A conversation with Jeffrey Deitch
“DA CAPO!” is the title of the new edition of the stayinart magazine. Da Capo derives from the Italian language in connection to Baroque music and means “from the beginning” or “to repeat a certain passage or a musical note”. Through the current health and political crisis in the world, many have to start over their life and work, or need to redo what they had already achieved in life. This is also true for the art world, galleries, artists and museums. An online conversation with the renowned art dealer, curator and former museum director Jeffrey Deitch could help to start reinventing our damaged world through his innovative and creative mind. The quote “Jeffrey forever” is based on the Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft’s saying during the filming of an interview. It was stuck in my mind, because Jeffrey is forever, with or without a crisis. He is persistent, enduring, lasting, determined and forward-looking.
BARBARA STEFFEN: Jeffrey, we have known each other since 1986, when I was introduced to you by a common friend in London. At the time you were working as an art advisor and curator for the collection of Citibank in New York. You were one of the very few people who defined the art world as it is today. Your very impressive and creative career can hardly be replicated by anyone in the art world. Exceptionally good taste, a clear vision for new artists, unusual ideas for exhibitions, great connections and a determination to live and breathe art 24 hours a day brought you the amazing success at this multitalented level no one else can achieve. Today the art market is in a somewhat different situation due to this new health crisis. Given your long history in the art world, what has changed for you since March 2020?
JEFFREY DEITCH: Many of us in the art community had been living in a bubble, our professional lives consumed with exhibition openings, art fairs, business pressures, and the social obligations of the contemporary art world. The outbreak of the pandemic and the intensity of the racial justice protests shocked the art world into the reality of the real world. There has been a deep reckoning among artists and art professionals – questioning the meaning and the social impact of our work and the status of our institutions. Despite the quarantines and the closure of museums, galleries and the art world’s gathering places, I have found that communication and a sense of community have actually increased. I have been phoning, FaceTiming, and Zooming with art world colleagues, having lengthy conversations with people with whom I previously just exchanged small talk at art events. In Los Angeles, I participated in a project to establish an online gallery platform and gallery association. It has been very rewarding to build on ongoing discourse with colleagues about gallery issues and community initiatives.
Your expertise completes all entities in the art world. You are an art dealer, a former museum director, a former expert at Sotheby’s auctions, a writer, a publisher, an advisor, and more. From what I can see, you feel most creative as a gallerist and curator. You are someone who shapes the art world, finds new young artists, rediscovers older artists and works with the very top of artists such as Jeff Koons, Ai Wei Wei, Barbara Kruger, Kehinde Wiley, Keith Haring, Urs Fischer and many more. Can you tell me how your work and selection process differs from owning a gallery and formerly running a museum? How will a gallery versus a museum continue to work after this crisis is over, or rather, hopefully be in better hands? What would a gallery and a museum have to do to survive these times and work with a much smaller audience?
I am often asked how I find promising young artists and how I make programming decisions. This process has evolved as I have gotten older, but remains fundamentally the same as when I began my career in the early 1970s. I don’t just look for individual talents: I look for circles of artistic energy. The most interesting artists do not emerge in isolation, but as participants in dynamic communities of writers, musicians, gallerists, collectors, and other artists. I have been fortunate to have found myself, or inserted myself, into several of these artistic circles over the years. In my first gallery job, at the John Weber Gallery in SoHo in 1974, I lucked out – not yet knowing my way around the art world, I found myself at the epicenter of the community of artists who were defining Conceptualism and the other vanguard movements of the time. Then I began staying out late to hear the new punk and new wave bands at CBGB and met the artists, writers and filmmakers in this scene. A few years later, I connected with the Wild Style graffiti writers and the extraordinary creative people connected with this community. I am still involved with these artists today. During the prime years of Deitch Projects, we were able to build a dynamic creative community around the gallery that led us to an engagement with some remarkable artists who came to us, wanting to be involved. I did not have to go out looking for artistic energy – we were generating it ourselves.
Now I still look for these circles of artistic energy, but being almost fifty years older than the emerging artists, I increasingly rely on talented younger people on my gallery staff and in my artistic circle to direct me. Even though I am no longer hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a club at 5:00 AM, meeting artists organically, I have found that my accumulated experience with creative people has given me an even sharper instinct for artistic innovation and quality. One observation remains paramount: true innovations in visual art almost always have parallels in other creative fields; music, film, literature and fashion. I still look for the big aesthetic trends.
Regarding how museums and galleries will operate during the pandemic and post-pandemic, and after re-examining their roles in the context of social justice, I think that their profile will expand, not contract. The online audience that has developed during the pandemic will continue to grow as the art world finds more creative and engaging ways to communicate online. The museums and galleries that are able to develop their online initiatives will be able to enhance their programming and expand their audiences. The galleries and museums that master online communication will build active and engaged global audiences. Art institutions will also hopefully become more involved in their local communities, expanding their engagement beyond the conventional art audience.
Iremember at your first gallery in New York, Deitch Projects, people were queuing around several blocks in Soho to get into your exhibition space. Would you like to see this happening again, or do you see new ways to get the public into the gallery?
It was thrilling to see people lining up around the block to enter the gallery, and sometimes closing down the street. We created a unique energy around Deitch Projects which had a lot to do with the creative community in New York at the time where the new art, music, and fashion sets converged. A great exhibition by a groundbreaking young artist will still attract a large, enthusiastic crowd in New York. The situation in Los Angeles is different. So many artists and creative people have moved to LA during the past several years, but there are fewer structures to connect than there are in New York. Two thousand or more people, pre-pandemic, came to our exhibition openings in Los Angeles. Exhibition opens are a platform for artists who live all around the city to meet each other. It is great to see a lively crowd at an exhibition opening, but now I am more interested in presenting a meaningful exhibition than hosting an enormous opening audience. Unlike some other gallerists who focus on the art insiders, I have always wanted to connect with a larger audience. Art should have an expansive public, like the best progressive pop music. When we can all circulate again, I am looking forward to hosting performances and talks in the outdoor space adjacent to our LA gallery to help build our audience. We are also planning public events. I would love to bring my New York art parade to Los Angeles.
You have worked with many art collectors worldwide who can thank you for building their collection over a long period of time. Do you find that there are many new collectors who will be needing your curatorial expertise, and what advice would you have for them today? Is the next generation of collectors as serious as the collectors in the 80s and 90s? Do you also collect on an intellectual level or are you simply buying art?
Great art collectors are almost as rare as great artists and curators. I have nothing against people collecting art for decoration, social status, or investment, but what really motivates me as an art advisor and gallerist is to find these special people who want to collect as an artistic project and who want to share their collecting with the public. I have been fortunate to work with several extraordinary art patrons over the years. I am now advising some inspired new public-spirited collectors as well as continuing to work with collectors where the relationship goes back forty years. There is a new cohort of “speculectors” as Kenny Schacter calls them, but market downturns tend to thin their ranks. I try to avoid them and focus on building relationships with collectors who have an artistic and public mission.
You are currently running spaces in New York and Los Angeles. In New York you have two exhibition spaces and in LA, the renowned architect Frank Gehry built a 1,400 square meter gallery space for you. In what way are the art market and gallery life different in LA and NY? How does the crisis affect your work in NY and in LA in terms of openings, exhibition planning, size of audience and sales?
New York and Los Angeles both have remarkable art communities. These communities increasingly overlap. Pre-pandemic, there was frequent travel between the cities and many New York artists have been coming to Los Angeles for extended sojourns. I find it very rewarding to be part of both communities. The Los Angeles art community seems more vibrant now, but New York probably has more major artists. During the pandemic, Los Angeles is more alive because most artists have stayed here rather than going upstate or to Long Island like many New York artists. I am in Los Angeles now, welcoming visitors to my gallery and doing several studio visits each week. In Los Angeles, we now draw more of a crossover audience to the gallery, with visitors from film, music and fashion communities as well as the art insiders. Since we cannot have our usual opening events and dinners, we have planned an exciting public event to accompany our current Kenny Scharf exhibition: a Karbombz! rally with many of the one hundred fifty cars in Los Angeles that Kenny has painted for free. It is scheduled for September 26th along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Hopefully more people can participate and watch than would attend a conventional gallery opening.
Recently, you have founded, together with other galleries, the creation of GALA, a gallery association of Los Angeles, which is an online platform with online viewing rooms, editorial content and information about galleries in Los Angeles. Do you think online sales and the presentation of art on the internet will be the future of a more interactive art world? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? Isn’t it important that viewers see an artwork with their own eyes before buying it or writing about it?
Online programming is already becoming essential, supplementing the in-person art viewing experience. For the local audience, the online presentation gives people background information about the exhibition and hopefully also serves as an inducement to see the art in person. Online programming also allows the gallery to reach the large international audience that might only visit the gallery once a year, or not at all. It will become routine for galleries to have both virtual and actual programming. Some artworks function just as well online as in person, but nothing can compare to the in-person experience of an art object. This will never be diminished, just as recorded music has probably increased the desire to experience live music.
Speaking about viewing art in the original, are you still visiting artists’ studios, or are you only connecting online with them now? I know how important it is for you to connect with people and connecting them to art. How big an obstacle is this now during this new time?
During the past two weeks, I have visited the studios of Mr. Wash in Compton, Sayre Gomez, Mario Ayala, and Celeste Dupuy-Spencer in industrial areas near downtown LA, and Jonas Wood near little El Salvador. I also joined Urs Fischer for an outdoor dinner at his wonderful bohemian compound near Elysian Park. I am looking forward to studio visits with artists who will be in the upcoming exhibition that my gallery director Melahn Frierson is organizing with A. J. Girard. We wear masks and socially distance, but are still able to have stimulating conversations. We have an advantage in LA in that we can get around in our cars – I have been reluctant to take public transportation and ride shares during the pandemic.
Jeffrey, you have also worked with all the major auction houses, bought art there, advised them and led collectors to them. How do you see the future of art auctions through the eyes of the buyer and seller? What would your advice for the auction houses be now?
The auctions will increasingly provide both an online and live experience. I expect that the online technology will become more engaging. They are still at a primitive stage. The most interesting innovation during the pandemic period has been Loic Gouzer’s Fair Warning. What makes it so successful is that it is focused and curated. The auction offerings had become overwhelming and most collectors could not focus with a three-foot stack of auction catalogues arriving each round. Live auctions were very exciting during the 1980s when almost all of the buyers were sitting in the room. They became boring with most of the bidding now on the phone. An online – live hybrid could make the process more exciting if the auction houses can take the technology to the next level.
In your new space in Los Angeles you present very large art installations like the over 600 chairs project by Ai Wei Wei or your recent sculpture show. You now have the rare privilege to curate your own shows and place installations, which normally only museums can do. In a way you have it all now: the curatorial selection, the ability to make rare installations, not having to answer anybody for your choices and making money by selling art. Is there anything left that you haven’t done yet or that you would like to do to fulfill your life even more?
I need to set aside the time to write. I am constantly asked when I will write my memoir. I have been very lucky to have been at the center of the art discourse for almost fifty years. I have some good stories to tell.
How do you develop ideas in your mind about what to show in the future? Do you take your ideas from external experiences, for example, knowing art history, visiting studios, reflecting on politics, or does your creative vision come from within and you then act upon it? How important is your intellectual framework looking at art?
There are periods when artists and critics have a narrow, self-defining concept of art. I have always taken a more expansive view, connecting with art that reflects social trends and parallels developments in other creative fields. In order to better understand the direction of contemporary art, I try to follow the most innovative contemporary fiction, music, and film, and keep up with pop culture. One of the factors that draws me to art is the way it builds on its history. I have been interested in how a number of contemporary artists “collapse time,” combining historical and contemporary references. I always look for an intellectual or conceptual structure in an artwork. Sol LeWitt gave me a great lesson in art connoisseurship when as a naïve 21-year-old, I expressed my enthusiasm for a painting with bravura brushwork by an artist who had recently joined the John Weber Gallery. “Just surface, no structure,” LeWitt commented dismissively. Since then, I always look for the intellectual and conceptual framework. Without deep intellectual content, which can be abstract and not something that needs to be verbally articulated, an artwork cannot aspire to greatness.
During an interview for the documentary ’Jeffrey Deitch’s Los Angeles’ by Artbound, you referred to the art of Vienna 1900 as the modernist era in art. Since I am currently based in Vienna and previously curated a large museum exhibition of Vienna 1900 at the Foundation Beyeler near Basel, couldn’t we make the connection between Vienna 1900 and Los Angeles 2020 in art, style, time frame and momentum? Vienna was on one side a very rich town with educated, wealthy people and on the other side very racist, in the middle of the First World War and with artists working in difficult circumstances being poor. Los Angeles is a much richer city with many opportunities, yet because of the current politics people are still discriminated, they demonstrate and have less social system. Do artists somehow need the sociopolitical confrontation in the world they live in to create art, and do chaos and turmoil produce more adrenalin to be creative and productive? What would art look like if we all lived in a perfectly happy wonder world?
The great émigré filmmakers, composers, architects, and writers who came from Vienna to Los Angeles established an enduring connection between the cities. Like Paris in the early modern era, and New York in the mid to late 20th century, turn of the last century Vienna and Los Angeles today are vibrant cities with a complex and diverse social structure. Yes, we have seen that artistic innovation is bred in cities where people from different backgrounds and economic status come together, rather than in cities with a rigid social structure. Los Angeles today might be the world’s great multicultural city.
Could I invite you to Vienna to get to know the art scene here and to make connections for artists in Los Angeles? The list of famous Austrians in Los Angeles goes back to Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Strohheim, Richard Neutra, Billy Wilder, Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann, Wolfgang Puck and Arnold Schwarzenegger, just to name a few.
I look forward to being able to travel again, especially to Vienna, a city that has given me so much artistic and intellectual inspiration.
You are very optimistic for the future and that the current crisis will pass and we will continue to work in the arts as before, even stronger.
Art is an optimistic enterprise. Artists work for the future.
Jeffrey Deitch is an American gallery owner, art dealer and curator. He founded his gallery Deitch Projects (1996–2010) in New York and curated ground-breaking exhibitions like Lives (1975) and Post Human (1992) in private museums. Deitch was director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) from 2010 to 2013. He currently owns the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, a gallery with locations in New York and Los Angeles. Over the course of his career, which has included stints at the John Weber Gallery in SoHo, the art finance department of Citibank, and as a successful private dealer and art consultant, Deitch has created a unique position in the art world that combines the curatorial profile with the business side of art.