His Pop idol

Over the last four decades, Jeffrey Deitch has played many roles in the New York art world. In the 1970s, he got his start as a gallery assistant and art critic. In the '80s, he co-directed the art advisory department at Citibank. In the '90s, he was a private dealer before opening the gallery and performance space Deitch Projects.

This month, he has made what many call his biggest move yet, becoming the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

But throughout it all, there has been one constant: his abiding fascination with Andy Warhol.

Deitch tells stories about visiting the Factory in the '70s and '80s. One of his earliest talks, a panel for the College Art Assn., focused on Warhol's "business art." He is quoted (and thanked) generously in Elizabeth Currid's 2007 book about New York as a creative capital, "The Warhol Economy."

And he uses Warhol as a point of reference when describing his plans for MOCA, like the upcoming exhibition of actor-artist Dennis Hopper or a project involving actor-artist James Franco, in which Franco will resume his role as an artist on "General Hospital" this summer only to leave the fictional Port Charles for Los Angeles when Franco's character lands a show with MOCA.

(A "General Hospital" shoot will take place at MOCA's Pacific Design Center this month, and the film that the real Franco is making based on the soap opera project will be screened at the museum at a later date.)

So for his first major interview on the job, Deitch agreed to talk about the artist who painted Campbell's soup cans and dollar bills, ran a Factory producing "superstars" as well as art and film, and has enjoyed far more than his 15 minutes of fame.

Seated in his new and rather sparse office at MOCA, Deitch wore his usual round glasses and dark pinstripe suit, set off by a lavender tie. Six unopened Staples boxes were neatly stacked in a corner. "Those are all the books I've either written or published," he says. His Warhol library is yet to arrive.

The obsession began, he says, in 1970, when he was a student at Wesleyan University and "read every word" and "studied every graphic" in Andy Warhol's Interview magazine.

He loved the unedited feeling of the published interviews, "as Warhol just pressed the record button and you got to hear all the stupid things people say along with the two or three smart things." (This is not unlike Warhol's putting real people, not actors, in front of the camera to make unscripted and unedited films, widely seen as a precursor to reality TV.)

Deitch was also drawn to the larger-than-life personalities. At one point he and some friends invited the transvestite Candy Darling — "who was dazzling in her style, voice, gesture, this self-created masterpiece" — to introduce a film screening on campus.

"I was just fascinated by the counterculture that Andy created through his art, his films, his Factory," adds Deitch. "I can almost say that I moved to New York to meet Andy Warhol."

He made the move the day after graduating from college in 1974, and it didn't take long to witness Warhol in action. The artist Marcia Resnick brought Deitch to a dinner at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club with John Wilcock, one of the founders of Interview.

"So Andy walks into the room and, without saying anything, does this big, exaggerated, slow-motion pantomimed hello with his hands to John. It was almost like Andy's fright-wig self-portrait — a spectral image I will forever have engrained in my mind."

Deitch occasionally spotted the artist after that, for instance on a SoHo street corner handing out copies of Interview. But he didn't really catch the artist's attention until he completed his MBA and started visiting the Factory in the early '80s as Citibank's art advisor.

"Andy loved American establishment institutions like Citibank, the same way he loved kids who just graduated from Princeton dressed in their preppy clothes," Deitch says of the self-proclaimed "business artist" who once quipped, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art."

The idea behind "business art" was modeling art-making on other types of manufacturing, as so many artists do today. "He ran a mock factory and mock film studio, and adapted industrial techniques like silk-screening," Deitch explains. "Then there's the way that Warhol established a brand through painting that he could extend to produce a magazine, films or a rock group like Velvet Underground."

The two soon worked together on another business product: commissioned portraits. Deitch made introductions to wealthy Citibank clients who wanted a self-portrait by Warhol, the artist's cash cow at the time. This led Deitch to organize a Warhol portrait show for the 1982 debut of the I Club, a nightclub in Hong Kong, where the two had their first real conversations.

At last, Deitch says, Warhol dropped the public persona, and stopped responding with his usual "gee" or "wow."

"It was shocking. I found out that Andy was actually a great conversationalist, with stories about people that gave you insights into politics, culture, literature." The two got along well enough that they later attended auction previews together, and Deitch received a gift: what he calls a "small" dollar-sign painting.

Warhol died in 1987, nearly a decade before Deitch Projects opened in New York. But the gallery paid homage to the Pop artist, starting with a logo riffing on the bold "New!" design of Brillo Boxes, which Warhol famously recycled. Deitch, an admitted "designer manqué," did the gallery logo himself with "projects" in place of "soap pads."

What's more, the Factory inspired him to think about art galleries and museums in a different way, as a platform for fostering a creative community.

"The Factory was a clubhouse for people on the margins of the New York avant-garde: drag queens, street hustlers, unpublished poets who would never be published," he says. "When I opened up Deitch Projects in New York, it was to create space for another generation of misfits."

These days, at MOCA, creating a sense of community is at the top of his list. But he recognizes that doing so with a big institution poses very different challenges.

"You don't have a circle of 150 people hanging out in the evenings, and you can't do just one thing." What you can do, he suggests, are projects involving artists, art and architecture schools, and collectors. And he mentions plans to start a performance or "art cabaret" space.

Warhol also comes up in discussions of MOCA's Dennis Hopper exhibition, opening in July. The brash, art-obsessed Hollywood actor got to know the shy, celebrity-obsessed New York artist in the 1960s. Hopper photographed Warhol, climbed a tree as an uncredited Tarzan in one of his early films, and hosted the after-party for Warhol's 1963 "Liz/Elvis" opening at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

The connections go even deeper, Deitch suggests, as they both take a "wide view of being an artist." Hopper was "an actor, filmmaker, photographer, painter, assemblage maker and generally a person who embodies an artistic attitude," he says, going on to compare the Factory to Hopper's Crescent Heights house. The house "was a whole Pop world with billboards on the walls and found objects like a Mexican clown sculpture mounted on the ceiling."

As for the next chapter in James Franco's "General Hospital" project, it could be read as Warholian in another way, recalling the popular roots of Pop Art. "Andy would have been so enthusiastic," Deitch says.

"It's not like Picasso getting material from mass culture and putting it into a Cubist painting. It's an artist getting material from and also intervening directly into mass culture. It's the ultimate extension of Andy Warhol guest starring in 'The Love Boat.'"

Toward the end of the interview, Deitch revealed that he is considering doing a MOCA show, "which might or might not happen," that would directly address Warhol's legacy. And no, it wouldn't focus on art merchandisers like Koons, Hirst or Murakami.

The new MOCA director is thinking about painters who use "photography, silk-screening or other mechanical techniques" like Christopher Wool, Rudolf Stingel and several younger artists.

"Some people think Andy's legacy is performance art or artists who create brands, but he has also influenced leading abstract painters today," Deitch says. His working title: "The Painting Factory."

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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