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Jeffrey Deitch on to another art adventure at MOCA

The New York gallerist-turned-L.A. museum director has a long, fairly wild, and highly successful history of chasing up-and-coming trends and artists.

January 19, 2010|By Geraldine Baum
  • New director Jeffrey Deitch, shown at MOCA in early January, is known for chasing, and profiting from, trends in the art world. "He waits for things to come together and it's always about the art," says an admirer.
New director Jeffrey Deitch, shown at MOCA in early January, is known for… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — The dealer had heard about the two young artists who spent the occasional evening ransacking a hotel room, ripping apart phone books, writing on the walls and getting stoned.

Even the artists weren't sure this was art. But Jeffrey Deitch was.

He handed them keys to his SoHo gallery and for almost a week they crammed it with 2,000 shredded phone books, and stabbed a broomstick and broken wine bottles in the walls for "Nest," a show that was to remain there for a month.

It didn't even survive the raucous opening night party.

The next morning the gallery was such a smelly, flammable beer-and-urine soaked mess it had to be completely cleaned out and refilled with another 2,000 shredded phone books. But the show captured the high-drama of a certain group of cool New Yorkers, and Deitch was considered brave for providing them a platform.

Few art dealers in New York are known to have as canny an eye as Deitch (pronounced DIE-tch) or have had as much success bringing youthful creativity into the white rooms of a conventional gallery. He's drawn comparisons to P.T. Barnum and Andy Warhol in his run as a downtown provocateur, and won respect even from rival dealers. But now in his job running the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he has to make several leaps -- dealer to director, commercial to nonprofit, New York to Los Angeles.

Dan Colen, one of the "Nest" creators, expects he'll have no problems: "There's no gallerist like him. He can do anything."

Before he met Deitch, however, Colen was skeptical of the slightly opaque dealer known by his custom-made Italian suits and round-rimmed glasses. (Sometimes he color-coordinates his glasses with his suits.)

"Oh, I thought Jeffrey was just another shark in a suit who'd made a reputation marketing the souls of young artists," said Colen, a painter and sculptor who is now 30 and represented by the esteemed Gagosian Galleries and Culver City's Peres Projects. "But I was wrong, totally misinformed. Jeffrey is a good businessman and he really gets the art."

If Deitch hasn't always been commercially minded, if he hasn't been the typical hang-and-sell dealer, he's always been up to something that could lead to something else -- another ground-breaking show or the next Jeff Koons, according to art-world observers in New York.

A video of the closing party for that messy 2006 installation by Colen and the late Dash Snow reveals a bit of what Deitch was up to then. Talking calmly, as if he's alone instead of surrounded by half-dressed revelers tearing apart pillows that leave down tufts stuck to his manicured head, Deitch explains: "We didn't know in advance whether it would work or not. But I think it did . . . I think, actually, this is the kind of thing that a little legend builds around."

More than a little art-world lore surrounds the 57-year-old mega-dealer with a business degree from Harvard and voracious appetite for the new, the hip, and, of course, the headlines.

Over the last three decades, Deitch has pioneered, chased and cashed in on just about every art-world trend from advising corporate clients on the art market in the 1980s to private art consulting in the go-go 1990s and building a unique gallery business in the 21st century. Deitch Projects has a gallery and project space in Soho, an additional 12,000 square feet in Long Island City, as well as thriving back-room sales.

There was also a failed attempt at reality TV and a brush with bankruptcy associated with his help underwriting Koons' overly ambitious sculpture series, "Celebrations."

Deitch's fellow dealers assume he's managed to pay the bills all these years by advising major collectors like Greek tycoon Dakis Joannou and through the lucrative representation of the estates of deceased artist friends including Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both painters who emerged in the 1980s from New York's gritty street culture.

Even if his Deitch Projects often came across like a Make-a-Wish foundation dedicated to the wildest fantasies of scruffy artists, it was most definitely run for profit.

In a telephone interview during a break last week from a dizzying round of stop-and-chats around L.A., Deitch talked up his scholarly credentials now that he's become controversial as a commercial gallery owner given control of a not-for-profit. He noted that many of the 300 shows and public events he has mounted over his career were museum-quality, particularly a Basquiat installation, a retrospective of painter Francesco Clemente and a groundbreaking 1992 "Post Human" show, which he curated and which traveled to museums around Europe and the Middle East.

"Every year in our schedule, I tried to do one historic show and then one or two shows of young discoveries right out of art school that no one had heard of," Deitch said.

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