Like most of the art world, I was stunned when I learned of artist Mike Kelley's suicide last week. The most recent issue of Artillery magazine, with the strange close-cropped photo of Kelley on the cover, had been on my coffee table for a couple of weeks, Kelley's piercing blue eyes staring out at me, almost daring me to ignore him. As soon as I heard the news, I immediately sat down to read editor Tulsa Kinney's interview with Kelly, an interview that would turn out to be his last. Did the article hold any clues of the tragedy to come?
From the first line, "EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! ART STAR STOPS MAKING ART!" the interview was eerily prescient. Kinney writes: "It got quiet toward the end of our interview, and if I didn't know better, I might even say he seemed a bit melancholy that late morning." In hindsight, it almost reads like a case study in depression. These things are always so much clearer in hindsight.
Mike Kelley was an artist who enjoyed success beyond what most dare dream of. He was beloved by an almost cult-like following. Why would he do the unthinkable? What had brought this popular, talented, and sensitive man to that darkest of all places?
Having been through the suicide of a close family member, I know all too well the agony, grief, anger and guilt that survivors often feel. I hoped Tulsa's story might shed some light on those questions for those Mike Kelley left behind.
Tulsa and I sat down on Saturday afternoon in Pasadena to talk.
JC: When did you first decide you wanted to interview Mike Kelley? You said you felt an "urgency" to have him in the February issue, even though you said you didn't really have a hook for the interview at that point.
TK: I had wanted to interview Mike for a long time. Usually when you do a feature on someone, there's something else happening and that's why you write about them. But when I decided I wanted to interview Mike, he didn't have anything major going on that could be considered a hook. I just felt like I wanted him on the cover. I felt like it was time. A few of my staff members were very unenthusiastic about it.
TK: One of the younger staff members thought that he was too old-hat, and that nobody knew who he was. Even my husband was kind of a naysayer. But I held my ground. I don't have really any other reason for wanting to do it, I can't explain it, I just wanted him on the cover this issue.
JC: Did it have anything to do with that issue of Artillery being your first national one?
TK: No, not consciously.
JC: But you finally found a hook for the article?
TK: Yes, right before the magazine came out, Kelley got accepted in the Whitney Biennial, and it was for the eighth time! So it was perfect.
JC: When and how did you approach him about the interview?
TK: I emailed him around the first of November, but I didn't hear from until a couple of days later. And when I did hear from him, he presented me with a whole laundry list of reasons why he hated my last issue! He said he was still going to do the interview, because he was a person of his word, but he was pissed off!
He said there was a lot in that last issue that interested him (this was the one with the burning bank on the cover), but he was not happy with the Detroit article and he was not happy with the Ed Ruscha article that John Tottenham wrote that was critical of Ruscha's recent show at the Hammer. He was very upset about that.
At the end of the list, and I think this was what he was unhappy about the most, was the gossip column. My gossip columnist had written some not-so-nice things about Mike. I usually don't mess with that content, because if I go in there and whitewash everything, then we don't have a gossip column. The gossip columnist called him a "paragon of perv" and some other things and Mike was really pissed off about that. What Mike wrote to me about it, his rebuttal, was hilarious, and at the end he said "Tulsa, how can you print such crap? Cancel my subscription."
So I was very nervous and I thought I wasn't going to get my interview. I could tell he was hurt. He's a real sensitive guy. That was something that I learned about him.
JC: When did the interview take place?
TK: November 14
JC: So many things in the interview seem to foreshadow this tragedy. So many things in the interview seem to foreshadow this tragedy. I'm going to read a couple of quotes and ask you to react: "It got quiet toward the end of our interview, and if I didn't know better, I might even say he seemed a bit melancholy that late morning."
TK: Right. I really held back in my copy. I was really concerned, I've been around mental illness and I could see that he was very depressed. In my original notes I had written "he seems deeply depressed" and there were other notes that I didn't even want to put in.
JC: Again, reading from your interview: "When I asked him if he ever believed in Heaven and Hell, he responded deliberately, in his deep, gravelly Detroit accent, 'No. I never believed in anything.' He seemed sad when he said that, with a faraway look in his eyes."
TK: We were seated on either side of an L-shaped couch and he just looked straight ahead and answered me in monotones, "yes, no, I never believed in anything, it was a load of shit." He seldom looked at me and it was very eerie, very sad.
JC: In the letter to your readers that you wrote shortly after his death you wrote: "I needed to wrap up our interview as I felt I was taking too much time from Mike. Out of nowhere, he just blurted out that he was going to stop making art."
TK: Afterwards my husband said "why didn't you talk about that? That's your story." But the whole interview was so emotional, and he dropped that bomb just as we were wrapping up, and I just had to stop. He went into a lot of personal stuff with me that I was not really expecting. I knew I was going to ask probing questions, but I didn't know he was going to cooperate so much. And then he had been so pissed off at me, I thought he was going to be an asshole, which he wasn't. It was more like he was resigned. It was like "just take me, take whatever you want." It was way too heavy. I didn't know him that well.
Before we started the interview that day he said he wanted to see a draft before it was published. And I said, "Mike, no, come on, you know I'm not going to agree to that." He said "well I want to see the quotes. I really want to see them. I don't want to come off looking like an idiot." I wanted to say no, but I felt like I had to give him something because he was so pissed off about the gossip columnist. So I said okay.
That interview was so intense, and what was really sweet of him was that he had two books for me, one was a catalog for his Kandors exhibition and the other was his Destroy All Monsters book. I was so touched -- this guy was so pissed off at me and then he's giving me the interview of my life and he's giving me these books. I just looked at him and thanked him and apologized again for the gossip column. Tears actually welled up in his eyes and said, "that really hurt my feelings. That really hurt." That's when he told me he was having problems with his girlfriend and that he didn't need that kind of shit. Then I said "I'm so sorry, what can I do?" to which he replied "you can retract it! That's what I want! I want you to retract it!"
I said "Mike, if we have a feature on you, a cover and then a retraction, it's going to look like I'm kissing your ass." But then I reluctantly said okay. I felt I had to, so I worked it into the story.
I had a lot of trouble writing this piece. His staff kept contacting me saying Mike really needed to see the quotes. So I finally sent them to him around December 22 and he read them, of course, very out of context. He was livid. He said "Tulsa, I had no idea you were going to print all this. I just told you that to give you an idea of where my art comes from. I can't handle this, this is way too much." He even said "I'm not a fucking movie star or a personality, I trusted you, I had no idea this would be so raw. No way about the Gagosian stuff, why would I allow my career to be jeopardized?" And that's kind of interesting, because at that point he was still thinking about his career.
So I let him fix the Gagosian quotes, because I didn't want to jeopardize his career either. We went back and forth, but in the end, when I got the quotes back, he had hardly touched them. I was astounded. I thought I was going to have to rewrite the whole article. He left in the stuff about his dad disowning him, he left in the part where he said he was going to quit making art and he made sure that I added the stuff about the Detroit project. And then one thing that was really strange, in the passage where he talks about having to get out of Detroit or he would go insane, he added "I had a nervous breakdown." He added that.
JC: Skipping forward, a month later, to the photo shoot in December. You said he was more upbeat that day?
TK: Yes, he was kind of charming, cute. I was joking around with him, asked him if he gotten a facial, his skin looked brighter, he was laughing. He seemed very giving and had a great sense of humor.
JC: I want to ask you about that cover shot. It's an unflattering shot and very intense. Why did you do it that way?
TK: Tyler Hubby is the photographer and he was very excited to shoot Mike Kelley. Mike insisted that we were just going to do headshots. Mike didn't want to smile, he was just staring right in the camera, and I did say to Tyler "get up close, get a close one." I don't know, I just wanted that option. I like close-ups. When my art director, Bill Smith saw it he said "this is clearly the favorite. It's terrifying, but it's intense and that's what you want." To look at it now, it's heartbreaking, just fucking heartbreaking.
JC: After the article was published, did you hear from Mike at all?
TK: I was very, very worried, of course, because at that point I know he's ultra-sensitive. I emailed him and told him the magazine was out and did he want me to bring some copies by. I had them delivered the next day and I was just waiting and waiting. Finally he wrote back, just one line: "Tulsa, I got the mags. Thank you. I read the article, it reads good, my cover photo looks like a mug shot."
That's all he said and I really couldn't tell if he liked the article or not. I was hoping for a little bit more from him, but it was very perfunctory.
JC: Was that your last contact with him?
JC: And that was early January?
TK: Yes, around January 9th.
JC: How did you hear the news of his death?
TK: I got a phone call from a good friend and he just said "Mike Kelley's dead. He killed himself." I was shocked that he was dead, but I wasn't surprised that he had killed himself. This was Wednesday around noon.
JC: You mentioned that you'd felt something like survivor's guilt, "If only I'd done this or if only I'd done that."
TK: Right. You always feel like you're the person who maybe could have done something. I had heard he was at an art event in Eagle Rock on Sunday, and I thought maybe if I had gone there I could have cheered him up a little bit. I'm not thinking I could have saved Mike Kelley. But I thought, maybe I should have reached out to him. I could tell he was really depressed.
JC: Ultimately, it's no one's fault. Suicide is how you die from depression, just like a stroke is how you die from high blood pressure. But it's common to feel that way.
TK: Right. With me it was more of a fleeting thing, maybe I didn't do as much as I should have done. He was really depressed.
JC: I assume you will you be covering his death in your upcoming issue.
TK: I am hoping to tap into a lot of his close friends and give them each about 200 words to write about him, instead of one big obituary.
JC: Anything else you'd like to add? It must feel strange to find yourself in the position of having done the last interview with Mike Kelley, an artist you admired so much.
TK: I don't think I've really processed it. I had to go right to work, answering the phone, putting something on the website. I went right into work mode and that's what I've been doing ever since.
Click here to read Tulsa Kinney's interview with Mike Kelley.