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Jeffrey Deitch: ‘I May Have to Establish a New Beachhead’

Deitch at the Chelsea Hotel Storefront Gallery.PHOTO BY DEBORA SPENCER

Deitch at the Chelsea Hotel Storefront Gallery.

DEBORA SPENCER

Last night, at the opening of an exhibition of photographs and ephemera celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band Blondie at the Chelsea Hotel Storefront, past the obese man with a cane wearing a T-shirt that said “BAD SEED,” out of view of the Debbie Harry drag impersonator striking poses in the window, and a rather unfortunate distance away from a corner of the gallery dedicated to Blondie fan art—including a truly remarkable canvas depicting Harry’s floating head against an ocean sunset backdrop with a mysterious spaceship lifting off from the surface of the water behind her—we stepped outside and had a few words with Jeffrey Deitch, the show’s curator. Deitch returned to New York last year, after a tumultuous three years as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles wherein the Beastie Boys’ Mike D curated a show, James Franco had his own exhibition, the museum’s artist board resigned after learning of Deitch’s plans to do a historical survey about disco, and Deitch resigned with about two years left in his contract. He is slowly re-entering the art world here. He’s a fixture at openings and events—many of which aspire to the downright hedonism of the parties he’d throw at his old SoHo gallery Deitch Projects, which he closed in 2010. And he’s publishing two books—one a history of Deitch Projects, Live the Art, and the other about his time at L.A. MOCA called The MOCA Index. There are endless rumors as to what Deitch has planned now that he’s back on his home turf. He gave us a few hints.

Can you tell me about how this show came about and how you know Deborah Harry?

It started when—can we move out from the air conditioner? Let’s just go out here. So it started several years back when we did an exhibition at Deitch Projects called “Recapture the Rapture” that focused on this very influential music video of [the Blondie song] “Rapture” that has, in the background, Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy, painting, and Jean-Michel Basquiat is in it. So we did an exhibition where we projected the video and Lee and Fred painted on the walls and Debbie did a short performance. After that I said to Debbie, “What’s next?” And she told me she had this rock-and-roll T-shirt collection. We never quite had the opportunity to show it. Then Linda Carbone, who runs Debbie’s press, told me it was going to be the 40th-anniversary of the band and wanted to do something. And I thought this was a great idea. Let’s do some of the great photographs of Blondie and also include the T-shirt collection.

Can you say anything about what you’re working on now that you’re back in the city?

Oh, sure. I’m working on two kinds of shows. One show is about new art. I’m always challenging myself to find a meaningful pattern to what’s going on and try to help understand what’s on the agenda. So I’m working on a show like that. And then historical shows. And this is part of that category. This is a small show. But I’m very interested in the history of the period I participated in—’70s, ’80s, ’90s, in New York. So it will be an ongoing project to do historical exhibitions. Each one I do I learn a little bit more, get more information, and then I’ll be able to draw on that for a more ambitious show.

Are you planning on doing more roving shows like this, or do you have a permanent space in mind?

Well I’ve been invited to do shows in a few spaces, and trying to match up the right show with the right space—it’s a hard thing. I’m looking for a space of 40,000 square feet plus. And so there’ve been a few things that were almost there, but didn’t quite work out. So I’m very patient.

That must be some kind of adjustment, coming back here from Los Angeles.

Well, it’s not really an adjustment. It’s so exciting here.

I guess I mean in terms of space.

Oh. Yeah. That’s always an issue in New York. That’s part of New York. So I may have to establish a new beachhead.

I was taking a look at the retrospective book about your time as director of L.A. MOCA, The MOCA Index. What was the thinking behind that?

I learned some years ago that it’s a very good idea to document all your artistic projects. I learned my lesson back in 1984. I organized a very ambitious show at PS1, a big contemporary portrait salon. And Andy Warhol was involved in it and helped me out with the choices. It was hung salon style, floor to ceiling, and it was most of the second floor of PS1. So at the time I didn’t have any money to do a catalogue. PS1 didn’t have any money. But we did take excellent photos. And some years later, I was able to afford to do a catalogue, so I went to PS1 and said, Let’s find the photographs and do a catalogue. And they were great photographs, and they all disappeared. Nobody knows what happened, but the archive was just gone. I hope that somebody still has those and they’ll appear at some used bookshop. But there’s no documentation of the show. This was something that—not just me, but all these artists and other people had worked so hard on. And with art there’s so much that goes on, if you don’t document it, it can just disappear. So I learned to document. And that’s the documentation of three years of my creative life.

But does it have anything to do with your tenure being wrapped up in this kind of maelstrom of commentary…

Let’s just say I walked into a hornet’s nest. I never said anything negative about the whole experience. For me, it was positive. I was able to do fantastic things. One of the reasons why I sent the book out is that, from reading press reports, people would think the only thing I did there was a show with James Franco. And the show we did with James Franco was in fact very interesting! But it’s only five percent of what I did. This stuff about how the programming wasn’t serious? There’s a number of very heavyweight projects that were there, and I think it’s as interesting a program of any museum of its type for only three years. I just wanted to put that out there. There’s no commentary, just pictures.

I noticed that.

No text being defensive or anything. I just put it out there. It’s very straightforward. We did some amazing things. The show with Urs Fischer where we invited 1,500 people to come into the museum and sculpt figures out of clay and then installed Urs’s work in the middle of that? It was a remarkable, radical exhibition that really engaged with the public in a way that I’ve never seen done before—1,500 people making art in the museum? And then for the rest of the show each of these 1,500 people bringing their 20 friends to see their work in there with Urs’s? It was a really fascinating thing. That’s just one example of a project that no other museum could do.

When you announced your plans to do a show there about the history of disco, it caused quite a stir.

The disco show is still a show I’d like to do. I wish I could have done it then, but I think it’s OK for me to wait a while.

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