Step Across the Line: Mike Kelley, 1954–2012

Last week, we installed in the Ahmanson Building two works from our collection by Mike Kelley as a humble tribute to the recently deceased artist. News of Kelley’s passing hit the art scene—here and abroad—with a forceful, unexpected shock. Innumerable artists that I’ve met over the years trace some if not all of their formative interest in art to Kelley. Just this week I spoke with an artist whose allegiance to the written word as a component of her practice was deeply shaped by the artist.

Mike Kelley, Wallflowers, 1988, museum purchase with funds provided by the Awards in the Visual Arts Program

On a personal level, I understand, since it was my experience of Mike Kelley’s Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Room (With Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry (1991), included in the seminal MoCA exhibition Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 90s, that drew me to study art. In the early 2000s, I had the opportunity to work for Kelley’s studio. Perversely, it was from Kelley, the artist whose critical engagement with institutions had started me down a path from art making to curating, that I learned firsthand how to work with museums, galleries, and arts organizations.

Digging into our archive, I came across research for an installation the artist did in 1987 for the LACMA exhibition Avant-Garde in the Eighties. Kelley’s site-specific work was originally conceived to connect the museum’s galleries with the loading dock and break room, where visitors would use a battering ram to knock down an “employees only” door to find LACMA’s hidden art treasures: photocopied cartoons and jokes done or exchanged by the staff.

Mike Kelley, Study for "From My Institution to Yours", 1987, gift of the artist

When LACMA’s administration was unable to accommodate Kelley’s request he revised his plan for the piece. Indicative of the artist’s irrepressible humor and anti-authoritarianism, he inserted the following text on the wall: “I am in solidarity with the workers. Climb over the rampart. Batter down the door. Step across the line that separates brother and sister from brother and sister.”

Kelley’s fierce independence, wit, and intelligence are aspects of his character that many will miss, and yet we do have thirty years of his paintings, performances, videos, sculptures, drawings, installations, and writings that will help us both to remember and keep on battering down those doors.

Rita Gonzalez, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art

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