Artist and musician Mike Kelley dead of apparent suicide

Artist and musician Mike Kelley dead of apparent suicide

Numerous sources have reported the death of Mike Kelley, the celebrated visual artist whose discarded-object aesthetic also found musical expression in the noise/proto-punk band Destroy All Monsters and his collaborations with Sonic Youth, including doing the cover for Dirty. Kelley is believed to have committed suicide. He was 57.

Kelley was a student at the University of Michigan when he formed Destroy All Monsters with fellow artists Jim Shaw and Niagara. Those early days of the band reflected many of the elements that repeatedly cropped up in his visual work: A self-described “anti-rock” group, they performed on homemade and scavenged instruments such as broken keyboards, a vacuum cleaner, and a coffee can, crashing parties and generally causing a confusing ruckus.

Kelley left the band in 1978 to attend the California Institute of the Arts (where he studied under Laurie Anderson), while the band eventually recruited The Stooges’ Ron Asheton and the MC5’s Michael Davis, then went on to become a cult figure in the Detroit punk scene. In 1994, Kelley worked with Thurston Moore to compile a Destroy All Monsters anthology for Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label and participated in a reunion tour the next year. 

That Sonic Youth connection—the result of Kelley’s longtime friendship with Kim Gordon—solidified in 1986, when the band backed him at a show at New York’s Artist Space, providing instrumental music and assorted droning behind Kelley’s recitation of his hour-and-a-half poem “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile.” (An audio recording of this surfaced on the Tellus Audio Cassette series, and excerpts can still be found on the Internet.) And of course, Kelley did the artwork for Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty, his worn textile creatures and what appeared to be stuffed animals fished out of the trash reflecting his trademark style of working within themes of abjection.

Kelley’s installations were legendary for what art critic Jerry Saltz described as their “clusterfuck aesthetics,” in which various randomly connected bits of multimedia, heaps of ephemera, and general piles of stuff collided in an overload of the senses, creating a dizzying array of emotions and guttural reactions. Saltz has a loving tribute here to Kelley’s particular brand of outsized madness. You can also get a sense of the breadth of his contributions to contemporary art in all its forms here at his website.