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Mike Kelley Photo

Mike Kelley

American Sculptor, Conceptual, Performance, and Video Artist

Born: October 27, 1954 - Wayne, Michigan
Died: January 31, 2012 - South Pasadena, California
"I think what I make is beautiful. I think it’s beautiful because terms and divisions between terms are confused, and divisions between categories start to slip. That produces what I think of as a sublime effect, or it produces humor."
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"Art saved my life. Art was the place that made me want to educate myself. When I became an artist, it was where the most interesting thinkers were."
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"I really think art's about representation. And I don't believe in nonobjective art; I don't think there's such a thing."
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"In my family, art was considered to be what communists and homosexuals did."
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"I think my work is more about structural interplay - I entertain many kinds of subjects in it."
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"I wanted to be an artist. You could never be a success... At the time, it seemed like a contradiction of terms. I came from a milieu in which artists were despised, whereas rock musicians and drug dealers were hipster culture heroes."
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"I've stolen ideas, and people have stolen from me. I'm all for it. That's the way things get created. That's how culture grows."
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"We're surrounded by invisibility. That's what I think art can do - make things visible."
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"For me, psychedelia was sublime because in psychedelia, your worldview fell apart. That was a sublime revelation, that was my youth, and that was my notion of beauty. And that was a kind of cataclysmic sublime. It was very interiorized, it wasn't about a metaphysical outside; it was about your own consciousness."
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"We're living in the postmodern age, the death of the avant-garde. So, all I can really do now is work with this dominant culture and flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure it, expose it - because popular culture is really invisible."
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Summary of Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley took a scalpel to late-20th-century American popular culture, estranging the familiar and exposing society's dark underbelly in works that were as wide-ranging in their subject matter as they were inventive in choice and combination of media. From the beginning, Kelley's anarchic performances and videos resonated with the emergent DIY ethos of the late 1970s and early 1980s punk subculture, first in his native Michigan, and then in Los Angeles. From there, his heterogeneous practice struck a chord with the climate of postmodern theory during the 1980s and 1990s. Kelley's musical activities and his collaborative work with acts such as Sonic Youth were also a key link between the art and rock worlds during those decades. And as his work became more and more complex and ambitious, Kelley did much to open up the potential of Installation art to absorb new media, and to captivate and overwhelm the viewer in immersive and often chaotic ensembles of disparate objects. Upon his suicide in 2012 at the age of 57, Kelley bequeathed to a younger generation of film, video, performance, and installation artists, a legacy of visual and sonic assaults upon the viewer's moral certainties, aesthetic sensibilities, and the decorum of the gallery environment.


  • Kelley incorporated found objects - most famously, soft toys - into many of his works. Often sourced from thrift stores, these objects added a distinctive chapter to the history of the readymade in contemporary art, whose origins lie in the practices of Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. Signifying failure, waste, and regret as well as connoting symbolic and actual violence, Kelley's use of the found object became a key component of the trend towards abject themes in contemporary art of the late 1980s and 1990s.
  • Gathering diverse found materials from a wide variety of sources, Kelley acted as a pop ethnographer of kitsch Americana, low-brow culture and the rituals and rites of passage of everyday suburban and small-town life. Incorporating all of these themes into his work, Kelley helped to forge the notion, now widespread, of the contemporary artist as akin to an amateur cultural anthropologist.
  • With careful planning and editing, Kelley often assembled works of different media into installations of various constituent parts. In doing so, he helped to debunk the traditional expectation that the artist must be a 'master' of a particular medium. Instead, the unifying factor in many of Kelley's heterogeneous installations and sculptural assemblages became above all conceptual rather than formal.
  • Kelley was a prolific collaborator, and as both a teacher and an artist, he fostered an ethos of generosity and creative exchange that would exert an influence upon a younger generation of 'relational' artists that emerged in the 1990s.

Biography of Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley Photo

Born in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan in 1954, Mike Kelley grew up in a working class family as the youngest of four children. Ten years separated Kelley from his older siblings and, as a result, he spent much of his childhood alone, reading in his room. His father, a maintenance worker for the public school system, was not very involved in his children's lives. By contrast, his mother, a cook at Ford Motor Company's cafeteria, was, in Kelley's words, "a complete control freak." Growing up, he had a tumultuous relationship with his parents. In high school, he once wore a thrift-store dress to school just to upset them. His parents were devout Catholics, but by the time Kelley was in first grade, he remembers thinking that religion "was a load of shit."

Important Art by Mike Kelley

The Banana Man (1983)

Kelley's first solo video work, The Banana Man, depicts the artist performing in the guise of the eponymous "Banana Man", a minor character from the popular children's television show Captain Kangaroo. While the show was familiar to Kelley from his youth, he had never himself witnessed the Banana Man on screen. Instead, what he described as his "attempt to construct a psychology of the Banana Man" relied entirely on his memories of childhood friends' descriptions of the character. The resulting "series of scenes" is based on two fragments of childhood "hearsay": that the Banana Man liked to pull long items from his many pockets, including toy trains and strings of hot dogs, and that his only vocalisation was an "oooh" sound that accompanied this repetitive activity. In The Banana Man, Kelley explores the possibilities for suggesting individual character by way of the slightest of cues.

Kelley had created performances while still a graduate student at CalArts, often working in collaboration with fellow students including Tony Oursler and Jim Shaw. Of Kelley's early performances, Oursler has recalled that "you couldn't see him perform without feeling invigorated and confused. You realized you were caught up in a tide-pool of Freudian and Jungian misnomers with a punk overtone to it all - he was chaos and utter brilliance." However, Kelley resisted capturing these early performances on video, since he felt uncomfortable recording events that were intended to be witnessed first-hand.

By contrast, just a few years after his graduation from CalArts, this video recording of The Banana Man deliberately exploits the potential of multimedia editing to sustain the illusion of character. As Kelley explains: "Because of the conventions of editing, video and film tend to normalize fracture. The viewer is expected to jump from one image to the next and experience it as a seamless development. To me, this experience of seamlessness seemed to correspond to the notion of unified character."

Kelley's lack of familiarity with the original Banana Man, and his reliance on distant memories, ensures that, despite a full twenty-eight minutes of edited performance, the figure finally remains little more than an absurd cipher. But this incompletion is also an offering to the viewer to fill in the gaps and to project their own sense of this half-forgotten oddball. For Kelley, "it is up to the viewer to come to terms with what this character is". As such, the open-ended nature of The Banana Man seems to resonate with postmodern notions of its time that are still relevant today, suggesting individual subjectivity as an unfixed tissue of fragments heavily determined by the media and other social structures.

More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987)

More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid marks the first time that Kelley used stuffed-animal toys as a medium. These objects would go on to become a hallmark of the artist's mature practice, and More Love Hours itself is a significant moment in the emergence of the degraded "junk" aesthetic cultivated in the work of many artists in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, from Jason Rhoades to Rirkrit Tiravanija and Thomas Hirschhorn - the "chaotic arrangement" of the "flea market" that the influential curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud would, in 2002, identify as "the dominant art form of the nineties".

Kelley collected these discarded tokens of childhood devotion from thrift stores, tightly arranging them among assorted crocheted afghans on a large canvas measuring eight by ten feet. Apparently tacked to the wall by two ears of dried corn at the upper right- and left-hand corners, this dense assemblage of soiled objects foreshadows the similarly crowded compositions of trinkets and tchotchkes of the later Memory Ware series of collages and sculptures that would eventually occupy Kelley in the last decade of his life.

The scale of More Love Hours recalls the heroic, hyper-masculine paintings of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s, while the richly colored, all-over design of the work is reminiscent of Hans Hoffmann's "push-and-pull" paintings of the late 1950s, in a nod to Kelley's undergraduate training as a painter at the University of Michigan. By creating a quasi-abstract image from an accumulation of soft toys and blankets, Kelley pits low culture against high art, and mounts a sly assault on the high-minded aesthetics of 20th-century abstract painting. As art historian Howard Singerman explains, "high art is often a target in Kelley's work; he mistrusts particularly abstraction's claim to (at once) universal speech and pregnant silence... he refuses to acknowledge the line between high and low art."

More Love Hours's deflation of the ideals of high modernism is of a piece with its more general aura of emotional and spiritual disillusionment. The work's title also suggests wasted effort as a theme, whether this be the futile emotional labour of unrequited love, or the many long hours of stitching that were once required to create the toys and blankets themselves. More Love Hours was first exhibited at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles with a companion sculpture, The Wages of Sin, an assembled shrine of homemade candles set atop a table and placed to the left of the wall hanging. Together with the (autobiographical) Catholic overtones of its companion piece, Kelley's work connotes themes of devotion, guilt, longing and debt that are left unspecified, but which nevertheless seem tinged with nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood, while pointing with a bitter humor to the failures and disenchantments of adulthood.

Pay For Your Pleasure (1988)

Pay for Your Pleasure has become one of Kelley's most celebrated works. The installation consists of a long corridor flanked on both sides by 42 large, colorful poster-like paintings depicting celebrated male poets, philosophers, and artists, with a quotation attributed to each individual above their portrait. Painted by commerical artists from photographs, the panels are reminiscent of the inspirational posters hanging in high school English classrooms across America. However, in Kelley's work, each quotation champions artistic genius as inherently rebellious and above the law. Oscar Wilde, for instance, is accompanied by his bold, art-for-art's-sake assertion that "the fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose."

Kelley's installation is now permanently housed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In its early days, however, it toured to different venues, the corridor ending at each iteration with the inclusion of an artwork created by a notorious local criminal. For the work's Chicago debut, viewers were thus greeted with a disturbing self-portrait by the Cook County serial killer John Wayne Gacy, dressed as his alter-ego, Pogo the Clown. Kelley finally placed donation boxes at the beginning and end of his corridor installation, allowing visitors to donate money to local charitable organizations assisting the victims of violent crimes. As the art critic Christopher Knight explains, "you're bluntly reminded to pay for your voyeuristic pleasure, as you sidle up to peruse the killer's aesthetic product. Like old-fashioned religious indulgences, the contribution boxes let you relieve your gnawing cultural guilt."

Pay for your Pleasure is mockingly site-specific, and like much of Kelley's work, it trains its sights on the viewer's discomfort, seeking to expose the contradictions and hypocrisies that lie at the heart of society and its conventions, including our expectations of art itself. Here, as Knight further explains, "Kelley's provocative installation gaily throws a monkey wrench into all sorts of entrenched assumptions about art. One is the romantic faith in art's value as a universal gauge of personal authenticity and worth. Another is the blandly sentimental assumption that art's highest purpose is to be redemptive."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Mike Kelley
Influenced by Artist
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    Mark Grotjahn
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    Sterling Ruby
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    Liam Gillick
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Paul McCarthy
    Paul McCarthy
  • Tony Oursler
    Tony Oursler
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    Raymond Pettibon
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Mike Kelley Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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