Jeffrey Deitch has been involved with modern and contemporary art for more than forty years as an artist, writer, curator, dealer, and advisor. He opened his first gallery in Lenox, Massachusetts near Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in 1972. During the final week of the gallery’s summer season, a New York artist who had been a regular visitor sat down with Deitch and told him that even though he had some aptitude for the field, he did not know what he was doing. He advised him to get an art education. Deitch has been working on his art education ever since.
Deitch drove down to SoHo the day after his graduation from Wesleyan University in June, 1974 and walked up the stairs to the Leo Castelli Gallery to ask for a job. The young women behind the reception counter hardly acknowledged his presence and informed him that there would probably never be a job opening. The door to the Sonnabend Gallery on the next floor was locked because in those days, they would close for the entire summer. He walked up the next flight to the John Weber Gallery, where it turned out that the secretary had just quit while John Weber was away at the Basel Art Fair. The Director was there all by herself and needed some help but she told him that John Weber only liked to hire pretty girls and that there was no way that John would agree to hire a young man for the secretary’s job. Deitch offered a proposition: he would be happy to work for free for a week and if he did a good job, the Director might consider recommending him to John Weber when he returned. The Director thought about it for a while, looking at the empty desk with the typewriter. She accepted Deitch’s proposition and immediately put him to work taking dictation. The following Monday, John Weber returned, saw Deitch sitting at the secretary’s desk, and stormed into the Director’s office in a rage, slamming the door. After about five minutes of shouting, the Director emerged, announcing, “you’re hired.”
Deitch had the good fortune to have walked into one of the most important galleries of new art in the world. The John Weber Gallery represented Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, Hans Haacke and some of the leading Arte Povera artists like Alighiero Boetti and Mario Merz. The artists used the gallery office as a clubhouse. Carl Andre would come in every afternoon at 3 PM when he was in New York to pick up his mail and his messages. Most afternoons there were important artists and curators waiting to meet with him, and it was part of Deitch’s job to entertain them. Deitch had moved to New York without knowing a single person. Within six months, thanks to his job at the epicenter of the art discourse, he had met close to half of the art world. Listening to the gallery artists challenge each other while they sat around the office was an extraordinary education. Sol LeWitt was rigorous and exacting in his opinions about art, but was an exceptionally generous teacher. LeWitt became a life long inspiration.
Deitch began finding it increasingly difficult to get to his desk by 10 AM each morning as he became more deeply involved in the community around the new bands like the Ramones, Suicide, and Television who played late into the night at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. He negotiated a new arrangement with John Weber to write the gallery newsletter, which allowed him to keep his own hours and stay out as late as he wanted. He began working on an exhibition that focused on artists who used their own lives as an art medium. Lives, which was presented in 1975 in an abandoned office building in TriBeCa, was Deitch’s first curatorial project. In many of his subsequent exhibitions and in his program at Deitch Projects, he has continued to explore this theme.
Deitch surprised his art world friends in the fall of 1976 by enrolling at the Harvard Business School, announcing that he was going there to study art criticism. His experience there inspired a new approach to art writing, a fusion of aesthetic and economic analysis. A thesis project was expanded into a College Art Association talk on Andy Warhol as a Business Artist that was later published in Art in America. After receiving his MBA from Harvard with Second Year Honors in 1978, he remained in the Boston area for a year, becoming Curator at the De Cordova Museum in Lincoln, MA.
Deitch returned to New York in 1979 to develop and co-manage Citbank’s Art Advisory Service. It was the first professional art advisory service of its type and the first department in a major bank to specialize in art finance. Deitch advised important clients of the bank on their art collections and structured loans against art. After nine years at Citibank, where he became a Vice President, he opened his own art advisory firm in 1988. Deitch continues to advise some of the world’s most active collectors of modern and contemporary art. As art advisor to the I Club in Hong Kong, he brought Andy Warhol to China in 1982. For more than ten years, he had a partnership with Itochu Corporation to advise Japanese public museums and corporate collections on the acquisition of modern and contemporary art.
Deitch has been active as an art writer since the mid 1970s. He received an Art Critic’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 and in the 1970s and early 1980s was a regular contributor to Arts and Art in America. His 1980 essay for Art in America on the Times Square Show was the most extensive first hand account of this seminal event. Deitch also served as the first American Editor of Flash Art. He has written numerous catalogue essays including texts on Keith Haring for the Musée de l’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Whitney Museum, and most recently on Jeff Koons for the Whitney. His essay The Art Industry, which analyzed the new art economy, was included in the catalogue for Metropolis at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin in 1991.
Deitch’s own art involved constructing situations where the form of the work created itself. In 1976, he instigated arguments on busy New York street corners and photographed the movements of the crowds. A series from 1977 re-created the end of the aisle supermarket displays of cereal boxes and other consumer goods that were stacked by stock boys. A work from this series was shown at White Columns in 2007.
Deitch began curating an influential series of exhibitions for the Deste Foundation in Athens, starting with Cultural Geometry in 1988. Other Deste exhibitions include Artificial Nature in 1990, Everything That’s Interesting is New in 1996, and Fractured Figure in 2007. He was a member of the curatorial team for the foundation’s Monument to Now exhibition in 2004. Each exhibition was accompanied by a book or catalogue that mixed image and text in an innovative format. In the early 1990s, Deitch curated several exhibitions in Tokyo, including Strange Abstraction in 1991 with Robert Gober, Cady Noland, Philip Taaffe and Christopher Wool for the Touko Museum.
Deitch’s best know exhibition in the early 1990s was Post Human, which opened at the FAE, Musée d’ Art Contemporain in Lausanne in June 1992 and traveled to the Castello di Rivoli in Torino, the Deste Foundation in Athens, the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He also curated one of the sections of Aperto at the Venice Biennale in 1993. In 2001, he curated Form Follows Fiction at the Castello di Rivoli in Torino.
Deitch has authored several monographic works and has published more than fifty essays on artists ranging from Fernand Leger to Swoon. He was co-author of Keith Haring, published by Rizzoli in 2008, and British Rubbish: Tim Noble and Sue Webster, published by Rizzoli in 2011. He wrote the introduction to Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1981: The Studio of the Street, published by Charta in 2007. He has written extensively on artists who have emerged from street and graffiti culture.
Deitch has been especially engaged with the careers of three of his artist contemporaries, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Jeff Koons, since 1980. Deitch was the first writer to review the work of Basquiat and had the sad task of delivering the eulogy at his funeral. He served for many years on the Authentication Committee of the Basquiat Estate. Deitch wrote one of the essays for the first publication on the work of Keith Haring in 1982 and continues to write about his art. He was the exclusive commercial representative of the Estate of Keith Haring from 1998 – 2010. In addition to his writings and exhibition projects with Jeff Koons, Deitch helped to introduce Koons’s work to several of his most important patrons and helped them to build their collections of his work. Deitch was Koons’s American dealer during most of the 1990s and co-produced the artist’s ambitious Celebration series.
Deitch Projects, the New York gallery that Deitch operated from 1996-2010 presented more than two hundred-fifty projects by artists from thirty-three countries. It was a unique organization, more like a private Institute of Contemporary Art than a commercial gallery. In addition to its gallery exhibitions, Deitch Projects was known for its performance program and public events like the Art Parade. The gallery’s program is documented in Live the Art, Fifteen Years of Deitch Projects, published by Rizzoli in 2014.
Deitch closed the gallery to become Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. During his three years at MOCA, he presented fifty exhibitions and projects including The Painting Factory and Art in the Streets, which had the highest attendance in the museum’s history. Deitch also initiated the first museum YouTube channel, MOCA TV.
Deitch was born in 1952 in Hartford, CT. He is now based in New York and is working on historical and contemporary exhibition projects.
October 21 - December 22, 2017
18 Wooster Street
The faces are melting in Kenny Scharf’s new paintings. “Things are disintegrating,” he says, “I am reacting to our increasingly out-of-control situation.” Scharf’s work continues to be infused by his inexhaustible optimism and his sense of fun but there has always been an engagement with profound issues beneath the façade. Ecology, the environment, and capitalist excess have long been central themes. More recently, his paintings have shown his alarm over the effects of petroleum and the mountains of nondegradable plastic that are produced from it.
Scharf’s work has always combined and contrasted the pop culture he absorbed growing up in Los Angeles with the important innovations in modern and contemporary art. His earlier work fused Dali and Disney. More recently, he has been in dialogue with Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. In the new work, he merges his distinct style with color field and stain painting. “I like to connect with every movement in 20th-century art,” Scharf explains. “I make new hybrids, taking it all in and putting it in a blender.”
A distinctive style is something that Scharf admires in other artists and from the beginning has tried to achieve in his own work. He believes in art as an expression of individual identity. From his first mature work as a student at the School of Visual Arts, a painting by Kenny Scharf was instantly recognizable. Still adhering to his signature style, he continuously invents new forms.
Scharf is very enthusiastic about his new “sloppy style” that characterizes the major paintings in the exhibition. Rows of faces disintegrate into colorful drips reminiscent of both New York School painting and the serial imagery of minimal art. In these new works, Scharf is striving to create clear and simple forms that resonate with meaning. He feels liberated and excited, adding that “it is so much fun.”
The expression of emotion in art is essential to Scharf. Art that is cold leaves him cold. He explains that cartoon faces can express emotion with abstract power. Like his artistic colleagues from his early years in New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Scharf studied cartoons as a way to intensify figurative expression.
It is his early downtown history that brings Scharf back to New York this October. The Museum of Modern Art is opening an exhibition on the seminal performance space Club 57 in which Scharf played a central role. Watching him paint, one can see how his experience as a backup dancer for Klaus Nomi and his other performative roles have shaped his approach to his work. One side of his painting practice is detailed and meticulous to the extreme. The other side is tremendously physical and requires him to use his body like a dancer.
Visitors to Scharf’s Los Angeles studio are greeted by a hundred or more discarded plastic toys in his yard and on his roof. During the early part of his career, Scharf found his art materials in the garbage. To this day, he still stops his car when he finds plastic toys and TV sets thrown away on the street. These discarded plastic objects have inspired the two other bodies of work featured in the show: his Assemblage Vivant Tableaux Plastiques, and his TV Bax. The assemblage works, which are inspired by the Nouveau Realistes, are constructed from his stock of recycled plastic toys. The TV Bax are painted on the plastic backs of discarded television sets. Like the toys, the TV backs have a disconcerting anthropomorphic quality. Scharf wonders if their anonymous designers created these plastic covers, which are different for every model, to resemble a face.
Scharf finds these thrown-away toys and TV backs to be poignant objects, resonant with emotion. “Each of these objects carries a story,” Scharf explains. He thinks about how people might have struggled and sacrificed to buy these toys and TVs, and about the intense relationship that children and families have with them. Scharf resurrects the lives of these inanimate objects in his work. He also notes that garbage keeps changing with technology. The backs of TV sets used to have large protruding “noses.” Now they are flatter and more similar to a canvas.
Since his childhood, Scharf has been fascinated by outer space. Space travel and the portrayal of infinite space have long been central themes. In his life and in his work, he tries to eliminate boundaries and borders. As he pursues his dialogue with the great painters of the New York School, he is increasingly preoccupied with the inner space of painting. His exploration of inner space creates a dynamic tension with his passion for outer space. With his characteristic exuberance and his moral voice, Scharf reformulates his unique combination of Pollock and Pop to create a vibrant new body of work.
Photo Credit: The1point8 and Adam Reich
Read about the Club 57 exhibition at MoMA in the New York Times here.
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