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Mike Kelley
b.1955 - d.2012


Mike Kelley, second from left, with the other founding members of Detroit art-rock group Destroy All Monsters -- Niagara, left, Cary Loren and Jim Shaw, far right -- at a 2011 reunion in Los Angeles. / Rick Manore

By Brian McCollum
Detroit Free Press Staff

Mike Kelley, a Detroit-born, internationally renowned artist with roots in Detroit's punk rock scene, has died in an apparent suicide.

Kelley was found dead Tuesday at his home in South Pasadena, Calif., according to reports. He was 57.

"Mike was an irresistible force in contemporary art," his studio wrote in a statement released Wednesday to the Los Angeles Times. "We cannot believe he is gone. But we know his legacy will continue to touch and challenge anyone who crosses its path. We will miss him. We will keep him with us."

Kelley's work has been exhibited in many of the world's most prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Whitney in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

His "Carnival Time" is part of the permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Kelley had been depressed in recent months following a breakup with his girlfriend, according to multiple sources. He had to be coaxed out by friends to attend the Nov. 19 opening of a Los Angeles exhibit spotlighting his former group, Destroy All Monsters, said Rick Manore, a longtime associate.

Manore said some of Kelley's longtime Detroit friends, including the artist Niagara, had been trying to convince Kelley in recent weeks to return to Detroit for a mental break.

Kelley, who worked in a variety of visual mediums, was regarded as a renegade artist with a confrontational streak. His work often involved large installations, including 2010's "Mobile Homestead," a nearly life-size re-creation of his boyhood home that debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and was wheeled through the original Westland neighborhood.

In a statement accompanying the exhibit, Kelley wrote that the piece "covertly makes a distinction between public art and private art, between the notions that art functions for the social good, and that art addresses personal desires and concerns."

"He marched to the beat of a different -- I don't even know if it was a drummer," said Manore, cofounder of Detroit's late CPOP Gallery. "He wasn't about pretty pictures. He was about pushing you out of your comfort zone."

As a University of Michigan student, Kelley gained underground notoriety as a founding member of Destroy All Monsters, an art collective and band that formed in 1973. Two of his group mates -- Niagara and Jim Shaw -- went on to become noted visual artists, and another, Cary Loren, now is co-owner of Book Beat in Oak Park.

The group's droning noise-rock later proved influential on groups such as Sonic Youth, whose 1992 album, "Dirty," featured a cover designed by Kelley.

Kelley graduated from U-M in 1976 and left the state two years later to pursue a master's degree at the California Institute of the Arts near Los Angeles.

Though he settled permanently in L.A. -- becoming a central figure on the city's art scene -- his work often included Detroit pop-culture references, incorporating images of figures such as Soupy Sales, Alice Cooper and Vernors gnome mascot.

His notoriety in the art world skyrocketed in the early 1990s, when exhibits at New York's Whitney and other venues drew acclaim and international attention.

By the time of his death, Kelley was widely regarded as one of the world's most important contemporary visual artists.

His work was the opening exhibit last fall at the University of Michigan Museum of Art's New Media Gallery. Titled "Day is Done," the exhibit continued Kelley's "career-long investigation into the relationships between order and transgression, popular and avant-garde culture," as the museum described it in a news release.

His work is scheduled for display at the prestigious 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York.


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