interview by PARINAZ MOGADASSI
portrait by MARCELO KRASILCIAllC
All images courtesy of Deitch Archive, New York
This is the story of how a talented young high school student discovers art, and via his uncomplicated enthusiasm broadens his interest to become one of the most influential art consultants and gallery directors in the world. For over 35 years JEFFREY DEITCH has supported every mode of experimental and investigative visual art — while including music, fashion, skate culture, cinema, theater, and performance in his growing understanding of contemporary culture. Deitch recently closed his innovative New York gallery, Deitch Projects, and moved to Los Angeles, where he’s been appointed the director of MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. His departure will certainly leave a hole in the Downtown New York scene. But who better than Deitch could create a link between the thriving East Coast and West Coast art scenes?
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — You moved to New York in ’74, right after college. Where did you live before that?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Hartford, Connecticut. My family had a heating business, and when I was old enough I rode with the drivers of the fuel oil trucks on their service calls and eventually I learned to do the calls myself. This took me all over Hartford, into all kinds of homes. So, while I was still a teenager I was exposed to people from divergent socioeconomic backgrounds
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — in their homes, their inner sanctums.
JEFFREY DEITCH — I worked with Polish and Scottish immigrants, old-school pre-lib Black guys, and younger Black guys with very different attitudes. I had all sorts of adventures in Hartford, but I wanted more.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Is that why you moved to New York?
JEFFREY DEITCH — No. When I was 17, and still in high school, I applied to a foreign exchange program to study in France. I was accepted and by a stroke of luck I ended up going to Paris in June of 1968, a couple weeks after the May riots. The energy was still frenetic. I have profound memories of being caught in the middle of a very chaotic situation. I remember running back to the place I was staying blinded by tear gas, but feeling satisfied because that was what I wanted to experience.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — How did your parents feel about all this?
JEFFREY DEITCH — They were pleased to send me, and I returned to my suburban Hartford high school with a completely different consciousness. So the first city I experienced was Paris, not New York. When I got back, I had a very lucky break. The organization that ran the exchange program in France was opening up a new territory in Japan. I had been a particularly good student and they wanted to make sure the Japanese hosts had good students, ones who would mesh well with Japanese families. I was offered a full scholarship in the first wave of students in the Japan program. My parents were a little hesitant, because I’d been away from home just the year before. But I badly wanted to go and they gave me their blessing. So there I was in Tokyo in 1969, during a period when their student riots took place, a year after those in France. When I arrived all the universities were being taken over by different factions. Not just in Tokyo, but in Kyoto, in Osaka — in the whole country. At Tokyo University one building was taken over by far-leftists, another by socialists, and another by right-wingers. They would take all the chairs, tables, and other furniture and use it to block the stairways, so the police couldn’t get through. The students lived on the top floors and they would roll down rope ladders a couple times a day. They paraded around in a dragon dance. It was an amazing thing to witness. The city was erupting elsewhere, too. Every square foot of the Shinjuku train station was filled with student protesters. It was a special time, terrifying and thrilling. It was also the summer of the moon landing and the Woodstock music festival.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — The summer of ’69.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Japanese kids were fascinated with everything American: the space program, hippies, Woodstock, the Vietnam War protests, and so on. As a young American — and there weren’t many of us, because it was almost unprecedented for an American kid to be living with a Japanese family and going to a Japanese school — I became a kind of celebrity. I was even invited to go on TV. They had an equivalent of American Bandstand. I said a few things in Japanese and then just sat there on a stool as a Japanese folk band played a version of a Peter, Paul and Mary song. I became immersed in Japanese culture. And I was lucky, because in 1969 there was still a lot of traditional Japan left, even though their economy was booming.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — So you moved back to Hartford and finished high school. And then?
JEFFREY DEITCH — I went to Wesleyan University. It’s a very liberal place. The music department was particularly amazing. It was infused by the teachings of John Cage and the brilliant avant-garde composer and sound and perfomance artist, Alvin Lucier, who taught there. I studied with him. I studied Gamelan music and the Japanese reed flute.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — You studied music?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, the foundation of what I do was laid during my education at Wesleyan, where there wasn’t much of a differentiation made between music and visual objects. For me, the blurring of boundaries between media — making sculptures with sound, or making a performance a sculptural concept — started there.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What came next?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, in the family business we also had a sheet metal shop. We hired a man to work in it and after a week or so it became apparent that he was remarkably skilled. So my uncle asked him to show us what he could do. He took a couple of sheets of metal and within an hour he had fabricated a teapot. It was like magic. We usually made ducts, stuff that required limited skill — the sort of stuff even I could do. It turned out that he was a sixth-generation coppersmith from a little town in Portugal. My family was very entrepreneurial, so we set him up with a shop of his own, making copper objects, vases, jugs, and so on. My father drove some down to New York City and went to the biggest gift showroom on Fifth Avenue. They took the line and within a couple of weeks they sold it to Sears Roebuck. Of course we were thrilled. We ramped up the operation and had him make all this stuff. But the harsh reality was that the line didn’t sell well and Sears didn’t reorder. We were stuck with a warehouse of copper pots. So I decided I’d take care of it.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — How did you do that?
JEFFREY DEITCH — That summer I loaded up my van with copper objects and drove around to gift shops in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard — places where I thought the seasonal tourism was a bit more high-brow. I did so well I decided to open up my own shop. I settled for a place in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, the summer home of the Boston symphony. I rented a parlor room in The Curtis Inn, a grand old hotel in the center of Lenox — a room with beautiful proportions. I named the shop The Copper Artisan and put all the copper pieces on the shelves and lit them to look really great. Then I realized that I needed something for the walls. My mother knew some artists and someone else led me to another artist from whom I got a bunch of works on consignment. So there it was: art for the walls.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What sort of work was it?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Decorative, semi-abstract paintings. I didn’t know the difference between good and bad art. But I opened the place and it looked terrific. On the opening night of the Boston Symphony all these very well-heeled people from New York and Boston come through before the concert — and they bought a lot of things! Before long local artists began to come in and hang out. A lot of New York artists had summer places nearby and they began coming in. I was selling really well, and I was exposed to a social circle and a level of intellectual discourse that I never imagined I could access. We sold out all of the artist’s works and I had to call him up for more. He was amazed. At the time I guess I didn’t realize that it wasn’t always that easy to sell art. It was a very lucky situation. Anyway, at the end of that summer one of these New York artists that regularly came in said to me, “Sit down. I want to talk to you.” He told me, “I like what you’re doing here. You’re good at it. But I have to tell you — you don’t know a thing about art. You need an art education.” I took what he said seriously.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What did you study at Wesleyan?
JEFFREY DEITCH — I started with economics. In fact, I won the Gilbert Clee Scholarship, which is awarded to the top economics student each year. It was a very prestigious thing. Fortunately, the people who gave the Clee Scholarship were tolerant. I ended up changing my major to art but I still took courses in economics. So I’m back at school and I’m hanging out at the art library and I come across a copy of Avalanche. Do you know it?
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Yes. Willoughby Sharp’s magazine.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Exactly. It was the most important art magazine of the ’70s. It documented a great moment in performance art — Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, etc. The Avalanche issue I found featured Acconci — the whole issue — with documentation of Vito’s Seedbed piece and the biting piece, Openings. I couldn’t put it down. I thought if this is where art is at, it’s where I want to be. The merger of counter culture and progressive art, characterized by Vito’s art, was exactly what I was prepared for. Avalanche had all these intriguing advertisements for art galleries, like Leo Castelli and Sonnabend. I began driving down to New York City to see these galleries. I must have been 19 or 20. Now there was no question about it. I couldn’t wait to graduate and get involved in the art world, the galleries, and New York.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — That’s not hard to imagine.
JEFFREY DEITCH — There was another interesting thing. I’d been given a fellowship by the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, one given in memory of a famous McKinsey managing director who’d gone to Wesleyan — a number of the top McKinsey managers were Wesleyan alumni. Part of the fellowship was an opportunity to work at any McKinsey office in the world. It was the summer of ’73, and I chose Paris.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Paris in the fabled ’70s.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Paris in the early ‘70s was the place to be — more so than New York. It was the golden age of Yves Saint Laurent and the famous clubs like Luck, The Jockey Club, and Regine’s, which had just started up. I went to these places. And Paris style was it! It was the place on earth. No other place could compare to it. I remember going to London at that time — I worked for a week in the McKinsey London office — but London was drab, shabby, and polluted. It just paled in comparison to Paris.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — So your formative years were spent first in Paris, then in Tokyo, and then again in Paris — all this before you lived in New York. Did you ever think about moving to France?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Oh yes. In my mind there was always the thought that I’d make my life in Paris. But for art in the early to mid-70s, New York was without rival. So the day after I graduated from college I drove down to New York, parked on West Broadway, and went up to Leo Castelli to ask for a job.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — That was pretty forward of you. What happened?
JEFFREY DEITCH — The girls in the office wouldn’t give me the time of day! So I went up to the next floor to the Sonnabend gallery and the door was locked. I think they’d left for Venice for the summer. So I went up one more floor to the John Weber gallery, which was a great gallery in those days, representing Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Robert Smithson, and Dan Flavin. There wasn’t even a reception desk, because there were so few visitors. I knocked on the door, walked into the office, and the director, Naomi Spector, was sitting there. She was the only person in the gallery. I asked her for a job. She said, “Well, it just so happens our secretary quit on Friday and I’d like to hire you, but the problem is that John is in Europe at the Basel art fair and I know he’s going to want to hire a good looking young lady. He’s going to go crazy if I hire a man.” So I proposed to her that I work for free for a week and see what happened. She agreed and so I began. She had me take dictation, which I didn’t know how to do, so there I was scribbling furiously away. I didn’t really know how to type either. I could only hunt and peck. But I managed to pound out the letters and fortunately she was pleased.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What was your first interaction with John Weber like?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, John came in the next week and saw me sitting at the desk and he didn’t even talk to me. He went into the inner office where Naomi Specter sat and he slammed the door. I heard him screaming at her, “What’s that guy doing here?!” To this day I don’t know what Naomi said, but finally she came out and said, “You’re hired.” Looking back, I’d say that in many ways the year I worked for John Weber was the greatest year of my life.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — There’s a mystique about John Weber. What was he like?
JEFFREY DEITCH — John Weber had been the director of the legendary Dwan Gallery, whose owner, Virginia Dwan, was an heiress, and so was able to run the gallery without commercial orientation. She represented great radical artists. She’d funded Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Michael Heizer’s earthworks. It was an incredible gallery. But after seven straight years of losses her accountants told her that they were no longer able to deduct them. They advised her to close the gallery and so she turned it over to John, who didn’t have any money. They made some arrangement that the fourth floor of the building at 420 West Broadway would be retained for him. She used the back half of it for storage. The front was a really large gallery overlooking West Broadway, just up the stairs from Sonnabend and Castelli. So there John was, in this very prestigious location, having had this incredible gallery handed to him, one with so many great artists — like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Bob Ryman.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — When did you enter the picture?
JEFFREY DEITCH — I arrived a couple years after John took over. The year after Bob Smithson died. It was still super-prime. I’ll give you a sense of what it was like: Carl Andre used to get all his mail, and check his messages, at the gallery. He’d drop by every afternoon around five. He’d stay up all night watching movies on TV, wake up around three, and then come into the gallery. Whoever wanted to see him would meet him there and then they’d go to a cafe in the Village, like Cafe Reggio on MacDougal Street. Carl was often half an hour or even an hour late. So I’d be there to entertain museum directors and great curators from around the world. A lot of artists would come in just to hang out. Hans Haacke would come in for an hour. Sometimes it had to do with business, but often it was just to hang out.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What was the first exhibition you worked on with John Weber?
JEFFREY DEITCH — One of the first shows I worked on was a Dan Flavin exhibition. I helped him with anything he needed — including running to the Bowery for fluorescent tubes and fixtures. After we finished installing for the day Dan would be ready for a drink. He’d take me to one of Mickey Ruskin’s bars.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Like The Locale?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Right, where Julian Schnabel was the chef. We were there one time and Blinky Palermo came over to our table.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — The scene was so concentrated. The Locale and Magoo’s — a few spots where the players converged.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Basically, there were Mickey Ruskin’s bars — Max’s Kansas City, The Locale, Chinese Chance, and The Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. Mickey’s bars were very hip, so you had the very cool, famous, tough, minimal, and conceptual artists like Flavin and Blinky Palermo. I remember going to an incredible white-hot night at the Ocean Club. It was the first time I saw Andy Warhol. I was sitting at a table with John Wilcox, an early editor of Interview, and of course Andy comes over and greets him, by doing this sort of pantomime without saying a word.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Poetry in motion.
JEFFREY DEITCH — It was unbelievable. That was the Mickey Ruskin side of it — rock and roll, cool artists, and Andy. Then there was Magoo’s, which was open to everybody, with no hierarchy. The owner of Magoo’s was a very nice guy who didn’t really know the difference between good and bad art. If he liked you, you could bring in a painting and he’d hang it up and give you a year’s food and bar tab. I meet David Salle outside of Magoo’s in 1974. We came to New York around the same time. David would invite me to have dinner with him, very simple food, hamburgers and stuff.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What about Gordon Matta-Clark’s restaurant, Food?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Food was still running while I was working in SoHo, but I rarely went there because it was too expensive. You might think of it as a cheap artist’s canteen, but it was too much money for someone like me! I went there every once in a while. But Magoo’s was an incredible institution, relatively small, and everyone went there. So you might be there with five or six really well known artists. You know, a wonderful art world ethic still exists: anyone who’s serious about what he or she does is taken seriously even if they don’t have anything to show for it.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — It’s kind of unique to the art world, compared to other creative fields. The work, by its very nature, comes from an instinctual emotion, and relationships are formed on the same precepts.
JEFFREY DEITCH — It’s what made Magoo’s so remarkable. Even though Mickey Ruskin’s places were “cooler,” Magoo’s was where I’d have authentic conversations. My friend Scott Burton introduced me to Hannah Wilke there and we became fast friends. This was the TriBeCa scene — performance artists, the return-to-painting people doing photography, conceptual art. The art world was opening up from the more doctrinaire late-’60s-early-’70s thing, where you had to be much tougher, and do prescribed minimal conceptual art. Magoo’s was indicative of the era when things were opening up.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Which is always exciting.
JEFFREY DEITCH — The most exciting thing for me was punk music and the opening of CBGB’s. I knew a lot of those people.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Was there a crossover of the music and artist scenes?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yeah. I think the person who first took me to Magoo’s was Marcia Resnick, a photographer who really got into the punk scene. She went to Cal Arts and introduced me to David Salle and the other Cal Arts people. She and I were really interested in the music scene at CBGBs and Max’s. I quickly got to know David Byrne. But my favorite musician was Alan Suicide.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Didn’t you work with Alan at the gallery?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yeah, like 30 years later. I remember meeting Alan at Max’s Kansas City, at a booth with Marcia. I was a real fan, so I must have said something like, “We’re going to do something together in art,” because I loved his sculptures. When I finally reconnected with him, years later, he said to me, “I’ve been waiting for a call from you for 30 years!” So, you know, it was a magical time. But I’m never going to be the one who says it’s over — it’s never over. There’s always something fresh. But I must say that I was privileged to have been part of the counter-culture, and to have experienced a revolution and the consciousness that gave one the feeling that youth was going to change that world.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Your generation really thought it was possible to change the world?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yeah, and I still kind of believe it. But in those days we lived it. Downtown was its own world. A lot of us prided ourselves on never going above 14th Street. The only reason to venture uptown was to go to the movie theaters on 42nd Street — there was no cable TV or DVDs in those days. If you wanted to see older movies you had to go to 42nd Street, or to the MOMA, which was particularly strong in the mid-’70s — they had really good curators then.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Was downtown really that self-contained? Where were you living?
JEFFREY DEITCH — On Thompson Street. That’s another story. You see, the whole system — the whole social network — just took care of you. Once you were in the scene, you met everyone you needed to know. When I started working at John Weber, Naomi Spector said, “Well, you’ll be needing an apartment — who do we know?” There was an Israeli artist, Arie Galles, who’d taken a teaching job in New Jersey. He’d crafted this wonderful floor-through apartment out of an old tenement. It was like a mini-loft. He turned it over to me — a rent-controlled apartment: $165 a month. It was an amazing old-fashioned tenement, an entire floor, with the bathtub in the kitchen and the toilet down the hall. Arie built three loft beds into it.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — At what point did you start to write? Where were you first published?
JEFFREY DEITCH — I was probably 22 when I began writing for Arts and Art in America. Early on, Walter Robinson and Edith DeAk came into the gallery with a stack of Art-Rite magazines, which after Avalanche became the essential art magazine. They took me under their wing and invited me to write for them. Then I met Richard Martin, who was the editor of Arts Magazine, and he invited me to contribute. Then I met Scott Burton — just as he was being thrown out of the laundromat on Thompson Street, sitting on top of his wet clothes! He was an editor at Art in America, and he introduced me to Betsy Baker, the editor-in-chief.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Did writing about art lead to your curating shows?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yes, the natural evolution was for me to curate shows. A friend of mine, an art dealer named Julian Pretto who had a genius for real estate, approached the owner of what is now known as the Nobu building, and suggested that he be given the building to manage. TriBeCa was basically being abandoned because of the construction of the World Trade Center. The Trade Center had pulled business out to the financial district and the people who owned buildings in TriBeCa were desperate. Julian asked the building owner to give him a year or two to try and fill his building with tenants. Because the guy was so desperate he basically let Julian do whatever he wanted. Julian gave free spaces to his friends and got an army of young boys who, in turn for free rooms, basically functioned as his servants! So Julian offered me a floor to do an exhibition and that’s where I did my first show. Essentially, it laid the foundation for what I’ve been doing ever since.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What was the show called?
JEFFREY DEITCH — “Lives.” It centered on artists who used life as an art medium. It was absolutely the right time for it. I included Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, Laurie Anderson, Hannah Wilke, Scott Burton, Jonathan Borofsky, William Wegman, and a few older stars like Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — It’s incredible that at 23 or so years old you were able to orchestrate such a high level of participation. Was that a testament to the spirit of the community?
— Yeah, but things were much more open then. There were no PR agents or managers vetting galleries for artists, saying, “No, no, that’s the wrong show — it’s not good for your image.” I was able to get people I knew from Magoo’s and from around the art world. It wasn’t a cold call. I knew Vito Acconci from when he was working with the Sonnabend Gallery, just downstairs from Weber. He immediately agreed to be in “Lives.” Dennis Oppenheim was always around and he said yes. It wasn’t like I had to do a presentation and wait for people to think about it.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Did anyone say no?
JEFFREY DEITCH — The only weird one was On Kawara. I went to visit him, and he was very gracious — he invited me up to his loft. But he was the only one who wouldn’t give me a yes or no. I called him to say we were going to press, to ask him if he was in the show or not, and he was completely ambiguous. I put his name on the list anyway and I still didn’t hear from him. He didn’t show up. I was very disappointed. Six months later, a telegram from On Kawara arrived. It read, “I am still alive.” So he was in the show, in his own way. That telegram made me understand his work. It wasn’t like the On Kawara “I am still alive” telegrams you see going for $100,000 at Christie’s. It was a completely different experience, to receive it out of the blue like that.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — It’s as though the work thrives best on its own terms, not as something that’s acquired, but something that’s bestowed upon you.
JEFFREY DEITCH — It was very meaningful. We had incredible things in that show: Jonathan Borofsky’s first wall drawing, an incredible work of Vito Acconci’s, and an historic sound piece from Hannah Wilke using her answering machine. Answering machines were new back then. We’re so beyond them now that even the act of rewinding the tape is dated. It was also the time of the whole liberation between men and women. The messages on the answering machine of Hannah, this hot, young, gorgeous woman, were unbelievable — all these guys trying to chat her up. Some of it was crazy stuff from her mother, but a lot of it was messages from downtown art studs, coming onto Hannah, trying to score a date. You wouldn’t believe some of the things they said.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Sounds priceless.
JEFFREY DEITCH — With Facebook and all these new technologies our notion of intimacy doesn’t involve nearly as much secrecy as it used to. Nobody thought those messages would be replayed in such a public context, much less retained in an artwork. It was sensational. People went wild! I was very pleased to see that this piece was in the “Wack!” show at PS1. Hannah was amazing. But the tapes weren’t played. The answering machine was a relic.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Were you still working at Weber when “Lives” opened?
JEFFREY DEITCH — No, I quit Weber after a year and went on unemployment. You could easily live on it in those days, unlike today.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Why did you leave Weber?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, punk rock was starting and I needed to stay out all night to hear the music and the conversations. I wanted to do my own thing and I knew that the nature of the times would afford me the possibility. So I quit, to live my life without constraints.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Total immersion. I’m noticing a pattern here.
JEFFREY DEITCH — I lived the life so fully that even on the days when I had to go down and sign in for unemployment I couldn’t get there in time! So I put together the “Lives” show. That was in December of 1975.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What did you do after “Lives”?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, while the show was on I started an art consultancy business called “Art of Specific and General Interest.” You had all these European art dealers looking for a young kid who knew his way around. I’d show these German and Italian art dealers around. Of course, some of them were just cruising for girls and boys. I mean, they were looking for art, but they were also looking to hook up. I also did some of my own art.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — “Arguments”!
JEFFREY DEITCH — That’s right. I did a series of performance works — social sculptures in the streets — I called “Arguments.”
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — I’ve read that you would incite arguments.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yes. I did one that was really successful. It was on a hot spring day, right in front of the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, where a lot of people gathered. I had a team of people start arguments with me and another team of people photographing the arguments. It was very interesting visually to see the crowds moving, reacting, etc.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — The dynamism of the crowd.
JEFFREY DEITCH — That’s what it was all about. Most of my art at the time was basically art that made itself. You’d set up some sort of situation and the form would present itself. That was my artistic structure.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — At what point did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
JEFFREY DEITCH — I only applied to one graduate school, Harvard Business School. My family expected me to go to Harvard Law School or Harvard Business School.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Your mother was an economist, wasn’t she?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yes, a labor economist. She specialized in a combination of economics and demographics. She was one of the managers of The Futures Group, the influential firm that worked for governments and major companies predicting economic, sociological, and technological trends. Her analytical approach to trying to predict the economic future very much influenced my approach to trying to understand the future of art.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — So, Harvard…
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yes. Business school was two years, and law school was three. I was young and in a hurry, so I applied to the business program and, by some miracle, I got in. I used to joke that I was the only person who ever went to Harvard Business School to study art criticism. But it gave me this fascinating understanding of marketing policy and a framework for thinking I later applied to art. During this period I met Maurice Tuchman, who was the curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum, and we became good friends. He was putting together a rather radical panel on art and money for the College Art Association. Christo, among other people, was on the panel, talking about art and economics. It may have been the first panel of its type at a CAA meeting. I proposed doing a presentation on Andy Warhol as a business artist. I visited The Factory and spent a lot of time interviewing Vincent Fremont and Fred Hughes. The thing about Andy as a business artist is now ubiquitous, but back then no one had written about it. I gave a presentation to the CAA people and they went wild. It was just the right time — and it was just what people wanted to hear. It was standing room only. Because of that presentation a lot of people approached me and requested my involvement in other things. Right after that I began the art market department for Citibank.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Creating, it might be said, the first vital art advisory.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yeah. I once said publicly that I created two monsters: one was the professional art advisor, of which there are now thousands; the other was Deitch projects, which was really quite instrumental, for better or worse, in the fusion of art and fashion, which, as you know, continues to explode. We weren’t the only ones to do that, of course. There are many very good professional art advisors who really helped legitimize the field. I only joke about the people who could just as easily sell real estate, who go to a museum’s young patrons event, find some guy in a suit who works for a hedge fund, and propose becoming his art advisor. In reality, they become social escorts and make commissions. — You also revolutionized the way art is produced, by developing the concepts of credit lines for artists
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — allowing artists to borrow against their work — and of collectors using artwork as collateral.
JEFFREY DEITCH — That’s right. I initiated those innovations and helped to professionalize the art market, all of which had to happen. Look at it this way: when I arrived, at 20 years of age, there hardly even was a market for art. It was a little community. Only gradually did it become a market. Now you could say that there’s an art industry. I’ve lived through all of this and I was totally inside all of the changes.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — How many years were you with Citibank?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Nine, from 1979 to 1988. In ’88 I started my art advisory business. From 1988 to 1998 I had my private art advisory and private dealing business. Deitch Projects was established in January of 1996, but it was a fledging operation in the beginning. So you might say I’ve had four chapters in the art business — the first was with John Weber; then I was with Citibank, as art advisory; then I had my own art advisory and private dealings, which were the best of my businesses; and then there’s been Deitch Projects, which, luckily, was able to fund the whole thing, although it’s been run on a noncommercial basis. Most of the shows at Deitch Projects cost much more than they earn.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — A lot of the artists you’ve worked with are very viable commercially, but Deitch Projects has also given many artists their first solo exhibition in New York, for which there were no expectations of making a profit.
JEFFREY DEITCH — One of the shows I loved doing was Swoon’s seven boats, which she sailed down the Hudson river and docked in front of our space in Long Island City. I paid for that. We did sell some of Swoon’s works, which went from $10,000 to 15,000 each, but that couldn’t have possibly covered the costs of production. Even though all of the boats were hand-made, we had to buy the Mercedes engines to power them. And we had to cover provisions and travel expenses for 100 people.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — It can really add up.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yeah. But I’m happy that I was able to help fund the projects with Swoon, happy that I was able to fund Black Acid Co-Op to build a world in our gallery, and happy that I presented Dash Snow’s memorial exhibition. There was no money to be made from that, but it was important for the community — and for me. You know, we did Nest, one of the truly great shows: 5,000 pounds of ground up phonebooks. There was nothing to sell.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Thinking about Nest, about Dan Colen, Dash Snow, and Nate Lowman, and all that’s happened in New York in the past six years, it’s apparent that people have grown up and that New York has evolved into something else. These artists have related to and supported one another in a certain way. Are you able, with some distance, to draw any parallels with what was going on in New York some 30 years ago?
JEFFREY DEITCH — I was very happy to see that community happen. I had been waiting since the early ’80s for a community to emerge in the downtown art world, for a group of artists who were inspired by and connected to street culture. The blurring of boundaries between divergent scenes finally happened again. I think a lot about what happened and then dissipated in the mid-’80s. A large part of the dissipation was due to the tragedy of AIDS. There was a generation of people who were like connectors — people who ran clubs, started bands — and a lot of them passed away. The scene that surrounded them, the clubs, the hotbeds of inspiration and activity, was gone. Then there was a very rapid professionalism of the art world and everything tightened up.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Why did that happen? Was it that, with more money, the stakes were raised and a more conservative approach evolved?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Like I said, this little community became a quantifiable market. It used to be that artists could be reckless and behave badly. Artists had that privilege. So did curators. But because of the money and the new professionalism, you couldn’t do that anymore. Artists who came to their opening drunk and collapsed on the table would be ostracized for not taking their careers seriously. If an art dealer did the equivalent, they wouldn’t be trusted to manage an artist.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — And now?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Now it’s going a little the other way. I would say that the renegade dealer and artist are freer to behave outrageously if they want to. The professionalism got too extreme, with dealers and artists operating like businesspeople. But it’s interesting — now when friends of mine from the art world of the ’60s and ’70s visit artists and see their computers and their assistants, they just can’t believe it. We’re in a very different time.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — I agree. I recently met with these kids just out of some of the top fine arts programs in the country, and there was an eerie finesse to their manner of speaking about their work and their practices — they were like perfectly concocted sales pitches, as if MFA programs were turning out art dealers rather than artists.
JEFFREY DEITCH — That’s right. I’ve attended degree shows at UCLA and other places where people were trained, and I’ve sat through the “class crits” — it’s basically the presentation of articulate concepts, aided by computer renderings. There’s been a reaction to this with all the collaborations and the collectives. That said, the profession of being an artist has permanently changed. There may be a loosening up of things, but the professional artist is here to stay.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — That’s clear. But many of today’s young New York artists didn’t attend a branded MFA program. Deliberately or not, they don’t use critical, academic vocabulary to discuss their work. Yet they’re very savvy and very aware of the circumstances at play. They’ve matured into their work and practices.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Even some of the wild boys — you visit their studios, and they’re very professional, with assistants and such.
The younger generation is so aware, so capable of navigating the terrain. The way information is disseminated now, they’re exposed to so much. This is a fascinating and empowering time to be an artist — perhaps more than ever.
JEFFREY DEITCH — It’s just a completely different time. Art is no longer made for a group of 200 other artists and the eccentric psychiatrists who collect art. An artist like Damien Hirst is very much part of mainstream visual culture.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — It’s like brand identity.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Why shouldn’t a major artist be as important as a rock musician — be someone who can transmit radical ideas about progressive culture to the world, in the model of, say, John Lennon? Jeff Koons had a great line. He said, “I always wanted to make the kind of sculpture that The Beatles would have made if they’d been artists.”
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What do you think the relationship between artists and dealers will be like in the future?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, first of all, a lot of it has to do with individuals like Gavin Brown, who came along and presented his model. There’s no one like Gavin. He was able to build a unique structure and attract a group of artists, and as long as he’s into it, it’s going to be a very interesting model. And there’s no one that can do what Larry Gagosian does. To make a generalization, in the future all galleries are going to be like Gagosian. But without Larry Gagosian, who’s going to be able to do that? People ask me if I’m going to sell the gallery. Well, no, because nobody can do what we do. It’s our model.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — These galleries have strong identities; they’re not the type of brands that can be franchised. It’s not so much about individual dealers and their dealing styles, but more about artists and how they relate to their dealers. I get the sense from talking to my peers that they don’t feel the need to work with their gallerists the way artists used to, that there’s no longer the same sense of obligation.
JEFFREY DEITCH — I’ll tell you what I think will happen. Ambitious artists are going to have managers, not unlike business managers. Damien Hirst has Frank Dunphy. Jeff Koons has Gary McGraw, who’s just terrific — he makes the whole thing run well, here and abroad, and he oversees all the business negotiations. Increasingly, artists working at a certain level will require in-house management, if mega-galleries like Gagosian and David Zwirner are going to thrive. A gallery that represents 30 artists cannot realistically take care of them all. Based on my experience, you have to be in touch with active artists on a daily basis. They want to talk with the person who runs the gallery. You can’t assign an assistant to take care of them.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What does that mean for the commercial gallery system?
JEFFREY DEITCH — I think that inevitably — and this is unfortunate, because it’s wonderful to have all these different galleries, these different points of view — the realities of the economy and the need for businesses to be more international will cause there to be far fewer galleries. There will be a smaller number of galleries, increasingly international in scope, meeting market needs in London, New York, LA, etc. As I said, managers will work closely with artists in making deals with the galleries. Some galleries will be able to maintain exclusive representation. But the big money-making artists will call their own shots.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Is this already happening?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Certainly, and because of it, the manner in which artists work with galleries will change. For example, work will be paid for in advance.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — The concept of guarantees already exists in other creative fields, such as film and music.
JEFFREY DEITCH — And more artists will put their work directly in auction, like Damien Hirst does.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — What does this mean for emerging artists?
JEFFREY DEITCH — It’ll be a challenge for them. The business will adapt — finding a young artist is fun, even for a mega-dealer. I foresee big international galleries opening special divisions for young artists, and running them on a lower overhead budget. People will seize any opportunity to find talent and to make money. So it won’t be a much tougher situation for young artists. There might be problems similar to those in book publishing and filmmaking,where, for example, it’s much harder to make and distribute a truly independent film.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — How about the revival of do-it-yourself?
JEFFREY DEITCH — You have to have do-it-yourself things. There’s nothing to stop a group of young artists from opening up their own space — if it’s too expensive in Manhattan, they can do it in Bushwick. And if Bushwick’s too expensive, then Philadelphia…
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Or online.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yeah. But if people are really into it they’ll take the train to Philadelphia to see a show. The system will adapt. I don’t think it’s all that bleak, that young artists won’t be able to show.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — But it’s still a question of visibility.
JEFFREY DEITCH — True. Will you have sixty options in Chelsea? Will you have all these galleries in the Lower East Side? Whether that’s going to be possible is questionable. Artists want to be aligned with what they perceive to be the A team, even from very early on. I thought that maybe it would be like it was in the past, that each generation of artists would create their own unique platform, and that new galleries would form around each cohort, but that hasn’t happened.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Why not?
JEFFREY DEITCH — A 25 year-old artist wants to be with one of the famous galleries that represent artists’ estates. It’s a strange thing and I’m disappointed by it. I mean, a group of people who graduate from RISD or UCLA or wherever could say they’re going to do their own thing, create their own vehicle. I wish that people would do this, because the interest would be there. A little bit of this exists, but not much.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Does this have to do with the psyche of youth, with what motivates young artists? It’s not that my peers lack discipline, or drive, or curiosity. And so much information is now so readily available. All this heightens their sense of entitlement. It’s as though a positive strain of naïveté and idealism skipped the bulk of a generation.
JEFFREY DEITCH — One thing I find surprising is that when Leo Castelli started his gallery he knew de Kooning — he could have shown de Kooning and other people of that generation. But he decided to start fresh. Similarly, Johns, Rauschenberg, and other pop artists didn’t want to be shown at the same gallery as de Kooning. They wanted to be shown with their own generation. When I began Deitch Projects I was very disappointed to find out that artists who I worked with wanted to be shown at the gallery where Jasper Johns was shown. They weren’t so interested in — so invested in the idea of — building a vision of their own generation. They were more concerned with showing at a gallery that represented an esteemed artist some 40 years older than they were. This influenced how I structured Deitch Projects. I had to do it differently, because a certain kind of super-ambitious artist didn’t want to be in the same place as fresh new talent. What interested me most was to be very immediate, very engaged in the development of new things and new ideas, to be a patron in that way, rather than developing a stable of potential blue chip artists. If that had been my goal I would have developed a completely different kind of gallery and not had the kids hanging out. But I wanted the kids to hang out! I’m very glad it worked out for me the way it did.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — A new chapter of your life is beginning: you’re closing the gallery and making a move to the public sector, as Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. How did this all come about?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, it’s the direction I’ve been headed in, because the one thing I really couldn’t do with Deitch Projects was a major historical exhibition. I’ve been an insider in a remarkable chapter in art history. I’m one of the few people who actually lived it, who has some perspective, and who still has the interest. I have the ability to articulate what went on in an exhibition and I want to do that now. I’ve experienced all of this for about 40 years, and in the time I have left I want to reflect back on this period and chronicle its history. I also want to engage in what’s fresh and do shows that help set the agenda — a museum really needs to do that.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Will you present work differently in Los Angeles?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Yes. New York has a very large professional audience: working artists, gallerists, curators, and writers. Los Angeles has one too, but it’s not nearly as expansive. To activate the city, to bring in the required attendance, you need to consider a crossover approach, a way to attract those people who are interested in visual culture but who don’t differentiate that much between professional art culture and new music, or new film, or new fashion, and so on. I’ll need to build this crossover audience in LA to bring people to MOCA. I also need to put on exhibitions in an intelligible way. Like, say there’s an interesting artist associated with Cal Arts, but not enough people are sufficiently aware of him for a solo show of his work to draw a large audience. So, rather than doing a solo show, I’ll do a show about the golden age of Cal Arts, and include him in it.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — The first show you’re doing is a Dennis Hopper retrospective, curated by Julian Schnabel.
JEFFREY DEITCH — Actually, the first project is James Franco’s “General Hospital.”
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Of course! He and I worked together on a portfolio that V magazine commissioned him and the filmmaker Carter to do. His intensity is almost inhuman! But he clearly has a vision. He’s onto something really forward-thinking with “General Hospital.”
JEFFREY DEITCH — He’s going to make an impact. That’s what’s so exciting now. With pop art the artist brought popular culture into a dialogue with art’s tradition. Andy, of course, began putting it back out into popular culture, but it was more theoretical at first, in a way. Now people like James Franco are generating and obtaining interest and stimulation by deliberately putting progressive art content into popular culture. His “General Hospital” is an example. It’s so different from Andy and Interview magazine. I guess you could say it’s closer to Andy being on “The Love Boat.” Franco’s strategy is so much more thought-out — to basically turn episodes of General Hospital into conceptual art performances.
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — Being a movie star, James Franco can tap into the vast, gargantuan arm of the press. He talks about his artistic influences in an interview transmitted globally by the Associated Press and his massive worldwide fan base learns all about it. People are aware of an artist like Tino Sehgal because Franco mentions his work in an interview.
JEFFREY DEITCH — He’s bringing in Kalup Linzy to be on “General Hospital” with him. Isn’t that fantastic?
PARINAZ MOGADASSI — How will you present “General Hospital” at MOCA?
JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, my idea was to install the “General Hospital” sets on the plaza in front of MOCA, at the Pacific Design Center. It’s going to be filmed at night. They talked about using tents, but I thought it would be much stronger visually to have the sets right out in the open air. Crowds will gather and watch the filming and they’ll be part of it. It’ll be social sculpture.
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