John Waters Opens Up About the Death of Artist Mike Kelley (Exclusive)

© Mike Kelley. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen

"At first I was hoping it was an art piece. It could have been," Waters tells THR about the death of the influential installation artist on Feb. 1.

Mike Kelley, one of the most important artists of the last quarter century, died on Tuesday, Feb. 1, at his home in South Pasadena, a suspected suicide brought on by depression. The 57-year-old artist -- whose work was collected by such entertainment world names as filmmaker John Waters and entertainment attorney Alan Hergott -- was known for his subversive work in multiple mediums, including drawing, painting, performance, video and sculpture. "He was the best, a bit like Jesus I’ve been thinking," conceptual artist John Baldessari, a former teacher of Kelley's at the California Insitute for the Arts, told The Hollywood Reporter.

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THR spoke with Waters as well as a number of other collectors about Kelley and his work, which included such emblematic pieces as the 1982 performance piece "Monkey Island," which featured inflatable bladders and monkey drawings inspired by a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo, a video collaboration with artist Paul McCarthy in 1992 based on the children's book Heidi in which domestic violence was represented with rubber dolls, and 1987's "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid," a forlorn collection of old hand-made stuffed animals and afghan blankets bought at thrift stores and yard sales.

Waters said in a phone interview: "Like everybody, I'm completely shocked. He was my favorite living artist. I really hate that I have to change that category now. It seems like he was at the height of his career: the biggest galleries, great work, great reviews, an international retrospective. I always thought his work was about dysfunction but I always thought humor and wit would save him. Sometimes you don't know how people feel underneath. At first I was hoping it was an art piece. It could have been. But unfortunately it's a very sad thing. I loved everything he did. I look at his work everywhere.”

Indeed, among the Kelley works the filmmaker owns are: Dirty Mirror (1997), which hangs on the living room wall of Waters' New York apartment. The mirror, as Waters describes it in his 2011 book Role Models, has "disgusting leftover cocaine lines painted in acrylic. A bloody hep-C trace can even be noticed as you look at the repulsive stain that totally obscures the mirror's reflections of the viewer, not that you'd want to see your face after a night like this. What a terrible drug-over this artwork suggests: reckless, misleading moments of chemical joy that seem so sour an hour later."

Also in his New York pad, above his writing desk, hangs one of Kelley’s Garbage Drawings (1988). Waters in his book calls it "isolated refuse from the original Sad Sack cartoons that features fumes of filth that I hope will inspire my screenplay or book ideas."

Meanwhile, Kelley's Reconstructed History (1989) "defiles" Waters' library in Baltimore. For the piece, the artist took a page from a history book that depicts the signing of the Declaration of Independence and wrote "BARF" on it. Writes Waters: "The same thing that all gifted and pissed-off kids did in high school, hoping to turn their rage into art." He later adds: “I love how mad Mike's work can make some people. Isn't that the job of contemporary art? To infuriate? The real naysayers who can't see the reverse beauty of Mike's sculptures or paintings should be outraged because they secretly know that his art does hate them and they deserve it.”

Other collectors weighed in about the loss of the artist.

Collector Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Art Foundation, which owns 15 works by Kelley:
"Mike Kelley was one of the most admired artists of his generation. In his lifetime, through his own work as well as his support for young artists, he both shaped and witnessed the transformation of Los Angeles into a leading capital for contemporary art. We are honored to include him in our collection, and we are shocked and saddened by this profound loss."

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Entertainment attorney and collector Alan Hergott:
"I admired him and collected his works. We gave three sculptures by Mike to MOCA. He was a fierce advocate for art and artists, and championed many artists who he thought were underappreciated. His contribution to the L.A. art scene, both through his art and through his teaching, was immense, and he will be missed."

Los Angeles County Museum of Art trustee Nicolas Berggruen, the chairman of private investment company Berggruen Holdings:
“He had the deepest understanding of human alienation … too much so at the end. This resulted in the most powerful of art,” said

Maria Arena Bell, co-chair of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the head writer and co-executive producer of The Young and the Restless:
"Mike Kelley was an essential L.A. artist whose worked explored our childhood universe and our psyche in astonishing ways. He will be sorely missed."

Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at LACMA"
"Mike had an enormous appetite for all kinds of art. He was unendingly curious. He worked incredibly hard at his craft and he was never afraid to think really big. I don't think artists like that come around very often. He had an ability to fuse art and music and popular culture in ways that managed to disturb our sense of decorum. He was very intense, unflinchingly honest and I always came away from conversations with him just awed by the breadth of his intelligence. He zeroed in on what interested him, whether it was literature or film or science, high art, low art, and he had an amazing capacity to pursue interesting ideas."