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‘Let’s Make It Happen’: Deitch on Almost Joining MoMA, Bribing Michael Jackson’s Doorman, and More

Jeffrey Deitch and Massimiliano Gioni in conversation at the New York Public Library last night. JORI KLEIN/NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Jeffrey Deitch and Massimiliano Gioni in conversation at the New York Public Library last night.

JORI KLEIN/NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

“I don’t really care about money,” Jeffrey Deitch told New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni last night at the New York Public Library. “Money is something to do more crazy projects with.” There you have it.

Deitch and Gioni were both asked to submit a seven-word biography of themselves before the talk, held to celebrate the publication of Deitch’s new book, Live the Art, which documents the history of the New York gallery he ran from 1996 to 2010. Deitch’s: “Helping other artists to realize their dreams.” Gioni, a man of many words, couldn’t help but exceed the limit: “I wish I could be an engineer of lost time, as Duchamp used to say.”

Deitch wore a grey suit and the signature off-white circular glasses of his own design. He looked formal, like a studious curator, but you could still sense the giddy downtown impresario in his answers. Gioni wore blue-black jeans and loafers, oozing a casual European coolness. With his perfectly cut salt-and-pepper hair and crossed legs, Gioni, a longtime friend of Deitch, is the yin to Deitch’s yang.

At the start of the talk, Gioni announced that it was going to be structured around the alphabet, but then explained that, because he is Italian, he “will not be going in order because he is illiterate.” The talk began with G, for Goals. What are Deitch’s goals when he helps artists? “What is your dream project? What do you want to do? Let’s make it happen,” Deitch said, citing MoMA’s “Projects” series (which allows emerging artists to create new installations) as one of his inspirations.

Deitch. JORI KLEIN/NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Deitch.

JORI KLEIN/NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

N wasn’t supposed to come next, but it was too late—the talk was in Deitch’s hands now, and he was ready to move on to talking about Nest. Deitch had seen artists Dash Snow and Dan Colen wreck a motel room in Miami, and he decided he had to restage it in New York. For the show at his former gallery Deitch Projects, held in 2007, the project involved shredding phonebooks to create something like a hamster nest inside the gallery space. More than 20 Pratt students were hired to rip up thousands of phonebooks all night. The result was an anything-goes space, with no rules for how it could be used. “It’s a miracle that nothing bad happened,” Deitch said. (Though there was that time that Snow almost burned down the gallery by lighting a torch.)

Next came one of Deitch’s “great specialties”—spectacle. “I like an artistic project that takes on a life of its own,” Deitch said. He needed something that was going to get people talking, and he wasn’t going to wait for critics. (He couldn’t depend on social media because this was the ’90s.) This meant staging projects that were often truly shocking.

One was I Bite America and America Bites Me, a two-week performance in 1997 by Russian artist Oleg Kulik in which he became a dog. Deitch recounted meeting Kulik at the airport, where he was already in character, woofing at passersby in the terminal. According to Deitch, his performance was convincing. “One night I walked in, and he was still naked with a bowl of gruel that his wife had made for him,” he said of the performance, which drew a few thousand visitors. Projects like these were budgeted at $25,000 (about $38,000 today), and if they didn’t sell, they would go in Deitch’s collection. Fortunately for Deitch, many did end up selling.

Still, the first show at Deitch Projects had to be a low-risk venture. It was a performance staged by Vanessa Beecroft in 1996, and, Deitch said, “It was a great way to open the gallery because there was nothing to sell.” Deitch called Beecroft, who is known for her performances that involve female models, on Christmas Day and asked her to be the first artist to show with him. (Gioni remarked that Harald Szeemann, the famed curator, was the only other person who would make phone calls on Christmas Day. “I think I know why you’d do that,” Gioni said to Deitch with a smirk. “It’s because you’re Jewish.” Deitch chuckled. Beecroft initially resisted, but ultimately said yes.

Gioni. JORI KLEIN/NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Gioni.

JORI KLEIN/NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

In its 15-year history, Deitch Projects had its ups and downs, as when Deitch made an $11-million commitment to Jeff Koons’ “Celebration” series and nearly went bankrupt in the process. Still, Deitch believes Koons has made “the most significant body of artwork of any artist in my generation.” He recounted the time he tried to sell Koons’s sculpture of Michael Jackson and his monkey, Bubbles, to the pop star himself by bribing the doorman at Trump Towers and leaving a Koons catalogue with a note at his door. It didn’t work.

But the talk went well beyond Deitch’s gallery years. “I’d say you’re an American cat because you have so many lives,” Gioni told Deitch, who estimated that he’s on the “fourth act” in his career.

At one point, to some oohing and ahing among an otherwise quiet audience, Gioni asked Deitch why he didn’t go to MoMA in 1990 when museum director Kirk Varnedoe offered him a position as curator of contemporary art. The only condition was that Deitch had to build a contemporary collection. It looked as if Deitch was heading to MoMA, until a critic, whom Deitch did not name, threatened to ruin Varnedoe if he hired Deitch. Varnedoe told Deitch this, and Deitch politely withdrew. He ended up curating Greek magnate Dakis Jouannou’s collection instead.

Then, in 2010, Deitch closed his gallery and became the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, making him the first art dealer to run a major museum. (Deitch ignored Gioni’s advice to him: “Do not take that job.”) Deitch proudly cited 2011’s “Art in the Streets” as one of his major accomplishments. It was the most attended American art show that year.

Deitch’s influence is everywhere, and he knows it. He recently spoke to Josh Kline, widely considered the breakout star of this year’s New Museum Triennial, and wasn’t surprised to learn that Kline owns Deitch’s “Post Human” catalogue. He sees the maligned Björk show at MoMA as something he would’ve done himself. “The diatribes against Biesenbach remind me of the diatribes against me,” he said.

Jerry Saltz's selfie with Deitch, taken after the talk. JERRY SALTZ/TWITTER

Jerry Saltz’s selfie with Deitch, taken after the talk.

JERRY SALTZ/TWITTER

Regarding the problems of the Björk retrospective, Gioni asked, “Is there such a thing as too much audience, or a moment when Bob Dylan does the Christmas carol?” Deitch responded that museum audiences are changing, and that it is high time MoMA adjusted to the Coachella crowd. “This is a very interesting challenge to the art world,” Deitch said. “The elite no longer control the audience.”

It’s hard to believe now, but Deitch of course was once on the outside. When he was a high school student, he told Gioni, his two Bibles were Avalanche and Interview magazines. He idolized Andy Warhol, the founder of Interview, and he sent the Pop artist a letter asking to be one of his summer interns. Warhol never responded, but when he and Andy Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner opened one of Warhol’s time capsules, Deitch’s letter was inside. The passion for art that made him write that letter has clearly never left him.  After the talk ended, New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz could be overhead declaring, “He’s the real deal.” The Deitch comeback tour is gaining momentum.

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