A self-proclaimed "blue-collar anarchist," Mike Kelley conducted a revolution that was not one of active aggression or trailblazing polemics. Instead, he devised an aesthetics of delinquency through which he identified with the underdog and debunked the two organizing principles of 20th-century thought: capitalism and psychoanalysis. As a student at CalArts in Los Angeles during the mid-1970s, he developed a unique performance style. At that time Kelley's sculptures were "demonstrational" in the sense that he "performed" them by using the works as props during performances that incorporated Surrealist-inspired, trancelike writings with sculptural objects and dance. He created bizarre systems of logic that inverted the reductivist, critical tendencies of Conceptual art while introducing a vocabulary that was decidedly irreverent, even adolescent in tone. Although he stopped performing in 1986, his subsequent stand-alone sculptures still function as sites in which narratives of transgression unfold.
Riddle of the Sphinx embodies many of Kelley's themes and, to some extent, sums up his initial post-performance project Half a Man, in which he embraced dejection as the antithesis of masculine authority. He conceived this series in reaction to the heroicized, masculinist tenor of what he called "I-beam" Minimalism and the slick commodity critique of Neo-Conceptualism. The Half a Man project flaunted a stereotypically feminized sensibility, utilizing knitted afghans, sewn banners with slacker slogans, and old, grungy stuffed animals. To prevent empathetic identification with the toys, he arranged them according to typologies or placed them on afghans to stress figure-ground relationships in an ironic evocation of painterly convention. Eventually, he concealed the animals under the afghans, deliberately repressing their visual appearance in a pitiful version of hide-and-seek. In Riddle of the Sphinx, he substituted metal bowls for the veiled toys, the number of which corresponds to the question posed to Oedipus in Sophocles's drama: What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening? The passage of this metaphorical day is echoed in the hues of the afghan, which range in color from pale to dusky and match, in a kitsch moment, an accompanying print of Mount Fuji. Solving the riddle with the answer "Man" (as the measure of all things), Oedipus conquers the Sphinx and secures his own tragic fate. By situating the founding myth of patriarchy and Freudian psychology in the playfully pathetic realm of this floor-bound, camouflaging installation, Kelley associated the Oedipal complex—and, by extension, castration anxiety—with his antihero, the "half a man."