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L.A. Police Investigate Sudden Death of Artist Mike Kelley

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Mike Kelley
Mike Kelley, the California artist whose work incorporated stuffed toy animals, sculpture, painting, performance art and music. Kelley died at the age of 57 on Jan. 31. Photographer: Frederik Nilson/Metro Pictures via Bloomberg

Feb. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Mike Kelley, an artist whose work incorporated stuffed animal toys, sculpture, props and painting along with performance and music, was found dead Tuesday night in his South Pasadena, California home. He was 57.

Police in South Pasadena said that the death was an apparent suicide. Lieutenant Fred Corral, with the investigation division at the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner, said a toxicology report would take six to eight weeks to confirm the cause of death.

“He is one of the leading and most influential artists,” said Helene Winer, partner in New York’s Metro Pictures gallery, where Kelley had his first New York solo exhibition in 1982 and showed over the next two decades. Kelley, she added, “broke down the distinctions between different forms of art. He was very intense, had a lot of energy, was extremely serious and very productive.”

News of Kelley’s death spread quickly through the global contemporary art world.

“His suicide came as a complete shock to me,” said artist John Miller, who met Kelley in 1978, when both were students at the California Institute of the Arts. “I haven’t felt this way since 9/11. There is a sense of unreality. He is one of the most loyal friends I’ve ever had.”

Miller said he spoke with Kelley on the telephone a week ago, and that Kelley had referred to problems he was having since his work began to bring him fame and money.

Awkward Success

“There was a whole complex of things at play,” Miller said. “Coping with his own recognition and success was part of it. He didn’t like situations when he stood out as a celebrity, even though he was a performer.

“He’s always been a bit of a workaholic in terms of production,” Miller said. “He kept raising the bar and it stopped being fun.”

While an undergraduate art student at the University of Michigan, the Detroit native was a founding member of Destroy All Monsters, a music and performance art collective. Kelley’s work appeared on the cover for Sonic Youth’s 1992 album, “Dirty.”

Kelley’s works are included in some 30 public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He had been invited to participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York. It will mark his seventh appearance in the high-profile show, the Whitney said.

His top price at auction is $2.7 million, for a room-size installation of stuffed creatures. It belonged to hedge fund manager Adam Sender, who put it up for sale at Phillips de Pury in November, 2006.

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.)

To contact the reporter of this story: Katya Kazakina in New York at kkazakina@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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