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.
He admitted that he is probably better known for the Ukranian-born artist who lived like a dog for a few days in his gallery or for the skateboard track he had installed there. He boasted about a 2000 group show that re-created an urban street with mock bodegas, check-cashing stores and overturned trucks.
“You should have seen the astonishment on [celebrity architect] Richard Meier’s face as he walked through the exhibit,” Deitch said.
“The spectacles, well, people remember them,” he added. “But I don’t want to give an impression that’s all I did in New York.”
Still, extravaganzas and showmanship are why people say he’s part P.T. Barnum. The Warhol reference is mostly about Deitch’s outward style -- the tightly wound man in the suit surrounded by skate punks and fashionistas.
Deitch prefers a comparison to Sergei Diagelev, the grand arts impresario who challenged the cultural order at the turn of the last century. But he has enough of a sense of humor to laugh at a Woody Allen characterization: “I guess it’s the glasses,” he said chuckling.
That cliche of the nerdy New Yorker might pick up steam as Deitch settles in L.A. For one, despite growing up in Hartford, Conn., where he sometimes delivered fuel for the family heating-oil company, he has not driven a car in 40 years. In New York and visiting shows around the country, he relied on assistants, mostly well-dressed female art-school graduates, to advise and escort him. Jeanne Greenberg, who once served in that role and is now a prominent Upper East Side gallery owner herself, said she doubts Deitch will get behind a wheel.
“The wonderful thing about Jeffrey is that he’ll end up having young people drive him around and learn more about L.A. through their eyes,” she said. “His whole life, when I worked with him, was what we did. He was always looking for a new view.”
Deitch, in fact, has to reinvent several aspects of his lifestyle. He has lived for years in a two-room apartment near Central Park where he routinely jogs for an hour before going to work in bustling Soho, which, unlike many dealers, he prefers to the mall-like environment of the Chelsea art district. “Every day you run into artists on the streets in SoHo or other creative people you want to do something with,” he said. “There’s nothing to match that chance encounter.”
As he talked about how he’ll manage in sprawling L.A., it was clear he was cooking up an idea to converge his many needs there, including finding a place for his personal art collection, which he never displayed in his New York home because he found art too distracting when he was writing catalog introductions or for art publications.
“I’ve been thinking about an industrial-type building in L.A., unlike a residence anyone has seen, where people would drop by . . . I want to bring all my experience, all my contacts, all my resources together and make it all work to support what I’m doing at MOCA.”
This sounds like classic Deitch -- turning a house hunt into a multipurpose art project. It’s a little like the time he turned a routine photo in a women’s magazine into a movie-quality production.
It was 2000 and Deitch’s gallery was only 4 years old but the top editor at Harper’s Bazaar saw how he was blurring distinctions in the art world and wanted to feature him as “changing the future of contemporary art.” Deitch said he’d cooperate only if the photo was conceptualized by Italian-born artist Vanessa Beecroft, who with Deitch’s backing had staged 30 sailors standing at attention arrayed on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid docked at a New York pier.
For Harper’s, she had Deitch photographed surrounded by dozens of his artists including Yoko Ono, with many flown in from abroad and dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, Helmut Lang and Prada. They were arranged in front of a 25-foot emerald green wall amid life-size trees and bushes in L.A. artist Paul McCarthy’s massive installation, “The Garden,” which had debuted at a 1992 MOCA show that was instrumental in securing L.A.'s emerging reputation as a hot spot for new art. Deitch had bought “The Garden” and at the time of the Harper’s photo was about to show it in his gallery.
“It’s a perfect example of my creative management,” Deitch said of the photograph, “and a perfect example of art as the new platform for everything, music, fashion, photography. . . . "
So many people and so much commerce was being advanced in that photograph it’s hard to keep track. Deitch, wearing a tuxedo, is smack in the middle of it. “With Jeffrey, there’s always so much going on,” said Karen Marta, an art-savvy editor who worked at Harper’s. “But he was very patient. He waits for things to come together and it’s always about the art.”
That patience will be in high demand in the coming months.
The L.A. museum community has been riven with issues around MOCA, its near-bankruptcy two years ago, the $30-million bailout by founding chairman Eli Broad, and a contemplated merger with Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The assumption is that, like any museum head, Deitch will have to be a hybrid who can raise money and put on shows without alienating scholars and artists or his board and prime benefactor Broad. He is already talking about reinventing MOCA’s store.
Deitch will also need to harness his personal charm.
Even art dealers who don’t share Deitch’s interest in performance art or in his annual Art Parade that attracts naked men in high heels find him good company.
Take Richard Feigen, who sells Old Masters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side: “I don’t like Jeffrey’s taste. I don’t like Koons or Damien Hirst. I don’t even like Warhol.
“But I like Jeffrey,” said Feigen, declaring him “a straight shooter” and man of his word who likes conversation.
These are surely qualifications for a museum director who needs to persuade a lot of rich people to write checks.
He might do well to start with Lynda Resnick. She said she was a founding member of MOCA but last year withdrew her support of the museum over the debate about whether it should merge with LACMA, where she is a trustee. With her husband, Stewart, Resnick is a major philanthropist and art collector as well as a successful entrepreneur. They donated $45 million to build a new exhibition space at LACMA that is scheduled to open this year, plus an extra $10 million for art.
Resnick said she was working through her initial skepticism about Deitch’s for-profit resume, but that she hoped he could bring a little N.Y. “magic” to the showbiz capital.
“It’s a brave step and an interesting one. . . . Art is the highest achievement of man,” said the woman who in her Beverly Hills living room has a monument-sized statue of Napoleon. “If they can do it on Grand Avenue, the way they do on Wilshire, I’ll be happy for them. I remain open-minded and, I guess, I might be happy to open my pocketbook.”