Filmmaker John Waters, who owns artwork by Kelley, describes these installations in his 2010 book "Role Models," calling him "the man who made pitiful seem sexy by turning grimy thrift-store stuffed animals into heartbreaking, jaw-droppingly beautiful sculptures by placing them on stained blankets on the floor or facedown on card tables next to one another like dead Jonestown suicide cultists."
In 1988 Kelley created an installation called "Pay for Your Pleasure," which featured a sort of rogue's gallery of portraits of men of genius — poets, philosophers and artists included — subverted at the end by a painting created by a convicted criminal. It is now in the permanent collection of MOCA.
For curator Emi Fontana, seeing the piece when it traveled to Berlin was so powerful that she says it was one of the reasons she joined the contemporary art world, leaving her work as an art historian specializing in 15th and 16th century Venetian paintings behind to open a gallery in Milan. She calls it "a masterpiece about genius and criminality, about the human psyche."
Fontana went on to work on multiple projects with Kelley over the years, and had a romantic relationship with him that lasted from 2000 to 2008 and brought her to Los Angeles. She called Kelley a "genius," describing him as a "voracious reader and an omnivorous listener."
"What is amazing is how Mike was able to bring the avant-garde underground and the world of fine art together in a way that was really interesting," Fontana said. "If you think of all these activities like 'Destroy All Monsters,' his way of integrating the counterculture into discourse of contemporary art was quite unique."
Along with his collaborations with Jim Shaw and Tony Oursler, Kelley was also known for working with L.A. artist Paul McCarthy in the 1990s. They collaborated on a series of video projects, including a 1992 work based on Johanna Spyri's classic children's book, "Heidi," which used deformed rubber dolls to enact odd scenes of domestic violence. Because of their interest in the grotesque, some critics group Kelley and McCarthy together.
Schimmel thinks the comparison is a bit superficial. "I think in some ways they are joined together because they became visible internationally around the same time," he said. "[But] in many respects Paul's work responds to minimalism, happenings and other influences from the '60s. I think Mike is arguably a more conceptual artist: somebody who refers to much more diverse sources, everything from American history to Plato to popular culture."
These sources all came together in a 2005 show at Gagosian Gallery in New York, an epic video installation called "Day is Done" that brought together 31 sculptures and three hours of video. Kelley has described it as his "pseudo-autobiography."
Over the years his work was well recognized. He showed with several major galleries, including Metro Pictures and Gagosian in New York, and had work acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London, among others. A Kelley retrospective is set to be the inaugural show of the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam when it reopens, currently scheduled for the end of the year. It will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014.
But Fontana, who saw Kelley last week for dinner, said that Kelley's art-world accomplishments had a price, as he had been actively struggling with what it means to succeed in a world that has become more materialistic and foreign to him.
"He had a deep discomfort in seeing what the art world is now," Fontana said. "He didn't like the fact that everything has become so corporate. He said to me: 'If I were to start now, I would never become a visual artist.'
"He really wanted to be an important artist, and he worked all of his life for that. He found himself at the top of his game and then found that the world he was at the top of was a world that he didn't like. That's intense existentially."
Kelley is survived by his older brother George Kelley, who lives near Houston.