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Mary Kelly Photo

Mary Kelly

American Photographer and Mixed Media Artist

Born: 1941 - Fort Dodge, Iowa
Movements and Styles:
Conceptual Art
Feminist Art
"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."
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Mary Kelly
"Something very wonderful has happened. If you look at how men engage with their children, it's totally different. My husband Ray was the only man with a child in a backpack at the big demonstrations in the 70s. He used to get wolf-whistled picking our son up from school."
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Mary Kelly
"...in my work, I present narrative prose that unfolds in time, creating a sense of something accumulating over time in the gallery space."
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Mary Kelly
"I've noticed that the way some women have been written about, it's always about the work in question. There's not the same riff they do for the men, which is to say where they came from, how they're connected, who they influenced. They don't give them a historical presence."
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Mary Kelly
"I think that all borders are anathema to art. Internationalism is, I believe, always connected to movements that are progressive and the opposite goes for closing down."
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Mary Kelly
"I think if I see any hope it's in the current generation of women of colour: they are just on fire. If you look at most of the demonstrations and organisations that are active right now, the spokesperson is usually a young black woman, and that is hopeful."
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Mary Kelly
"I often use things that come from around me, in my domestic situation. So when I came across lint, in my dryer, it presented a challenge. How do I process that into a form that will work? I never fetishize the material, I just like it to feel right for the ideas."
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Mary Kelly
"I didn't set out to shock. I was formed in the moment of conceptualism. My models were Art and Language. I was carrying out an interrogation. I wanted to deal with the stuff of life... I wanted to engage people emotionally and intellectually at the same time."
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Mary Kelly
"What is important to me is to be known as an artist whose work is informed by feminism. I don't think there is such a thing as feminist art that can be defined in terms of a certain style or content."
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Mary Kelly
"In the 1970s, being a feminist took over from being a woman as the representative of a marginalized other. So, yes, my work was approached differently by most of the conceptual artists who were men."
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Mary Kelly
"The tactile, or what I might call haptic, quality of the work is a means of making affect pass into visual form, a kind of emotional residue, analogous to the experience of music that lingers as an afterimage."
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Mary Kelly
"She is the godmother of feminist art."
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Nell Frizzell

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.


  • In her art, Mary Kelly lived the famous Feminist slogan, "the personal is political." Instead of the intentionally cool, detached, and depersonalized approach taken by some of her male counterparts of Conceptual art, Kelly believed in making art based on her everyday life and the use of ordinary materials with the aim of effecting change and "dealing with the most elusive, imprecise things, like feelings and emotions," she has said. By inflecting Conceptualism with personal, autobiographical content, Kelly had an enormous impact on Feminist art and on the breaking down of barriers between fine art and popular culture.
  • Kelly believed in a complex, layered process for making her idea-based art. Having been inspired by a concept, she researched it, personalized it, and then strategically interspersed elements of her data-rich study into the very fabric of her large-scale, mixed-media installations. In her use of information as both form and content, she expanded the accepted norms for artistic media and presentation well beyond the framed oil on canvas that characterized her formal training.
  • In re-thinking the ways of making art and representing imagery, Kelly's use of materials was wide-ranging, a free and open way of working that allowed her to effortlessly cull from her own experience as she did from her in-depth, academic style investigations. By embracing the flotsam and jetsam of her daily life - like her ingenious use of lint collected from her own laundry room dryer - she opened up a new form of visual vocabulary, a fresh world of metaphors that made powerful associations and continued to erode the boundaries separating high and low art.
  • In addition to her ground-breaking art, Kelly has actively produced important theoretical articles and essays over the years that have helped define Conceptual art, Feminism, and Postmodernism. And, starting with her teaching post at the influential Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1989, she has gone on to become one of the leading art educators of her generation. At the University of California, Los Angeles, she pioneered the Interdisciplinary Studio as an essential educational tool, establishing a creative laboratory that deliberately combines artistic production and directed research for the purposes of teaching students to make multi-faceted, site-specific works.

Biography of Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly Photo

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.

Important Art by Mary Kelly

Documentation V (1977)

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.

Nightcleaners Part I (1975)

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."

Interim (1984-89)

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Mary Kelly
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Ray Barrie
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    Art & Language
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    Norman Bryson
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    Margaret Iversen
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Mary Kelly

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Mary Kelly Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 06 Nov 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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