For institutional critique artists, research became a key means to investigate and expose various social systems and the sociopolitical context of the art world. The last momentous shift in the 20th century occurred around the 1980s and ’90s, as more and more artists used research to inform their works reflecting feminism, postcolonialism, queerness, and other forms of identity politics. An early example is Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–79), a six-part series that juxtaposes documentation of the artist’s experience as a new parent and the development of her son during the first six years of his life with research on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan. A feminist critique of Conceptual art as well as Lacanian psychoanalysis, Post-Partum Document presents the mother-child relationship as an intersubjective exchange of signs between mother and child.
In the opening essay of filmmaker Nora Ephron’s 2006 book I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, she reflects on the experience of getting older in her signature, cleverly confessional style: “That’s another thing about being a certain age that I’ve noticed: I try as much as possible not to look in the mirror. If I pass a mirror, I avert my eyes. If I must look into it, I begin by squinting, so that if anything really bad is looking back at me, I am already halfway to closing my eyes to ward off the sight.” Few would disagree that Ephron, as a perfector of the rom-com and the personal essay, is as sharp-eyed an observer of women’s experiences as they come. But rarely has her name been invoked in relation to feminist art of the 1980s, with its emphasis on deconstructing “woman as image.” Nevertheless, as I was walking through Mary Kelly’s show at Vielmetter—an installation of her work Interim, Part I: Corpus, 1984–85—the comedienne, to my own surprise, immediately came to mind.
Kelly first came to prominence in the 1970s with a practice that was both highly conceptual and unapologetically political. Though she was known as a socialist who tried to unionize artists alongside factory workers, and as a boundary pusher who brought feminism to the testosterone-driven realm of conceptual art, arguably the most radical aspect of her work, especially in its early years, was its insistence that maternity and domesticity were worthy subjects of serious creative expression. At a time when many conceptual artists were focused on violence and transgression — Chris Burden dragging his half-naked body across a parking lot strewn with glass; Paul McCarthy smearing himself with paint, ketchup, mayonnaise, raw meat and feces — Kelly’s early work was almost understated and excruciatingly intimate, with an emphasis on motherhood, pregnancy and reproductive sexuality.
It is the mark of a truly successful artist that her work may feel forever contemporary. Corpus, restaged here at Vielmetter Los Angeles, is no less provocative than it was in 1990, when this first installation in Kelly’s larger Interim series debuted at New York’s New Museum. Finished ten years after her seminal Post-Partum Document (1973–79), Corpus examines the condition of women after motherhood. The 30 silkscreened and collaged panels, shown in the us for the first time in over 30 years, propose a rigorous, striking examination of ageing women and the fraught history of psychoanalysis. Kelly structures Corpus around nineteenth-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s five-part classification of female hysteria, pairing evocative images of clothing with a scrawled, diaristic narrative by a first-person speaker contemplating the social experience of older women. In an American summer stamped by the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision, Kelly’s work explores the vast territory beyond reproduction, challenging our focus on the young.
This Labor Day weekend, take in some culture that honors the work behind the work of art. An immersive audio installation vibrates at the body’s frequency, a bespoke soundtrack activates an artful fashion show, an audio installation digs into the past lives of historic architecture, an array of world-clock activated light sculptures tune to planetary time, paintings help keep their maker sane, set-piece photography out-tropes art history, multimedia video work highlights sacred forest energy, and more. Mary Kelly: Corpus restages Kelly’s ambitious 1984-85 installation, originally made as the first part of a larger project titled Interim. This will be the first complete installation of Corpus, including all 30 panels, in the U.S. since 1990 when the entire Interim project was exhibited at the New Museum to broad critical acclaim.
Soup, soup, and more soup. I find this to be the most comforting kind of food in any crisis. I make generic French vegetable soup often, just puréed mirepoix and good stock, or Italian spinach and Arborio rice with broth and sautéed onions.
‘The biggest hurdle we had to overcome was psychological: the belief that there never had been, and never could be, great women artists.’
The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has acquired Mary Kelly’s archive, which includes various documents related to works the American artist made between 1968 and 2014. Those documents, along with various ephemera and materials, will be catalogued by the institute and then made available to the public.
For 12 years, Kelly collected lint from her dryer to make the works, each of which is about ten feet wide. A “light noise” projected on each one appears as a kind of TV static, giving the illusion of movement while providing a nod to the historiographical importance of these three very specific moments in time, made universal by collective memory.
Kelly’s work first gained her both renown and notoriety in the 1970s as she made and expanded upon her Post-Partum Document (1973–79), a project that found her meticulously chronicling the first six years of her son’s life. The work was both an intimate record of a new mother’s unfolding relationship with her baby and an exacting account of the minutiae of childrearing that was, at the time (and still is), primarily a woman’s domain. Through Post-Partum Document, Kelly analyzed and exhibited everything from the child’s language development to the stains left behind in his diapers, revealing the (unpaid) labor, at once tedious and intense, that makes up much of so-called “women’s work.”
Three recent series by the veteran Conceptualist unite the personal and the historical using an unexpected domestic material: compressed dryer lint. “7 Days” re-creates covers of a defunct leftist publication; the jumble of early-nineteen-seventies headlines—“Germaine Greer Talks,” “Miners on Strike”—suggests a spin cycle of history.
I had originally developed the lint medium to deal with war crimes. Over time, I thought perhaps it is also suitable for or evocative of the idea of historical memory, and maybe I can make an image, even though I don't generall work with images.
This exhibition, titled “The Practical Past,” is a reminder that Kelly’s work is fundamentally useful and that Post-Partum Document proposed new motherhood and early childhood as firsts in a long series of traumas, extending to the world of political upheavals, to the promise and failure of revolutions past and present.
“The Practical Past” is a memoir from the artist’s current perspective on her life in the collective spheres she inhabited in the 1960s and ‘70s and their relation to events before and since. Much of this is writing made visual through letters from that time reflecting concerns and worries about how to live the engaged feminist life, These are transposed in digital projections that nonetheless reflect Kelly’s decision to do a kind of cottage-industry piecework. In a slightly mismatched gridded array, the overall text of handwritten correspondence renders originals as multiple iterations. What appears to shade and fade into historicism is also stuff.
There is a peculiar, almost shameful, pleasure in visiting Mary Kelly’s laundry room. A pioneer of conceptual art, she is a model of precision in many ways. Her thinking is rigorous, her speech is eloquent, and her small home and studio up in the hills are sparsely and beautifully furnished with choice midcentury pieces.
The godmother of feminist art, Kelly is known for her provocative films and large-scale narrative installations that explore notions of sexuality, work, power, and politics by tapping into the more visceral aspects of daily life..."Kelly is one of the most important female Conceptual artists of our time,”says L.A. gallerist Susanne Vielmetter, who represents the artist along with New York–based Mitchell-Innes & Nash, and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery of London.
It’s good to have a vision. Even if it’s flawed, or turns out to be not what you expected.” Mary Kelly would know. As one of the world’s foremost feminist artists, she has pursued hers relentlessly for 45 years. It gives her a long view of the feminist movement that is refreshingly upbeat. “Something very wonderful has happened. If you look at how men engage with their children, it’s totally different. My husband Ray was the only man with a child in a backpack at the big demonstrations in the 70s. He used to get wolf-whistled picking our son up from school.”
One line in the 1959 Situationist film from which Mary Kelly’s exhibition “On the Passage of a few People through a Rather Brief Period of Time” took its name hovered over the show: “When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream, becomes a mere representation of itself.” Take Circa 1968, 2004, around which the show revolved: a large-scale case that took some six months to make from the lint of roughly ten thousand pounds of laundry collected from a tumble dryer (using a process Kelly devised in 1999). The piece depicts Jean-Pierre Rey’s iconic image for Life magazine taken on the day before May 14, 1968, strikes in Paris, showing socialite Caroline de Bendern – like a twentieth-century update of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People - wielding a Vietnamese flag over a charged crowd while sitting on the shoulders of artist and studnt occupation leader Jean-Jacques Lebel. Of course, the image is problematic: an accident in which the notably non-revolutionary de Bendern was case as the ultimate icon of the movement.
The second-wave feminist and conceptual artist Mary Kelly has made a career out of combining the personal with the political, examining issues of gender, identity, and collective memory in large-scale narratives. Her works, which frequently include text, collage, and everyday objects, are on view at Art Basel, where they will be the focus of Pippy Houldsworth Gallery’s booth.
Mary Kelly's large-scale narrative installations, including Post-Partum Document, 1973-79, Interim, 1984-89, The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi, 2001 and Love Songs, 2005-07, have blurred the boundaries between the personal and the political by visualizing the impact of historical events on the precarious nature of everyday life. Her new projects continue to mine the reservoir of collective memory and examine the claim it makes on the present.
Mary Kelly's first solo show in New York since 2005 was an occasion, though the work deviated not a jot from the Conceptualist-feminist trajectory established by the artist in the 1970s. Visually, the affect was cool, perfect--a mood contrasting, deliberately, with the works' approach to issues of violence, memory, and the power of the voice. This conundrum of clincial austerity enframing messy intergenerational feelings hinges on what Kelly calls "the political primal scene." How and when do we develop historical desire? What trauma exposes our sociopolitical origins?
Name: Mary Kelly
Occupation: Artist/Professor at UCLA
City/Neighborhood: Los Angeles