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.
September 5 - September 30, 2017
18 Wooster Street
A year after the passing of Alan Vega, who I first knew as Alan Suicide, we will present Dream Baby Dream, a memorial exhibition to commemorate Alan’s life and work. The exhibition has two components: video projections of historic performances by Suicide, and a selection of Alan’s sculpture and works on paper from the 1960s to his last works in 2016. We will also feature interviews with Alan, along with videos documenting his artwork. The following tribute is adapted from a text I wrote for Kaleidoscope Magazine after Alan’s death:
One of my formative artistic experiences was an encounter with the work of Alan Suicide at the O.K. Harris gallery in 1975. The impact began with the black press-type sign with the artist’s name on the entrance wall. Instead of the meticulously aligned letters that had become standard in every SoHo gallery, the name Alan Suicide was half scratched out in an early manifestation of punk attitude. It was a simple gesture, but shocking in its disruption of the expected protocol. Stepping into the gallery, I was confronted by an assemblage of discarded TV picture tubes, Christmas lights, broken radios, and various electronic debris dragged in from the street. Dangling wires were plugged in, activating the lights and popping tubes. The structures were as anti-form as possible, but surprisingly dense. They fused Punk, Pop and Pollock.
Another one of my formative experiences was seeing Alan and Marty Rev’s band Suicide perform at Max’s Kansas City in the spring of 1976. Half of the audience seemed to embrace Alan’s confrontational performance; the other half was infuriated. Alan described his approach in a 2002 Village Voice interview with Simon Reynolds: “Back then, people went to shows to forget their everyday life for a few hours. With Suicide, they came off the street and I gave them the street right back.” Alan’s unhinged performance was riveting, but what really astonished me was what happened when Alan and his band mate Marty walked off the stage. Marty’s noise box was still sounding. The music kept playing without anyone playing it. Those early Suicide concerts changed the concept of musical performance, influencing the development of electro pop and electronic dance music.
Alan Vega, a.k.a. Alan Suicide, died at the age of 78 on July 16th, 2016. Friends who I spoke with about his death were incredulous to learn that he was 78. He always maintained the stance and the style of someone who was in his twenties. He was one of the inventors of the Punk aesthetic in art and music, and in 1970, may have been the first to describe his sound as punk. His first Suicide show, at the Project of Living Artists on 729 Broadway was advertised as “Punk Music by Suicide.” Punk describes only one part of Suicide’s artistic and musical direction, however. With his black beret and his hipster lingo, and his immersion into assemblage, Alan also created his own extension of Beat culture. His music also drew deeply on rockabilly and on the Doo-Wop that he would have heard on the Brooklyn street corners when he was a teenager in the 1950s. In his way he was also a Pop artist.
I enthusiastically followed all the new bands emerging at CBGB and Max’s during the mid 1970s, but for me Suicide was the most radical and the closest in its alignment with concurrent developments in visual art. My friend the photographer Marcia Resnick arranged for us to meet Alan for drinks at Max’s a few weeks after his astonishing performance. Two Suicide fans from New Jersey also showed up, delighting Alan with their home made white-on-black Suicide T-shirts. I remember asking Alan about his favorite artists. Making sure that his young fans could not hear him, he whispered to me, “I like Jackson Pollock.” At the time, I thought of Pollock as a monument from my art history courses, not as a direct influence on a punk rocker. Alan’s admission about one of his primary aesthetic sources was a breakthrough insight for me, deepening my understanding of how radical art remains radical. It also helped me to understand the way innovations in one artistic medium such as painting, can extend into other media such as music. Alan helped me to see the work of Pollock as alive, rather than ossified art history, continuing to inspire a new approach to artistic form.
Alan’s art, music and insights still resonated with me twenty-five years later, around 2001, when I began hearing some of my young artist friends talk about their interest in Suicide. A whole contingent of artists connected to my projects had gone to see a Suicide New Year’s Eve performance. I decided to try to re-connect with Alan and find out if he might consider an exhibition of his radical sculpture from the 1970s. Alan was not easy to contact. Finally, I was able to speak with his manager, Liz Lamere, who I eventually found out was also his wife. We arranged to meet in Alan’s Financial District loft apartment, which he enjoyed for its remoteness from the commercialization of the former artist neighborhoods. “I have been waiting twenty-five years for you to follow up,” he admonished me as he greeted me at the door. He had remembered my enthusiasm for his work from our conversation at Max’s in 1976.
Alan agreed to retrieve and re-construct some of his light and electronic parts sculptures from the 1970s and we presented an exhibition entitled Collision Drive, named after his second solo album, in January 2002. Alan and Marty also put on a brilliant Suicide performance during the exhibition, drawing long time fans from the ‘70s and ‘80s as well as enthusiasts from the new generation. It was great to see Alan’s work embraced by young artists.
Several years after Collision Drive, Alan was Dan Colen’s and Dash Snow’s first choice to perform inside their notorious sculptural environment, The Nest. Alan went all out, performing knee deep in the paper from shredded phone books, backed by A.R.E. Weapons.
Alan was both of his time and way ahead of his time. Alan and Marty’s seminal debut album, Suicide, from 1977 was too radical to achieve commercial success when it was released, but is now listed by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 most influential albums of all time. Alan’s sculpture is not yet in the collections of the major contemporary art museums, but one of my missions is to see his sculptural work also achieve the public recognition that it deserves.
Alan was a pioneer in the blurring of boundaries between media. His aesthetic approach encompassed sculpture, music, poetry and art performance. His work created an original, uniquely American, fusion of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Assemblage, Minimalism and anti-form. All of his work was literally charged with electricity. Modernism was pushed into a combustible clash with pop culture. Alan was an anti-pop star and an anti-artist. He was both a proponent and a progenitor of the radical strain in American art.
-- Jeffrey Deitch
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