Summer Reading

Summer Reading: Fade to Black (Mike Kelley)

As the editors at Art Practical and Daily Serving get ready to take their end-of-summer vacations, we find ourselves swapping reading lists—the articles we’ll dive into once have some uninterrupted time to catch up on what our colleagues have been writing. We’ve gotten so excited about what’s on our lists that we want to share them with our readers. Between now and Labor Day, Daily Serving will feature the efforts of our fellow chroniclers of art and culture as part of our Summer Reading series. Today we are pleased to present an excerpt of Howard Singerman’s reflection on the Mike Kelley retrospective at MoMA PS1, originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly. Many thanks to the editors at X-TRA for their help in making this series possible. Enjoy!

Mike Kelley. Day Is Done, 2005–06; Installation views in Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. © 2013 MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Mike Kelley. Day Is Done, 2005–06; installation view, Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. © 2013 MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

By most accounts, the Mike Kelley retrospective exhibition at MoMA PS1 was a resounding success. The old public-school building seemed the perfect environment for Kelley’s work, given its themes and iconography, and it was always packed. There were crowds of young people, more than a few in elaborate costumes; art students, or people who fit that description; and families with children in strollers. One hopes the kids were young enough not to know what they were looking at, but with Freud and Kelley both, it is likely that no child is ever young enough not to be traumatized, if only after the fact. Every time I went, there were lines waiting to get into the gallery that housed his Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, (1991/1999); it’s not clear to me why that work in particular, but it became a popular Instagram and Tumblr image and blog entry. The Brooklyn Rail’s reviewer calls the work “iconic,” though I’m not sure how it got to be, or even whether it was before PS1. The atmosphere was oddly joyful or, maybe fittingly, carnivalesque. I don’t know what people made of the work, but there was palpable goodwill and a real respect for how hard Kelley worked, and how much different work he produced. As one blogger put it: “We all have the same 24 hours in a day and I have to strive harder to make the minutes count.” “It’s a testament to how much productivity and creativity can come from a mind that is challenged and passionate about their craft. Hoping to gain more of that perspective this year.”

Walking through the exhibition, I felt myself quite distant from the crowds (a conventional modernist feeling, I know), wondering what they got from the works assembled, beyond lessons in productivity, time management, and goth punk sensibility; what they took in or imagined it was about. You might hear this as elitist and pedantic, given that I am presuming a right, or at least a righter, way to think about the work. Maybe so. I do have some sense of the interpretative horizon of Kelley’s work and I’ve written a lot about at least some aspects of it. But my estrangement was not only “critical distance” or aristocratic distaste; it was also affective, and not about the crowd at all. PS1 was very much a haunted house for me, as it was for many who knew Mike, and if the show was affirming, it was also, at least for me, sad and angering. 

Read the full article here.