Lot 215: Mike Kelley
Nazi War Cave #1
Retains 43rd Biennale of Venice exhibition label verso
Sheet: 68.875" x 104";
Frame: 72.625" x 108.25"
LAMA would like to thank the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts for their assistance in cataloguing this work
Provenance: Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica, California;
Private Collection, United States (acquired directly from the above, 1985)
Exhibited: "Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile," Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica, 1985; "Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile," Metro Pictures, New York, 1986; "LA Hot and Cool: The Eighties," group exhibition, List Center for the Visual Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1987; "Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile," 43rd Biennale of Venice, Aperto '88, Venice, 1988; "Mike Kelley," traveling exhibition, Kunsthalle Basel, Basel; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; CAPC Musée d'art contemporain, Bordeaux, 1992; "Mike Kelley: 1985-1996," traveling exhibition, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona; Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, Malmö; Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1997; "Mike Kelley," traveling exhibition, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 15, 2012-April 1, 2013; Centre Pompidou, Paris, May 2-August 5, 2013; MoMA PS1, New York October 13, 2013-February 4, 2014; MOCA, Los Angeles, March 31, 2014-July 28, 2014
Literature: Kelley, Mike. Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile. Venice/New York: New City Editions/Artists Space, 1986.
Illustrated: Armstrong, Richard, and Elizabeth Sussman. Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1993. p 144; Lebrero Stals, Jose, ed. Mike Kelley. Exhibition Catalogue. Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1997. pp 31, 42; Welchman, John C, Isabelle Graw, and Anthony Vidler. Mike Kelley. 2nd edition. New York: Phaidon, 2011. p 14; Meyer-Hermann, Eva, and Lisa Gabrielle Mark, eds. Mike Kelley. Munich: DelMonico/Prestel, 2013. p 76.
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Throughout his intensely inventive and transgressive career, Mike Kelley had a thing for subterranean spaces. Along with holding various basement and "sub-basement" performances, he made a range of paintings and sculptures evoking tunnels, crawlspaces and caves.
In the 1991 installation Lumpenprole, he buried stuffed animals beneath a crocheted blanket, creating in effect a new floor bulging with castaway childhood objects and, presumably, repressed desires or perversions.
For his 1995 work Educational Complex, an architectural model showing every building where he had been schooled, he placed a mattress on the floor so that viewers could lie down and view a model of the CalArts basement screwed onto the underside of the table. CalArts later became the focus of an expanded model, Sublevel, raised on car jacks to be seen from underneath.
The 2006 video installation Rose Hobart II took the form of a narrow black wooden tunnel that visitors could worm their way through in order to reach the light, that is, a peephole viewing of the famous shower scene from the movie Porky's.
And Kelley's interest in caves, those oddly homey but claustrophobic spaces, dates to at least two decades earlier, as seen in some early performances as well as in the powerful 1985-86 installation Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile.
Originally made in 1985 as a site-specific work for the Brooklyn Anchorage called The Trajectory of Light in Plato's Cave, a fuller version with the new title was soon installed at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles. Another iteration later appeared at Metro Pictures in New York, where he also did a performance by the same title at Artists Space in collaboration with Sonic Youth.
The script of that performance, published in book form, teases some of the themes implicit in the installation itself, with the classical idea of the philosopher who transcends the murkiness of material forms (à la Plato's parable of the cave) giving way to a more modern and subversive celebration of the underground (the naked truth of a dark pit or "the richness of mud," as Kelley put it). Throughout he plays a mean game with power dynamics, exposing the "philosophical, political or sexual hierarchies to which we capitulate," in the words of Art in America critic Kathy O'Dell.
Recognized as a turning point from performance to installation art for Kelley, Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile is also an example of how the artist used paintings as a makeshift or illicit (certainly not up-to-code) sort of architecture.
Most memorably, Kelley hung one painting that is now owned by the Museum of Modern Art, Exploring (1985), so low across a door frame that visitors had to get down on hands and knees to enter the space—dramatically undercutting museum protocols that reward proper posture and sophisticated comport. The painting was "positioned like a dominatrix," George Baker points out in his subterranean-themed essay, "Mike Kelley: Sublevel." Words printed on the work, in the hollows created by stalactite and stalagmite imagery, reinforce the point: "WHEN SPELUNKING SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO STOOP…. SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO GO ON ALL FOURS… SOMETIMES EVEN CRAWL….CRAWL WORM! !" Nazi War Cave #1 (1985), a black-and-white acrylic painting, also from Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile, features some similar crystalline imagery and its own provocative text snippets running along the margins. And it too proves arresting.
To be sure, this painting (and its counterpart from the following year, Nazi War Cave #2, which reverses the black ground and white foreground) is engaging on many levels. The scene of an Ice-Age-cave-meets-high-tech munitions storehouse, which prefigures some of the cave sculptures of Kelley's Superman-inspired Kandor series, has the graphic appeal of a comic-book strip. And the powerful renderings of Teutonic axes pack a bam-wham sort of punch.
Meanwhile, some sayings on the painting, like "YODEL ON THIS BRO" and "YOO HOO—SWISS MISS!!" directly address the viewer, drawing us to the smaller and denser text nearby, whether on the outsourcing of American production or the defilement of nature.
Despite making such bids for our attention, Nazi War Cave #1 is also designed to thwart the viewer visually, much as Exploring does physically. For at the heart of the cave, which is also the work's central vanishing point according to the principles of Renaissance perspective, stands the outline of a large swastika—one of the few national or political symbols that can be as repellant as a physical barrier.
Even though it has been rendered with relatively faint lines, the swastika here has the power to stop one cold. What was the artist thinking?
As an art historian on the case, you can find other examples of swastikas in the work of contemporaries (most notably Sigmar Polke) as well as Kelley's own work (he once defaced an image of Abraham Lincoln by adding a swastika to his forehead.) As a viewer familiar with Kelley's own class-conscious, anti-establishment ethos (which Sterling Ruby nicely summarized as "a perfect bastard culmination of punk rock, blue-collar politics, craft appropriation and criminality"), you can trust that Kelley is not naively embracing the anti-Semitism or military brutality of Hitler's Third Reich.
But whatever your approach, you can't quite deny the work's push-pull tension.
As Kelley said to art historian Eva Meyer-Hermann in 2011, in the last interview conducted before his suicide, "You know as well as I do that most viewers look at art for about two seconds and then they're out the door. I have always appreciated complexity in artworks; the fact that the works are high minded or silly is less important than their complexity. That is the true content of the work—structure."
Like Kelley's work on legendary criminals (and their kinship with great but also lawless artists), this painting captures a rather Miltonic struggle between the creative or generative forces of dark and light. And like so much of his work more broadly, Nazi War Cave #1 works to both attract and repel viewers, include and exclude them.
In other words, welcome to the unwelcoming cave, where the darkness is—never mind Plato—pregnant with flashes of light.
Photo caption: Mike Kelley with Nazi War Cave #2 photographed by Tim Street-Porter / Photographs © Tim Street-Porter