‘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.
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