Mary Kelly is known for her project-based work, addressing questions of sexuality, identity and historical memory in the form of large-scale narrative installations. She studied painting in Florence, Italy, in the sixties, and then taught art in Beirut, Lebanon during a time of intense cultural activity known as the “golden age.” In 1968, at the peak of the student movements in Europe, she moved to London, England to continue postgraduate study at St. Martinʼs School of Art. There, she began her long-term critique of conceptualism, informed by the feminist theory of the early womenʼs movement in which she was actively involved throughout the 1970s. She was also a member of the Berwick Street Film Collective and a founder of the Artistsʼ Union. During this time, she collaborated on the film, Nightcleaners, 1970-75, and the installation, Women & Work: a document on the division of labor in industry, 1975, as well as producing her iconic work on the mother/child relationship, Post-Partum Document, 1973-79. Documentation I, the infamous “nappies,” caused a scandal in the media when it was first exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1976.
In 1989 she joined the faculty of the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Her four part work interrogating womenʼs relation to the body, money, history and power, Interim, 1984-89, was organized in conjunction with it, On the Subject of History, marked a highpoint in the feminism and postmodernism debate instigated by the critic and early supporter of Kellyʼs work, Craig Owens. During the nineties, she focused on the issue of war: first, spectacle, in Gloria Patri, 1992, using components of polished aluminum, then trauma, in Mea Culpa, 1999, developing the ephemeral medium of compressed lint to form text in intaglio. This process culminated in a continuous, linear relief of more than 200 feet, The Balland of Kastriot Rexhepi, 2001. The exhibition included an original score for Kellyʼs Ballad by composer, Michael Nyman, and a live performance by soprano, Sarah Leonard, with the Nyman Quartet at the openings in Los Angeles, New York and Mexico City.
More recently, she has turned to the theme of collective memory. For Circa 1968, first shown in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, she transcribed an emblematic image of Parison the eve of the general strike, into lint and projected light noise, and in Love Songs, 2005-07, she collaborated with younger women on the restaging of protest photographs from her archive. Multi-Story House, a three dimensional intergenerational narrative reflecting on feminism, was commissioned for Documenta XII. A retrospective her work was organized by Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 2011. Major surveys were presented at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2010 and Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, 2008.
She was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2015. She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates by the University of Wolverhampton, Lunds University and University of the Arts Helsinki. From 1996-2017, Kelly was Distinguished Professor of Art at the School of the Arts and Architecture, University of California, Los Angeles, where she founded the Interdisciplinary Studio Area. Currently, she is Judge Widney Professor at the Roski School of Art and Design, University of Southern California.