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Losing His Edge? Jeffrey Deitch Thinks You Were Too Hard on Him

Jeffrey Deitch, the art dealer, curator, and controversial former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, opened his legendary gallery, Deitch Projects, in 1995 at 76 Grand Street in Manhattan. His first show, as he writes in his new biography of the gallery, was a performance by Vanessa Beecroft, for which Deitch scheduled a casting call the day after a blizzard dropped some 20 inches of snow on New York. “At least sixty aspiring models trudged through the snow, hoping to be among the twenty chosen to stand seminaked in the cold in front of the gallery audience.” The book, Live the Art (Rizzoli, 2014), is part of a mostly self-imposed reassessment of the last 20 years of his career.

JeffreyDeitch and his circle at a farewell dinner for the gallery. JASON SCHMIDT/COURTESY DEITCH ARCHIVE

Jeffrey Deitch and his circle at a farewell dinner for the gallery.

JASON SCHMIDT/COURTESY DEITCH ARCHIVE

It wasn’t long before Deitch expanded to 18 Wooster Street, where he refined what he refers to as “the party as performance art,” for “an audience that was interested in art as part of progressive culture, not art as a professional or academic discipline.” The gallery launched Kehinde Wiley and Dan Colen as art-world celebrities; Jeff Koons had a surprise 50th birthday there; electroclash briefly flourished as a profitable musical subculture with Deitch Projects as its headquarters. Meanwhile, Deitch himself presided over everything as some combination of hipster sugar daddy and deep-pocketed tycoon, while his business became the closest thing New York of the late ’90s had to a Studio 54.

For Philippe Bradshaw’s Disco Damage (2001), the artist turned the gallery into a nightclub with a giant trampoline in the center. During the opening, Deitch writes in Live the Art, “a perky young woman on our staff who had recently graduated from a Bible college [was] splayed out on a chair, stark naked except for a pair of cowboy boots.” An “overweight young man” was drunkenly jumping on the trampoline, and Deitch relates how he ran over “to protect him from tumbling off.” The man did tumble off, right onto Deitch’s head, breaking his glasses, the lenses of which cut into his face. Chaos erupted and Deitch spent the rest of the night at St. Vincent’s Hospital. His director, Suzanne Geiss, sprained her ankle on the trampoline and followed him to the emergency room a few hours later. It was, Deitch writes, one of the gallery’s more successful parties.

By the time MOCA’s board tapped Deitch to lead the institution, which had struggled financially for years, many of the country’s major museums had already shoehorned in so-called “art as part of progressive culture” to drive up attendance. If this wasn’t a direct result of Deitch’s success, it was at least a subconscious tribute. The Museum of Modern Art’s 2009 retrospective of  Tim Burton was among its most popular ever, despite much critical ire, and pop concerts at museums have become so integral to contemporary programming that no one so much as scoffed at the Skrillex performance at MoMA PS1 last September.

Deitch remains the only gallery owner ever to run a major U.S. museum, making for an awkward shift from selling to fundraising, despite his skill at bringing accessible art to the masses, which attendance-minded museum boards tend to find attractive in a director. That there is also a long tradition of New Yorkers trying and failing to understand the nuances of Los Angeles based on pop-culture mythology didn’t help matters. The move was more or less doomed from the start. Even the tone of the press release announcing the hire in 2010 was immediately defensive, and included overly laudatory statements from other museum directors, such as MoMA’s Glenn Lowry, as if to preempt any criticism.

So much has been written about Deitch’s time as director of MOCA—most of it negative—that even Deitch seems uninterested in arguing directly against it. The MOCA Index 2010-13, a self-published companion to Live the Art, is a retrospective of Deitch’s short and turbulent tenure as director of the museum. It contains no text aside from scattered photo captions and the following introduction: “The MOCA INDEX 2010-2013 documents exhibitions, projects, events, and selected acquisitions from June 2010–November 2013.”

A Harper’s Bazaar photospread on Deitch Projects from 2000. JASON SCHMIDT/COURTESY DEITCH ARCHIVE

A Harper’s Bazaar photospread on Deitch Projects from 2000.

JASON SCHMIDT/COURTESY DEITCH ARCHIVE

The book’s thesis, however, is implicit: Was Deitch’s museum really so bad? There are images from the exhibition that look eerily like something that would have been celebrated at Deitch Projects as at least amusing, if not “spectacular,” as the New York Times called the band Fischerspooner’s debut performance at the gallery. For Deitch’s comprehensive graffiti retrospective at MOCA, “Art in the Streets,” a quasi-city was constructed in the museum, featuring a bodega and a 99-cent store, which could be viewed as either a nod to Barry McGee’s 2000 show with Todd James and Stephen Powers at Deitch Projects where the artists did the exact same thing, or an unfortunate recycling of it. “In its crudest form it blurts, ‘I exist!’” wrote the Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, referring to the street-art style writ large at the exhibition. “Its more imaginative forms also shout, ‘And I’m fantastic!’” This is a serviceable description of nearly every show Deitch has ever done.

Deitch essentially tried to transport the hedonism of Deitch Projects, minus any commercial obligation, to downtown Los Angeles. To take his museum’s agenda so completely out of its context, as Live the Art does, is an interesting experiment, particularly considering how transparent Deitch is about his former endeavor. The book offers budget figures, the initial business model for how Deitch would recoup his investments, and a very sad story about the former owner of 18 Wooster Street—then a family business called Canal Lumber—sobbing and having to be escorted out of the room by his mother after he signed over the building’s deed to the gallery. Admittedly, without the stories about the unceremonious exit (or possible firing) of MOCA’s revered chief curator Paul Schimmel, or the loss of all four of the museum’s artist trustees who left in protest over the direction in which the museum was heading, or the reams of articles tracking Deitch’s failures (The New York Times’ Guy Trebay wrote one using Woody Allen’s Zelig as a sustained metaphor), or Deitch’s resignation in 2013 with two years left in his contract, it’s clear that a number of these shows were unfairly overshadowed by all the hysteria.

It’s too early to say what effect these books will have on the perception of Deitch’s legacy, but for now, his influence can be seen everywhere. In the four or so years since Deitch closed his gallery, the art world has welcomed a parade of corporate sponsorships and mediocre celebrity cameos, adopting Deitch’s worst qualities—the ironic posturing, the privilege masquerading as street-smart bravado—and misinterpreting all the things he did right, including his liberal funding and uncanny ability to throw a party that was both highbrow and vulgar. The current trends in contemporary art are a celebration and an indictment of the culture Deitch created. Watch Shia LeBeouf run in a circle around Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Be a part of a Jay-Z music video filmed at Pace Gallery. Thurston Moore is playing guitar at the opening. David Byrne is singing at the gala. Absolut has provided the signature cocktails. BMW is the official car of the art fair. James Franco will be there, doing whatever it is that James Franco does. All of this has very little to do with art and is packaged, with the help of an army of irascible iPad-ed publicists and assistants, in the pseudo-inoffensiveness reserved almost exclusively for design showrooms, a method of neutralizing so much decadence trying to pass as high culture and rendering the entire art community, if not exactly insidious, then not entirely innocent either.

A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 36 under the title “Losing His Edge?”

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