Eastern capital in rapid transition, she decided to settle there for a few years. In speaking of this formative time in her life, when she was exposed to Beirut's French-leaning intelligentsia and learned of Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic theories and Karl Marx's social- political ideas, she has said: "(Beirut) was a shockingly different world but not the one you know today. It was a very cosmopolitan place when I was there. It was still very patriarchal and a little like the structure of Ancient Greece, with women cooking and taking care of the children and men out in the world. But people were so knowledgeable, so highly educated."

In 1968 Kelly returned to Europe, first visiting Paris to take part in the radical student uprisings of that watershed year. She later reprised the indelible experiences of that critical period in her multi-media, site-specific installation called Circa 1968 of 2004. Kelly soon left Paris behind and moved to London where she went to live in an all-female commune, while studying for a postgraduate degree in Fine Art at Saint Martin's School of Art, which she earned in 1970. As a student at St. Martin's, she found rich, fertile ground for new ideas and met many likeminded artists who would influence her on both personal and political levels, including the sculptor Ray Barrie, whom she would later marry. As she has noted, "There were ... some very progressive people at St. Martins when I was there: Gilbert and George, Richard Long and my partner Ray Barrie. I was a painter, but I hung out with the sculptors, a lot of whom went into film and photography."

Having remained in London after her postgraduate studies, Kelly was initially attracted to the rising trend of Conceptualism and actively participated in the debates shaping the movement while becoming involved in student and other political developments. She soon found herself drawn to the ideas animating the second wave of Feminism, which was rapidly rising around her. Throughout the 1970s, she joined various Feminist groups and collectives, and as an active member of the Women's Liberation Movement, she fought alongside thousands of women for greater gender equality. She focused on issues of women's labor and reproductive health, including access to universal childcare and abortion. As a member of the Berwick Street Collective, she worked on the iconic film Nightcleaners (1972-75), which documented young mothers forced to take on night shifts to financially support their families. Kelly was also a founding member of the Artists' Union, which was set up to advance artist workers' rights and to give value to the processes of cultural labor. With union members Margaret Harrison and Kay Hunt, she created Women and Work: A Document on the Divisions of Labour in Industry (1975), using documentary photography and film to study more than 150 female workers at a metal box foundry. Looking back, she recalls a sense of burgeoning optimism about that time: "When we were talking about a new form of family back then, the context seemed very hopeful. Communal living, pre-school care; it felt that those things were imminent."

Kelly's early phase in England was a career-defining period. Of this dynamic time, she has said: "London was absolutely formative for me. Not least because I was very young. Everything was happening then. Everything was on fire." As she became an outspoken Feminist and embraced the women's movement famous slogan, "the personal is political," she began making individual artworks that followed the same ideological path as her collective works, but what distinguished them was the inclusion of intimate material from her ordinary, everyday life. Just as her Feminist predecessor Miriam Schapiro had done with Minimalism, she began to resist those parts of Conceptualism that tended toward the depersonalized and the detached, and, instead moved toward the personal and the compassionate. Despite the theoretical foundations of her art, Kelly has always maintained that she deals "with the most elusive, imprecise things, like feelings and emotions."

Mature Period

Following her early experimentation with collective action, Kelly began work on a very personal, individual project after becoming pregnant with her partner, Ray Barrie. In her early film Antepartum (1973), she focused the camera lens on her unborn baby as it moved slowly within her abdomen, echoing the aesthetics of repetition and real time duration that marked London's experimental film making of the time, as in Yoko Ono's Fly (1970) that painstakingly documents a real fly as it deliberately explores the nude body of actress, Virginia Lust.

Upon giving birth to her son, Kelly, in 1973, who took her surname as his first name, Kelly gained a tangibly real understanding of the dual roles working mothers faced, as she, too, found herself torn between the need for an intimate connection with her child, yet hungry for a career as an artist. She now had a personal and visceral grasp of the inspiration that had instinctively animated her early collective works on women's issues. At the time that she gave birth, though, she was still living in a commune, where she had a network of women around her, recalling, "my son was born in a communal situation and that was so important."

Not long after giving birth, Kelly began chronicling the development of her child as well as of herself as a young mother, revealing, through a series of intimate artworks, personal moments of both loving tenderness and painful struggle. Her documentation of this time would continue for the next six years, coming together as the career-defining Post-Partum Document (1973-79), which she described as revolving "around the recurring themes of body, money, history and power."

Kelly first exhibited Post-Partum Document at London's Institute for Contemporary Art in London in 1976, where she gained attention as the first woman to hold a solo show in the influential gallery space. She also caused a media frenzy by including dirty nappy liners on the gallery wall, but she has argued, "I didn't set out to shock. I was formed in the moment of conceptualism. My models were Art and Language (the English conceptual art group). I was carrying out an interrogation. I wanted to deal with the stuff of life; which I felt they weren't doing. I wanted to engage people emotionally and intellectually at the same time."

Following on from Post-Partum Document, Kelly committed herself to leading the Feminist cause through her art. "Feminism made everything I did from Post-Partum Document on very consistent," she has said. "I was working from what I call my discursive psyche." Yet her interest in male-driven psychoanalytic theory placed her in a complicated double bind, because it was rejected by many fellow Feminist artists, like Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann, and Marina Abramović, who focused on the objectification of the female body. By contrast, Kelly opened up a discourse that was more about a woman's state of mind, addressing intellectual, psychoanalytical, or wider social concerns.

From 1985-86, Kelly was an Artist-in-Residence at Kettle's Yard and New Hall in Cambridge where she began work on her large-scale series Interim (1984-9), exploring themes around women's relationship to history, money, and power. It was an uplifting period of creativity for the artist, who found she was able to share ideas with likeminded thinkers, including art historians Norman Bryson and Margaret Iversen. She remembered back, "I think this was probably the first time we put sexuality, psychoanalysis, feminism and conceptual art together on the same platform."

In 1989, after spending two decades abroad, Kelly returned to the United States after joining the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where she continued to develop Interim (1984-89), exhibiting the completed series in its entirety at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990. Kelly's long-time supporter, the art critic Craig Owens, organized a ground-breaking symposium around the display, On the Subject of History, which cemented Kelly's reputation as a key player in the Feminist and postmodernist debates of the period.

Late Period

After her engagement with the Whitney Museum of American Art, Kelly remained in the United States with her family. Throughout the 1990s, she continued working on ambitious series, expanding her scope to address issues of war and the paralyzing emotion of fear, drawing upon her own experiences as a child during the Second World War. These large-scale installation works included Gloria Patri (1992), Mea Culpa (1999), and the monumental The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi (2001), featuring a soundtrack by composer Michael Nyman.

Since the 1990s, Kelly has established herself as one of her generation's most important art educators. In 1996 she was the first woman to become a Distinguished Professor of Art at the School of the Arts and Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. There she founded the Interdisciplinary Studio Area and the Graduate Group Critique, exploring alternative methods where, "the artist doesn't speak and everyone else does the reading (critiquing the artwork), which I think is very much informed by feminism." After twenty years at UCLA, she was again recognized as an outstanding professor when, in 2017, she was appointed the Judge Widney Professor at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California, an important post she still holds today. That same year, The Getty Research Institute honored Kelly by acquiring her extensive archive.

In recent artworks, Kelly has explored the points where collective and personal memories come together, as in Circa 1968 (2004), a retrospective look back to the political student uprisings in Paris of the 1960s, first exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 2004 and Love Songs (2005-07), a restaging of Feminist protests from the 1970s. New works have also incorporated lint, as a common material loaded with female, domestic associations. Ingeniously printed and pieced together into intricately woven networks, many of these lint pieces illustrate graphic scenes relating to the oppression of women during war.

Kelly continues to live and work in Los Angeles with her husband Ray Barrie and is represented by Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York. In 2007 Kelly and Barrie were commissioned by Documenta XII to produce Multi-Story House (2007), an illuminated three-dimensional model narrating the development of Feminism since the 1970s, highlighting the hard-earned freedoms for which women have fought. Today, she has a home studio in Los Angeles surrounded by light, overlooking mountain hillsides and greenery, about which she writes, "It's a quiet setting. I love to come back here after I've been travelling; it's very conducive to work."

The Legacy of Mary Kelly

Kelly's pioneering, diaristic approach to making art through gradual, methodological practices has been especially influential on following generations of women artists, both directly and indirectly. Parallel approaches and methods can be seen in work by these younger women artists, for example, whose careers' followed Kelly's.

In Adrian Piper's work, we see the same sparing displays of autobiographical subject matter for which Kelly is known. Piper's mixed-media What Will Become of Me (1985) looks clean and orderly on the surface but upon closer examination, one discovers its studied scientific veneer is made up of the artist's own collection of skin bits, strands of hair, and fingernail clippings as a way of addressing a very personal matter, her ethnicity. Collected and deployed for aesthetic purposes, just as Kelly saved her son's dirty nappies for visual and emotional effect, Piper placed these cast offs from her own body into a neat row of honey jars, contemplating, through her human waste, the traces she will leave behind after she dies. This time-based work is open-ended, intended to be completed only when Piper's cremated remains are collected into the very last honey jar and placed at the end of the shelf, as way of bookending her life.

Tracey Emin is another, younger conceptual artist known for her autobiographical and confessional work that is interdisciplinary and, generally, installation-based. If Emin creates discrete objects, as in her bound book Exploration of the Soul (1994), she still mixes media, in this case photography and appliqué stitching on white calico fabric. Like Kelly's work, this piece has an important element of time and it shares extremely intimate details of the artist's life. It is based on the first thirteen years of her life, "from the moment of my conception to losing my virginity against my will," the artist has said. "The book is a mental journey - my coming to terms with beauty, innocence and evil combined."

Kelly's questioning of socially prescribed gender roles and her use of time-inflected, multi-media installation formats also had an important legacy effect on the late Helen Chadwick.. Chadwick expanded on Kelly's discourse about gender representation and the body, for example, in her best-known, site-specific installation piece, Piss Flowers (1991-92). To create the final large-scale presentation of twelve bronze sculptures enamelled in white, Chadwick used ephemeral means, first forming large mounds out of frozen snow and then laying metal-shaped outlines of flowers onto the frozen ice crystals. Subsequently, she and her partner David Notarius took turns urinating into these templates. Where the cold snow melted away upon contact with the warm urine, Chadwick then made plaster molds that formed the basis for the later bronze sculptures. Chadwick considered the flowers to be a "metaphysical concept for the union of two people expressing themselves bodily."

Many other contemporary artists have also extended Kelly's conceptual approach and her interdisciplinary methodology. Sonia Boyce, for example, focuses on the nature of racial representation through drawing, print, photography and performance art, while Berni Searle uses photography, video, and film, enhanced with three-dimensional found materials, to stage meandering narratives about the female body and the complex history and racial struggles of South Africa.

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