One unexpected thing I witnessed during the opening of the New York art world’s fall season this week was Paul Schimmel—whom the Los Angeles Times once described as having “a more impressive record of exhibitions and acquisitions in the field of art” than any other American curator since 1950—taking some time to art historicize Brainiac, nemesis of Superman. This happened at a preview of an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, the gallery where Schimmel is a partner. The show focused on work from Mike Kelley’s “Kandor” series, which the artist labored over fairly obsessively from 1999 up until taking his own life in 2012.
Kandor is the capital city of Krypton, Superman’s home planet. Krypton was destroyed by its own unstable core. Superman survived when his doomed parents sent him to Earth. Kandor itself survived the planet’s destruction because Brainiac shrunk the city to a size that would fit inside a glass bottle and stole it, which probably isn’t worth getting into any further here. Superman recovered the shrunken city, and placed it under a bell jar with its own atmosphere inside his secret sanctuary, the Fortress of Solitude, where, in the words of a 2010 artist statement by Kelley, “it functions as a constant reminder of [Superman’s] past and as a metaphor for his alienated relationship to the planet he now occupies.” That this description could serve as a broad thesis statement of Kelley’s mercurial career—and, in a sense, to the creative mind in general—is not lost on me.
Hauser & Wirth’s current Chelsea location, on West 18th Street (they’re moving to West 22nd Street in 2018), is a big and cold building, and it resembles a hangar. In fact, to call it a Fortress of Solitude would not be a wholly inaccurate description, though that is also a touch too cute. Schimmel was standing in a darkened room inside this building in front of a large group that included a representative sample of many of the employed (and a lot of the unemployed) art writers currently based in New York. Everyone stood among a cluster of Kelley’s resin sculptures of Kandor in various forms (the design of the city, as Kelley points out in his artist statement, was never standardized, even in the comics). The sculptures are all of cities, but they resemble different clusters of sterilized sex toys—most of them phallic, some of them vaginal, they are materially uniform, and there are no details in the forms, just clusters of shapes. They were resting on pedestals, each eerily glowing on illuminated bases that vaguely lit up the room. Schimmel was talking.
“Brainiac,” he said, “who I never thought I’d ever talk about in an art-historical framework, was trying to steal cities all throughout the universe. Remarkable. In a way, Brainiac was a stealer of cultures. And in some respects Superman himself had to partake in that moral dilemma of sort of taking and holding.” He stretched this to the matter at hand: “And Mike was like that with the history of art. He felt maybe like Picasso in that he could just sort of take it all in—whether it’s references to Flavin, or Clyfford Still, or Roy Lichtenstein, or to the original source material. Mike, at this extraordinary period in his life, had all these resources together.”
Other art-historical reference points Schimmel raised when talking about this work were Mondrian, Constructivism, Surrealism, Joseph Cornell, and Matisse. He was a real trooper, though, about the nature of the work, always bringing his talk, in an endearingly clunky way, back to the comics. Gesturing to a green “Kandor” sculpture with stalagmite-like towers, Schimmel said, “You don’t really think about the kinds of meaning these lights and colors represent. This,” he motioned to the sculpture, “which is so beautiful, kind of like the Emerald City, is also the color of the very mineral, of the very source of Superman’s weakness! Kryptonite, which glows green, is in a sense the most beautiful, and also the most deadly.” And here again, driving the point home: “I think that says a lot about Mike and his relationship to signs and symbols. And his own moral dilemmas.”
Since Kelley’s death, the “Kandor” series has been exhibited more frequently than the artist’s other, more iconic work, like Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991)—little clouds of sewn-together stuffed animals that emit the smell of disinfectant—and the remarkable video-heavy series, “Day Is Done,” which includes nightmarish recreations of images from high-school yearbooks. It is “Kandor” that has been revisited as a kind of period at the end of Kelley’s sentence. “Kandor” comprised Kelley’s final gallery show in his lifetime, at Gagosian in London, which garnered a review from the Guardian with the headline “It Came From Planet Bunkum.” Months after his death, a retrospective of the “Kandor” works—many of them now on view at Hauser & Wirth—opened at the Watermill Center in the Hamptons. “Kandor” was given significant real estate in Kelley’s traveling career retrospective, with a stop in New York at MoMA PS1 last year, where the “Kandor” works were installed at the beginning of the exhibition, acting as an introduction. Hauser & Wirth’s size allows for a fairly elaborate installation—including Kelley’s re-creation of the Fortress of Solitude, rendered cave-like rather than blanketed in crystal ice, as it often is portrayed in the comics. Visitors to the gallery can walk into the cave and people of average height can stand up in it comfortably, though one has to wear little white booties to do so, which dampers the installation’s intensity a bit.
The room with the cave also includes Kelley’s video Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais). In the video, a gang of baroque thugs—one of them is dressed something like the Riddler, from the Batman comics, another is a more colorful Alice Cooper, wearing a codpiece—kidnap a bride on her wedding day, take her to the Fortress of Solitude and chain her to a wall in order to sexually humiliate her. It’s difficult to watch, but maybe harder to look away from, like a car wreck.
It was funny listening to Schimmel perform his awkward verbal gymnastics, attempting to weave a three-cornered argument that included the whacky DC comic-book universe, Kelley’s artistic practice, and elements of the artist’s autobiography, but looking at the “Kandor” works makes me incredibly sad. This may have something to do with their proximity to Kelley’s suicide, or it might be because I don’t believe the work stacks up to the rest of Kelley’s career. Curators and dealers seem to be pushing for Kandor as a major part of Kelley’s legacy—or maybe the work is just easier to get on loan—but either way I find so much of it to be mediocre. “Kandor” seems to me to be the product of a man endlessly tinkering with an idea but never really getting it to arrive anywhere beyond Kelley’s general metaphor of alienation that I quoted above.
In other works, Kelley mined his memory for the depths of this alienation. In Educational Complex (1995), for instance, he created what appears to be a fairly dull maquette of an office building, but the structure is, in fact, a scale model of all the schools Kelley ever attended as well as his childhood home, reconstructed from memory, with various gaps. What begins as a little underwhelming architectural mock-up is actually an exhausting psychological exercise—an artistic return of the repressed. He took this idea even further in his final piece, which he worked on at the same time as “Kandor,” Mobile Homestead (2012)—a replica of the house he grew up in, located on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, not far from the location of the real home, in Westland, Michigan. The house itself serves as a community center. Beneath it is an underground bunker that can only be reached through a complicated network of tunnels and which Kelley, before his death, intended to use as a private studio, literalizing the idea of mining the depths of one’s memory for the sake of art. I would have liked to see the work he would have made there.
“Kandor,” on the other hand, is mildly pleasing on an aesthetic level, but cautiously avoids any actual meaning. Kelley at his best offers a glimpse into the mind of someone who never felt like he belonged anywhere, of an artist who is acutely aware of how hard it is to have to wake up everyday and simply exist in the world. I look at “Kandor” and can only think of Kelley working away, trying to distract himself from this very fact, preferring instead to just be left alone forever.