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February 2, 2012

The Prince of L.A.

When I was in art school in Los Angeles in the 1990s, my mentor, artist Mitchell Syrop, occasionally told stories about Mike Kelley. He and Mike had been roommates when they were attending graduate school at CalArts in the late 1970s. Mike and a handful of other CalArts students became famous in the late 1980s and early 1990s, putting L.A. contemporary art on the map, at least as much as and possibly more than a previous generation of L.A. artists--including Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin--had done in the 1960s. Kelley's work was high and low at the same time. It was funny, in-your-face, accessible, and also cerebral. Growing up working-class in Detroit, Kelley never talked down to his audience, despite the work's sophistication. Years ago, I remember seeing a series of sculptures that he made out of wood, which looked like strange riffs on high school shop-class projects. How could conceptual art be so folksy and yet so smart? I'm still not sure. Mitchell liked to say that while one of his most famous CalArts classmates turned out to be an asshole, Mike was and always would be a gentleman.

On November 19, I met Kelley for the first and last time. The occasion was an opening in L.A. of a show based around the former Detroit band, Destroy All Monsters, whose members first included Kelley and another L.A. artist, Jim Shaw. Kelley was standing against a wall wearing a black trench coat and black work boots. I went over, introduced myself, and told him how Mitchell used to call him a gentleman. Mike seemed touched, said that he hadn't seen Mitchell in years and asked that I send him his regards.

Then he got a bit gloomy. He said that he wasn't always nice to people, and that, in fact, he was often an asshole. He said that he constantly had to remind himself not to be an asshole. "See?" he said, holding up the back of his hand two inches in front of my eyes. I could see that he had written his first name in thick black ink across his knuckles. Below his name was smaller writing. But I was not wearing my glasses and could not read it. He said, "This is to remind me not to be an ass. Young people who are assholes can get away with it. But old men who are assholes are just pathetic grouches."

In the hours since Mike Kelley died, much has already been written about him and been digitally disseminated around the world. He obviously touched thousands of people through his remarkable work. Who knows what he had left to say? I'm sure Mitchell would agree that there won't be many more like him coming along anytime soon.

February 2, 2012 5:48 PM | | Comments (0)

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