There’s always someone better than you. Unless you’re Lebron James or Warren Buffett, you wake up each morning knowing you’re not the best at what you do. For most of us, that’s not a tragedy. It’s just the way things are.
I’ve always believed I had what it takes to get to the top of my profession. Deep down, I felt I could be among the very best artists in the world. While I was still in my 20’s, an influential curator at the Brooklyn Museum told me she thought I had the talent and intelligence to be as good as Andy Warhol, if I played my cards right. In hindsight, that was really bad advice.
With my innate drive, I took her advice to heart. Work hard enough, or push the right buttons in my head, and I could be an Art Star. For years, though, one mistake or another would hold me back. I’ve made some good work over the last fifteen years, and thankfully received some nice accolades, but no one would confuse me with Jeff Wall, or Robert Adams, or (insert your favorite photographer here.)
My failure to make it to the top of the mountain by the time I was (almost) 40 burned deep in my psyche, creating a sense of insecurity that I strove to overcome. I’ll get there, I’ll get there, the voice said. (Sometimes.) Other times, it said I was a pile of sh-t for not getting there already. Never, though, did the voice question whether the goal itself was the problem.
Back in March, I confronted the limits of my abilities. I came face to face with genius, and found myself wanting. At first, the psychic pain was immense. Slowly, though, it got better, and then the liberation was grand. Where, you ask? Who reduced me to mental rubble? Good question.
The Mike Kelley retrospective at the newly re-opened Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was an ode to genius and misery. It was among the most impressive art exhibitions I’ve ever seen; certainly the one that most impacted me, in the moment. I saw it twice, on consecutive afternoons. The first time, I came straight from hanging out with the Rembrandts, Frans Hals, and Vermeers in the not-yet-then-totally-re-opened Rijksmuseum. (No wonder my self-esteem took a hit.)
It’s hard to explain what the Kelley exhibition was like, simply because the scope, scale and breadth of his work created such an overwhelming experience. The artist made objects in every medium imaginable: paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, tapestries, posters, photographs, videos, animation, appropriations, sound pieces and music. There was, seemingly, nothing he couldn’t do.
That I had heard almost nothing about him before entering the show probably had something to do with the power of its impact. (And is also something I’m embarrassed to admit.) One minute, I didn’t know who this guy was, and the next, I was put firmly in my place. I’ve written here that I like to see photography contextualized alongside other media, but never did I imagine one artist could do it so well, by himself. (Of course, by the end of his career, he had an army of assistants, so I’m not sure if one person really could.)
On my first visit, my friend Hugo and I arrived at the museum shortly before it closed. By the time we sprinted through the permanent collection, we arrived at the special exhibition space minutes before it shut. The guards tried to shoo us away before we even made it down the escalator, but Hugo has the type of confidence that knows how to breeze past objections.
My head spun in every direction, trying to take it in, as I didn’t know at the time I’d be able to return the next day. Manic, I thought. This guy was manic. And crazy. The amount of output was intimidating, like a bad haircut from a barber with sharp razors, but so was the content. Think R. Crumb tossed with Baldessari, mashed up with Quentin Tarantino, with a touch of Francis Bacon thrown in. Then add some steroids, and a lot of fecal matter. Got it?
We sprinted around the space, just trying to put our eyes over everything. There was no possibility to absorb information, other than the overall subtext. This was a tortured guy, with voices in his head I’d wish on no one. When we left, fifteen minutes later, Hugo pulled out his Blackberry for a little research. Mr. Kelley had committed suicide last year; slashed his wrists in the bathtub as his major career retrospective approached.
I was not surprised.
The museum was kind enough to let me back in to see the show the next day, as I was now dying to revisit the work, knowing how the story ended. Initially, I could only think, “I’ll never be this good. It would have happened by now. Face it. I suck.” As a photographer, my basic attempts to play with sculpture and drawing over the last couple of years felt revolutionary to me. But seeing this exhibition, I went to a dark place, lashing myself for foolishly thinking I matched up.
Day two, though, allowed me to read deeper into the work. Among the photographic projects was a series of portraits of stuffed animal sculptures that were cute and fluffy. Mixed in was a self-portrait of the artist, with slicked back hair and some very bad acne. He looked as though he wanted to look tough, but was really just a sensitive, Mid-Western guy that didn’t stand a chance in cutthroat LA. He was raised in Motown, among the makers of proud, massive cars and funky, earnest music. Hollywood didn’t seem like the best of landing spots.
Another photo project that jumped out was a diptych of black and white gelatin silver prints. A man, naked, had poop running out of his butt, and a stuffed animal was below him, eating it. Next to him, a naked woman straddled another stuffed animal, who was busy pleasuring her nether regions. Gross, trippy, absurd, offensive, you name it. Other telling works: a tapestry that claimed the artist to be a proud pants sh-tter, or the self-portrait drawings with his face melting off.
Strangely, a third photo project was just really damn good, and surprisingly straight. It was called “Photo Show Portrays the Familiar,” from 2001. Twenty-six gelatin silver prints were matted and framed, conservatively. The pictures, well-executed, could have been on the wall of any traditional gallery, and none would question it. An abandoned house, a ship wake in a river, a cul-de-sac with winter trees, a brick tower smokestack, Detroit sky scrapers, and lots of sculptures in museums. Here, amongst the chaos, it was downright shocking, in its quiet simplicity.
Up a separate escalator, there was a large gallery filled with video installations. (One had to pass the swastika art and shrieking digital-cartoon-pieces just to gain entry.) The noise was head-ache-inducing; the visual stimuli overwhelming. Devils and angels were everywhere, screens flickered, and anyone with any sense would want out of that room as soon as possible. The work was recent, and seemed like a massive cry for help. (Though the symbology was a bit simplistic.)
Walking through to the next room, it was clear the end was near. The artist’s last bit of work was massively slick and commercial. It was more in the “I have 50 assistants and someone else is making the work for me now” style. All the objects were extremely compelling, but the DIY, dark desperation was missing. An “Odalisque,” from 2010, showed a giant, black, styrofoam chess piece, lying in state, like a corpse with a wig on an autopsy table. One could feel his psyche about to break.
As you’ll know by now, if you read my articles on a regular basis, I love to read directly into objects and images, and see what they have to say. The end of the Mike Kelley exhibition was not ambiguous, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to get the message.
The artist was both blue-collar in his work ethic, and troubled by the visions inside his head. Coming from a working-class background, and city known for fashioning steel, one could see how the valiant effort to draw, sculpt, paint and photograph the ideas out of his head worked well, for a while. Once global capitalism got a hold of him, though, the prices went up, the ass-kissing got more time-consuming, the process of making things was removed from his hands, and the pressure to produce more and more was greater than ever, it was all too much for Mr. Kelley.
That’s what the show said to me, anyway.
Which is why its impact was so tremendous. Before I got to Amsterdam, I would have given anything to be that good. To be that famous, and wealthy. To be the best. I thought myself the tortured genius too. Wrongly, it turns out.
I’m a guy with an amazing family, who gets to live in one of the coolest places on Earth. I have a lot of good friends, and take pleasure out of, and am (mostly) respected for my work. There are many, many artists out there better than I am. For once, I’m OK with that. If the alternative is lonely suicide, or the relentless and humiliating hustle of the urban, moneyed world, I’ll pass.
Maybe in thirty years, if I keep growing, I’ll have a body of work worth talking about. Maybe not. But I try to no longer judge myself by other people’s success, nor do I measure my own by how many people tell me I’m special. As long as my wife and kids think I’m great, I’m doing all right.
I wish Mr. Kelley could have found some middle ground, some peace, to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But then he wouldn’t have been him. That wasn’t his path, obviously. He was a titan of the art world, a chronicler of the murky-yet-almost-beautiful misery of the human condition, and the Stedelijk retrospective was proof of that.
The exhibition has closed by now, so I can’t send you storming the doors to see for yourself. Fortunately, it’s meant to travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA PS1 in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I could not recommend more highly that you go, if you have the chance. It might not change your life, as it has mine, but it will inevitably give you something to think about. I promise.