In 1962, a suburban housewife named Joan Archibald packed up her car and drove from Long Island to Malibu, leaving everything behind her—her children, her family, and even her name, all in the pursuit of art. Soon after, she officially changed her name to become the mononymous Kali, taking hundreds of photographs and embarking on a career as an artist. Yet, despite an auspicious start, she faded back into obscurity, dying with thousands of unseen prints. Now, her work has been brought back into the light, with a new book set and an exhibition showcasing her work.
“Leaving the first marriage and driving West, maybe without a fixed destination, is a very interesting and prevalent narrative of mid-century America. She fit into that, and then you see what her life became, and that’s a great story, along with the profusion of artistic work and the very strange fact that she had talent but determined at a certain point to hide it,” says Matt Tyrnauer, who contributed the introductory text for KALI, the four-volume limited edition book set of Kali’s work. “The narrative of this just started to unfurl before me at that point: lost photographer, someone with a Southern California aesthetic, a hidden career, and a woman of her times in many ways. Women who came of age in the 50s were very much under pressure to be conformists, and to fit into the role of June Cleaver from tv sitcom Leave It To Beaver. That was an American fantasy, and some women rejected that.”
The new book set, coinciding with an exhibition at Staley-Wise gallery in New York City, lays out an oeuvre of work organized by Susan Archibald, Kali’s daughter, and Len Prince, Archibald’s ex-husband and a photographer in his own right. With the help of designers Sam Shahid and Matthew Kraus, the book was organized and divided into three sets of work: Polaroids, Landscapes and Portraits, and Outer Space. Of the three, it’s her hypnotic portraits that will come to define her, with the colors bleeding into one another with the iridescent sheen of an oil slick. Certainly, Kali was a photographer of her time, a time when acid-like visions became all the rage with the vibrancy of LSD present in seemingly all visual forms, from films to paintings to photographs. “I think if she had been selling [her prints] piecemeal in the 70s, they might even have seemed trite, a little derivative at the time,” says Tyrnauer, “But seeing it all at once, and then seeing that she had thousands of negatives of what she calls the Artography, and then hundreds, if not thousands of Polaroids, and then in the last decade of her life descended into either a form of madness or illness, was very moving and overwhelming. You see a kind of biography in the form of a body of work that has been curated. And there’s something really fascinating and compelling about that.”
Artography was a term coined and trademarked by Kali, who seemed to have a keen awareness for marketing and promotion. The name she chose, Kali, could be referencing multiple things: perhaps it was a nod to the Hindu goddess of death and time, also named Kali. Or perhaps it was shorthand for California, a nod to the state that finally gave her the artistic freedom she so desperately wished for all those years in Long Island. Whatever the meaning, with her name change, she established a business (Kali Kolor, Ltd.) complete with a logo, a trademark, and even a stamp, declaring to the world that she was an artist. She began getting some of her work published, a promising start—and then it all came to a screeching halt. No one knows why. “There’s a mystery element of the story where she does the dramatic and brave thing: she remakes her life, she pursues her art,” says Tyrnauer. “Then at a certain point, for reasons unknown, she decides to keep working but obscures her work.”
Kali’s daughter Susan described her mother’s artistic process, using her swimming pool to wash her prints, letting them float under the California sun. Next came physical applications and distressings, from painting on top of them to rubbing sand across the surface for a textured effect. When Kali discovered the instant magic of Polaroids, she used an enlarger to project the images she’d already taken, then snap them with her Big Shot camera, resulting in the same layered, textured, psychedelic imagery, impossibly captured in a Polaroid.
Ever since Vivian Maier’s photographs were unearthed in an auction, the art world has been zealously searching for another hidden gem in the rubble, another undiscovered superstar. “I think the legend of Vivian Maier is in everyone’s head,” says Tyrnauer. “That narrative always raises the question: are there more of them out there? Are there more undiscovered bodies of work that could be as impactful and delightful and staggering as the Vivian Maier?”
The mythologizing of artists has always played a major role in the perceived value of art, but Kali’s discovery is not an art-world gimmick, but rather, a truly intriguing body of work. Tyrnauer concedes that the story surrounding Kali is compelling—“The ambiguity of it and the unknown rationale and origin of it is part of what makes it interesting,” he says—but that’s not the sole reason he found her work persuasive. “There’s something very Joan Didion to me about the work,” he says, a comparison he also wrote about in the book’s introduction. “Just because [Didion] so identified with the 60s and 70s Southern California aesthetic, and she wrote female protagonists so well, particularly Mariah, the protagonist of Play It as It Lays, that there’s a certain aesthetic companionship between heretofore unknown Kali and immortal Joan Didion.”
The last body of Kali’s work, titled here “Outer Space”, are mostly images of CCTV footage around her home, bright dots of light speckled across the pages. In her later years, Kali grew increasingly convinced of the existence of UFOs, and began to shut herself inside her home, her only glimpse of the outside world filtered through a grainy screen. On their own, the images are intriguing, but they are permeated with a frenetic energy, desperate to capture something so real it would prove to others—and herself—that it wasn’t purely her imagination. And that is the end of Kali’s work.
It’s hard to pinpoint why Kali never achieved great fame and success—was it a matter of timing? Was it self-imposed? Tyrnauer refers to the “test of time” as a marker of artistic merit. Half a century later, Kali’s work is as evocative as ever, replete with brilliant colors, layered imagery, and phantasmagoric scenes. But it’s her dedication to her craft, as well as her innovative experimentations, that sets her apart from being simply a good photographer: rather, a great artist.
KALI by Len Prince and Susan Archibald with writing by Matt Tyrnauer, Alexandra Jarrell, and Brian Wallis is out on October 26 from Powerhouse Books. The KALI exhibition at Staley-Wise Gallery is on view until December 4, 2021.