Richard Woodward asks a simple question in the Wall Street Journal about Mike Kelley’s legacy as an artist, not just which aspects of his oeuvre ought to be emphasized but what will be the fate of a an aggressively working-class artist’s legacy when entrusted to the most elite of galleries:
Should curators devote more space to his sprawling crypto-autobiographic video and sculpture installations of recent years? Or to his musical career, begun while a University of Michigan student and never abandoned, as a member of the Dada/glam-rock/free-jazz/heavy-metal/punk band Destroy All Monsters? (He seemed to give equal weight to both expressions of his personality.)
His most identifiable body of work (late 1980s to early ’90s) are the thrift-store stuffed animals that he placed on blankets in the middle of gallery floors. Their air of soiled hopes and cheerful failure became central to the critical movement of “pathetic” or “abject” art. But how should the icky pungency of these pieces be balanced against his later wish to distance himself from their popularity? “I was viewed as an infantilist, possibly a pedophile, or victim of abuse myself,” he complained in a 1996 essay.
Furthermore, how should museums handle an artist whose stance was one of perpetual irreverence? (The tendency is to overcompensate and treat every piece of ephemera with undue reverence.) Kelley’s standing as an anticorporate subversive was already open to doubt in 2005 when he left his longtime dealers for the Gagosian Gallery. How his art’s authority as a disrupter of artistic norms survives the burnishment his works will now receive from the smoothest, most powerful art operation in the world will be something to watch.
How Will the Future Judge Him? (Wall Street Journal)