I hadn’t planned to see the Mike Kelley retrospective at MoMA PS1. If we were free associating on the art in the publicity image above, I’d immediately tell you: “massive allergy attack” and “Claritin-D.” But when the show made several end of year “Best Shows of 2013” lists (here and here), I rethought my decision – maybe I was missing something?
Two weeks post-visit, I’m still not sure. Not for lack of trying, I just do not feel a connection to Kelley’s work. It happens. But this void makes me even more curious about his connection to his work – what drove Kelley’s creative choices? I am frustrated that such a large show has left me with no clear sense of who he was, what he was about, and why he warranted a retrospective of this scale. In other words, I left the show barely more informed than when I walked in.
Kelley was prolific; working in “every conceivable medium,” his art expresses his reflections and reactions to issues of class and popular culture. According to just about every article I read after attending the show, he is considered one of the most influential American artists of our time. I’m sure that the volume of his output combined with the fact of his premature death at age 57, in 2012, made editing this show quite challenging. It takes up the entire PS1 building. But in trying to do justice to as much of Kelley’s work and thinking as possible, the show’s organizers have effectively diluted the overall impact of his creativity for visitors like me.
Of what was on view, I connected a bit more with his earlier works, including the John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (Including the Local Culture Pictorial Guide, 1968–1972, Wayne/Westland Eagle), 2001. This sculpture of John Glenn is based on a modernist version at the Detroit high school Kelley attended, and is adorned with shards of pottery and glass debris dredged from Detroit’s river.
In the same vein, Memory Ware Flat #4 (2009) preserves found objects of everyday life on canvas:
I felt less connected works like Mike Kelley as the Banana Man (above) and confused by the amount of space devoted to Kelley’s Kandors. Kandor, you may recall, is a city on Krypton, Superman’s home planet. Krypton was stolen by the villain Brainiac, who shrank the city and kept it in glass bottle secreted away in his hideaway, The Fortress of Solitude. Ok, kind of fun. But not four (or was it five?) rooms of fun. Not even three.
Finally, digital was well represented in the show, but presented in an overwhelming way in one large room. It was too much simultaneous noise and video action for me; I didn’t watch any of it.
The visitor experience: room for improvement
Some thoughts for the museum:
Content: This show would have benefited from more rigorous editing. While I think the PS1 building (an old school) is terrific, it’s a tricky venue with lots of small classroom spaces. The content and the architecture were not well suited to one another, and there was no natural flow to my visit.
Signage: Because there is no audioguide for this show, the labels needed to do the heavy lifting on interpretation. But for the most part the text sticks to the standard ‘who, what, where’ verbiage.
Some thoughts for visitors:
Read reviews: I don’t normally read reviews before visiting shows, because I want to form my own opinion first. But in this case, with an unfamiliar artist and art that initially underwhelmed me, reviews may have provided a useful framework for how to think about what I was seeing when at the museum.
Take the tour: While I’ve never taken advantage of it, many museums, including PS1, offer free gallery tours two or three times a day. The day I visited the gallery tour in progress consisted of a museum educator and one couple. Virtually a private tour! I have a lot to learn about contemporary art so I am going to incorporate these tours into my visits moving forward.
Overall, I feel this show prioritized a “more is more” approach in place of celebrating and educating visitors about the legacy of Mike Kelley in a meaningful way. And by visitors I mean regular visitors, not the artists, art critics and curators who already know Kelley’s work and may have even known the artist personally. For people like me, first time viewers of the work, the show was just overwhelmingly large, physically tedious to navigate, and offered too little in the way of context for the artworks on view.
Retrospectives are great ways to honor artists and bring new audiences to their work. While they don’t have to be master classes of scholarship, I know I would have enjoyed my visit more if there had been a consistent narrative to follow throughout.