At Large  December 12, 2022  Jordan Riefe

Exclusive Interview with Legendary Gallerist Jeffrey Deitch

Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch.

Jeffrey Deitch with Andy Warhol’s Last Supper (1986)

Jeffrey Deitch is rapidly becoming a fan favorite at Art Basel Miami Beach where last year he showed works by Rammellzee, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Walter Robinson. This year, he’s teaming with Gagosian, as he has in past years, offering “One Hundred Years,” an open-themed exhibition taking over Miami’s arts district. 

“It allows us to show work that has a rapport with a hundred years of modern art and maybe looks a hundred years into the future. Themes can be art history, natural history, and climate. We like these open themes where we can get a variety of works of art,” Deitch tells Art & Object about the idea behind the show. It’s inspired by Damien Hirst’s “A Thousand Years,” which will be included, a 1990 room-sized glass case containing a rotting cow’s head, flies, and a bug zapper on one side and a giant die with one dot on the other.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch.

Warhol with Jeffrey Deitch

In many ways, it’s a theme that’s emblematic of Deitch himself, and could be one of the keys to his success. It puts artists first, freeing them to wander where they will, rather than corralling them into a mindset. It was in this vein, in 1996 when he opened Deitch Projects in New York. If artists needed it, he offered up to $25,000 as a production budget and provided studio space, assistants, and materials. If the project sold, the money was reimbursed and the gallery and the artist evenly split the rest. If it didn’t, Deitch would add the project to his collection. 

It’s an ethos that took root early when he was just a bright-eyed kid from Connecticut who showed up one day on the doorstep of the John Weber gallery in the mid-1970s. Newly matriculated from Wesleyan University where he studied art after changing his major from economics, Deitch was eager to find a way into the art world. 

Inquiring about a job, he learned that the secretary just quit and there was an opening. But Weber would have to approve any hire and he was away at Art Basel for at least another week and was almost certain to hire a pretty young woman anyway. So Deitch, instead of waving goodbye and knocking on the next door, proposed working a week for free. If it didn’t work out, they would part ways. 

“They inherited the gallery of Virginia Dwan,” Deitch says, referring to the legendary gallerist who died last summer. “At that time it was the leading gallery for minimalism, conceptualism, language art, and Earth art, and I met all those people!” Artists like Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg used to come by, and each day Carl Andre would come around three o’clock to pick up his mail. Younger artists who wanted to meet him would gather at the gallery and Deitch would play host.

“It was an amazing education,” Deitch recalls. “There is a discourse at the leading edge of the art community at all times. At that time it was minimalist, conceptualist. I look at art history, Manet would join an artistic circle every afternoon.”

Photo by Kristy Leibowitz. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch.

 

Jeffrey Deitch in front of Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Golden Showers, 2000 (foreground), and Richard Woods’s Logo no. 83, 2010 (background), at his Los Feliz home, Los Angeles, October 2010. Photo by Robbie Fimmano. 

Deitch was fast becoming a fixture in the community, one of those guys who’s at all the openings and events, building a cache of friends and contacts throughout the late 1970s. 

“Almost everybody either lived or spent a lot of their time in this small area of lower Manhattan between Fourteenth Street into Tribeca. So, you’d see everyone on the streets,” he recalls, noting that there were only about five central galleries in SoHo. “The whole art world would end up on the sidewalk in front of 420 West Broadway. And then there were a number of venues where people met for performances at The Kitchen, and later on The Mud Club. So, there weren’t barriers to entry, you were a part of it.”

It was around this time he packed his bags and headed to Harvard Business School, “to study art criticism, of course” he told friends. It was there he arrived at an analysis fusing aesthetics and economics. “I applied some of the economic lessons I learned there of financial policy and marketing to understanding how ideas spread in the art world.” His thesis on Andy Warhol as a business artist was expanded into a talk at the College Art Association and later an article in Art in America.

“Andy, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, these are artists who intuitively understood that the marketplace was part of how art was distributed to a wider audience. And something that was introduced in the conversation by artists like Hans Haacke is that the context in which the work of art is shown helps shape the meaning of the work. Jeff Koons absorbed that and understood what his profile was worth in that marketplace. You can’t call Jeff Koons a business artist. He used the marketplace in an intelligent way, but Damien Hirst, I think you actually can call a business artist, fulfilling Andy Warhol’s definition.”

Photo by Jose Rojas.

Jeffrey Deitch speaking with visitors at Shattered Glass opening, Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles, CA 2021.

Upon graduating, Deitch returned to New York and went to work for CitiBank, establishing their art consultation division, the first professionally organized art advisory service attached to an international financial institution. Prior to that, there were corporate art advisors as well as people who advised trustees at art institutions but what Deitch offered was different. And with Reagan era deregulation, the forces of the market, good and bad, were unleashed, creating hypercapitalism that touched every corner of the culture, including the downtown arts community.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch.

Dash Snow and Dan Colen, Nest, Deitch Projects, New York, NY, 2007. Photo by Kristy Leibowitz.

What artists love about Deitch isn’t the Italian tailored suits by Caraceni with custom glasses of his own design, but that he puts his money where his mouth is, underwriting large-scale risky art ventures when others wouldn’t such as Jeff Koons’ “Celebration” series, sculptures and paintings depicting toys and childhood themes. In the 1990s, Koons was one of the art world’s hottest names and “Celebration” seemed like a good bet until Deitch was left on the hook for millions. The ordeal strained their friendship, but the two have since reconciled and Deitch has no regrets.

“I’m proud to have been the main person behind the production of one of the great bodies of work of that time,” he says of “Celebration.” “Balloon Dog,’ ‘Play-Doh,’ these are masterworks. It is my mission in life to help make things like this happen. And I’m happy that I had a key role in that.”

In 2010, Deitch was named Director of MoCA and moved from New York to Los Angeles. One of his first shows in his new post at the embattled and cash-strapped institution was “Art in the Street,” a major street art survey that sold over 200,000 tickets, more than any previous MoCA show. 

“I don't think there's any other innovation in art in the past four years that has had so much of an influence as the graffiti and wildstyle that emerged in New York City in the late seventies. Artists like Basquiat and Haring have had an immense influence on all aspects of visual culture. They have a strong connection to New York street art as well. The best artist, whether it’s Lee Quiñones, or Futura, the work is of a level where you can look at it on the wall of a white cube gallery and appreciate its accomplishments, its craft, its influence.”

Despite the show’s success, trouble was brewing at MoCA. Deitch came under criticism from the museum’s curators who claimed shows they had long been assembling were scrapped for Deitch’s own curatorial endeavors. When he fired Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, the board, including artist John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, and Ed Ruscha, resigned.

“I’ve always been discreet about it,” Deitch says of the highly-publicized riff. “I made a decision not to get up and blame people. During all the trouble I often said to myself, what am I doing this for? I can have my own mini-museum. So, that’s what I have now.” 

Photo by Jason Schmidt

Photo by Vanessa Beecroft inspired by the Paul McCarthy Garden in Deitch’s collection. 

He’s referring to his gallery in Hollywood, a warehouse redesigned by Frank Gehry. There he’s presented shows like “Ai Weiwei: Zodiac,” featuring wooden stools and lego likenesses of the Chinese zodiac, as well as “MOODZ” by Kenny Scharf, and large-scale photoreal charcoals by Robert Longo, as well as group shows curated by staffers like Kathy Huang and Melahn Frierson. 

In 2015, Deitch purchased a house in Los Feliz formerly belonging to movie legend Cary Grant. His housekeeper is convinced it's inhabited by a ghost, not Grant’s but that of a servant who worked for a previous occupant. “Doors slam in the middle of the night, things like that,” Deitch notes. “But it seems to be a friendly ghost if it's a ghost. I’m not bothered by it.”

The house, of course, is swamped in art – an Alex Israel mural in the bedroom, furnishings by Gaetano Pesce, ceramic vases by Ruby Neri, a self-portrait drawing by Andy Warhol, and a self-portrait photo collage by Weegee. Man Ray’s coat hanger mobile, “Obstruction” hangs from the ceiling in what was formerly Grant’s bedroom and a nude portrait of Grant by artist Kurt Kauper greets visitors in the living room. 

When asked about a domicile that doubles as an art installation, Deitch chalks it up to an impulse that has guided his career from the start. “When there's something I’m excited about, I still go all the way."

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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