On a recent evening in SoHo, there was no block party outside of 76 Grand Street. There was no performance ambling down the adjacent corridor. There was just a name on the door, Jeffrey Deitch.
This was the original location of Deitch’s storied gallery, Deitch Projects, which became famous in the last decade for its lavish opening-night parties and for perennially anointing a new crop of hyped-up artists. The gallery closed in 2010 when Deitch got a job as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, a position he held for three fraught years before returning to New York. Since coming back into town, he’s set up projects in far-flung New York spots such as Red Hook and Coney Island, even though he still owns the building Deitch Projects once occupied. (Since 2011, 76 Grand Street had served as the home of the eponymous gallery of one of his former directors, Suzanne Geiss, who is moving next door.) He stood in his old stomping ground, wearing a powder-blue suit.
“I always intended to come back,” he said of the space. “It’s a perfect location, and I’m very comfortable here. I’ve done, let’s see, maybe 150 shows here? So I’m very comfortable. It’s very manageable—you can do a museum show here, but it’s not an overwhelming space.”
The show on view, “Cameron: Cinderella of the Wastelands,” in fact includes some works from a museum show Deitch helped organize at MOCA before his departure. It’s a defiantly West Coast exhibition. Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel—who went simply by the name Cameron—was an artist and occultist who indulged in some very L.A.-centric habits, such as participating in occultist worship, acting in Kenneth Anger films, engaging in an Aleister Crowley sex magick ritual called Babalon Working with her rocket scientist husband Jack Parsons, and palling around with L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, the closest L.A. has to an official religion.
“It’s fascinating to learn about this neglected L.A. history that didn’t quite get [to New York],” Deitch said.
By this, Deitch meant the sexed-up devil-worship motifs that got Ferus Gallery raided by the LAPD vice squad in the 1950s during a Wallace Berman show in which Cameron’s work was also featured. Deitch has put together a rich collection of Cameron’s works on paper, along with some of her husband’s ceremonial daggers, Crowley’s papers, photographs of her and Parsons, and complementary works by Berman. The exhibition has a genuinely wild feel, which Deitch considers to be something of a corrective for how the New York art world changed while he was away.
“A lot of artists and people like me in the art world are frustrated, because something we got into as a life, as an idealistic pursuit, became such a professionalized business,” he said. “A number of younger artists are treating art like it’s a profession. They’re borrowing all this money to go to a prestigious graduate school, and then getting the right internship, and I listen to this and it’s like people going to law school: going to the Ivy League school, and then getting a clerkship for a famous judge, and then joining the famous law firm. They join one of the prestigious galleries, and they’ve made it. That’s the model of life that I got into this to get away from.”
We walked up to Untitled (Peyote Vision), the kind of piece that Deitch really likes, because it’s the work that got Berman in hot water with the vice quad. The work is so explicit that the offending version wasn’t even the full-scale version on view on the wall—it was a postcard-size edition. The large version here still has a visceral power. It’s a gigantic, pop-veined Promethean demon mounting a woman from behind, her serpent tongue lashing out, the veins of her lover spreading into her.
“Cameron was someone who embraced art as part of a life, a rich life involved with occult practice and philosophical investigation, very much conscious of the fluidity between the mind and the body,” Deitch said. “It’s an inspiring way to be an artist. After Wallace Berman was arrested for obscenity, both Cameron and Berman never showed at a commercial gallery again.”
Of course, the space with the name Jeffrey Deitch on the door is a commercial gallery, in the business of selling art. (In this case only a quarter of the works are on sale, Deitch said.) And while the show opened without one of the flashy parties that Deitch’s gallery used to be known for—“When the artist isn’t alive, there’s never really a party,” he said—future shows may hearken back to the Deitch days of yore.
“The point is not to opened a mega gallery with three locations,” he said. “It’s to do some interesting serious shows that reflect the range of my interests. Others will be more commercial. There’s going to be a fun, big-type show after this—we’ll announce it soon. And we’re doing a Keith Haring show, as I represented the estate for a number of years.”
Above all, he said it was good to be back in the New York scrum, trying to make sure his shows stand out amid the din.
“A half-rate show doesn’t cut it here,” he said.