“Every morning when we come in, we paint the scuffs off the walls, the windows have to be nice and clean, people have to look good at the reception desk. You create this atmosphere where you give the art authority, you give the artists respect. Then, through how I write about it, how I talk about it, I express my excitement. And hopefully somebody is as excited as I am, they see how I respect this work and would like to be part of it.”
Jeffrey Deitch is an art dealer and curator. His first exhibition in New York titled Lives (1975) featured works by Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Adrian Piper, Andy Warhol, and Hannah Wilke, positioning Deitch at the heart of the art world, where he has continued to receive recognition as an art advisor, dealer, writer, artist, and curator. Deitch now operates contemporary galleries in New York and Los Angeles and continues to advise private art collectors and institutions.
TGL: How was your childhood?
JD: I was always active, and I was lucky to grow up in an entrepreneurial family with a small business. First, it was a coal delivery company. It expanded into fuel oil delivery and heating and air conditioning installation and servicing. It was such an adventure to grow up in this environment. I loved going out to the yard and sitting in the trucks, watching them come in and out, and climbing up on the piles of coal that were by the railroad siding. When I was 16, I went out and did the installations of plumbing, heating, and air conditioning work and service calls myself. It's a good counterpoint to my adult life in the art world. I learned how to do physical work, work with crews, it opened me up to people from different walks of life. Our customer base was diverse. A lot of our customers were the Jewish property owners in the Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. I got to know many of the residents when I went out on service calls to fix their heating. It was an important window for me on what other people thought and how they lived.
One summer I worked cleaning boilers with a rough fellow for whom even McDonald’s was too upscale. We would stop for lunch at a truckers’ shack called Mick’s. I'm eternally grateful to him for saving my life. We were vacuuming up flakes of asbestos without any masks, we didn't realize the hazards. I thought I had shut off the power in a big furnace, and crawled in. I was about to sweep out the asbestos when my foot hit the reset on the oil burner and instantly the flame started. My partner was so alert that he pulled me out by my legs. I emerged with just some scrapes, but five seconds more, and I would be going through life with a burned face and upper body. This guy saved me. It was just a matter of seconds. Interesting experiences like that shaped my life before I went into this rarefied art world.
TGL: What was your first experience with the art world?
JD: I was always exposed to art. My family had art by prominent local Hartford, Connecticut artists in the house. One of my vivid childhood memories was going to Ralph Eno’s studio. We had a synagogue art show in our community that was a big event in my childhood, it was like a low rent art fair. Some merchants would set up little booths, mainly prints and inexpensive paintings. I must have been 10 years old or so, my mother took me to the show and said I could pick out whatever I wanted. I picked out a Fernand Léger print. That was my first art purchase, it amazes me that I picked a Léger out of all the junky things that were there.
TGL: Did you like art as a child?
JD: I connected with art instantly. Even as a child, I seemed to have had a primitive version of the pattern recognition ability that allowed me to see quality in a work of art. I wanted to make art myself. I remember asking my mother to take art lessons. She thought it was more serious to take music lessons, so I have years of piano and trumpet lessons, which were a torture as I was never good. At one point, my mother did allow me to enroll in an art class. I lived in the ethnic Jewish side of West Hartford, Connecticut, where we eventually moved from Hartford. The art class was in the WASP side of town. It was intimidating for me, I was the only ethnic kid. This self-confident, Connecticut WASPy guy posed like he was a real artist positioning his fingers to show perspective. After one or two lessons, I was too intimidated and left. The first painting I completed, prior to these lessons, was a landscape with a little cottage in the background. I remember the ecstasy of completing this painting. I was eight years old. I always had this tremendous joy in looking at art, making art.
TGL: What was special about growing up in Hartford, Connecticut’s art scene?
JD: Hartford has the country's oldest art museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum, which has a phenomenal collection. There was a genius director in the 1930s into the '40s named Chick Austin. He bought great Surrealist paintings by Max Ernst and Dalí. He had the foresight to buy Baroque masterpieces when they cost next to nothing. With a modest budget, he built a visionary collection of modern and old master paintings.
TGL: When did you know you wanted a career in art?
JD: My family had a sheet metal shop as part of our business and a Portuguese craftsman named Manny came to work for us. My uncle noticed that he had amazing skill knocking together ductwork in our sheet metal shop. One day he asked him to show what else he could do. Over the course of a few days, he created planters, lanterns, all kinds of things. It turned out that he was the fifth generation in a family of copper craftsmen from Portugal. We asked him to make a group of samples and my father loaded them up in the car, and drove down to the most prominent gift wholesaler in New York City, Vincent Lippe and Company. A few weeks later, they called with an order from Sears, Roebuck. We were very excited and based on this order, we set up a full shop for Manny. About six months later, we received a call reporting that Sears, Roebuck decided not to reorder. We were stuck with a warehouse full of these beautiful copper crafted items. I stepped in and said, "I'll sell these." I loaded them up in my van and drove all around New England selling them. I kept going on until the van was empty, drove back and said, “Why don't we open our own shop?” My family liked to go to Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I decided to open up a craft gallery there in the center of Lenox, a beautiful space. I set up all the copper, but then there was something missing. We needed something on the walls. And my mother said, "Well, I know an artist." We called up the artist, and he said, "Sure you can have some of my works." I was so unsophisticated. I just put them up on the walls.
TGL: What was running this gallery like?
JD: I was astonished by the sophisticated crowd of beautifully dressed New Yorkers who poured into my little gallery. By the end of the first weekend of the Tanglewood season, a lot of the copper had been sold and all the paintings on the wall had been sold. We called up the artist, we needed more, and he couldn't believe it. A number of artists and artisans who heard about my gallery came in and asked me to take some of their works. We had to keep reordering. I never dreamed that I would have access to this urbane circle and that I could have intellectual and aesthetic conversations in my own shop. The social access, the intellectual discourse, being with beautiful objects, was very stimulating, and I was actually making money. I was amazed. I realized that I should take this seriously and think about it as a career.
On the last weekend of the summer, one of the artists who'd been coming by and who had lived in New York for many years sat me down and said, "Listen, I see you, you enjoy this. You have some aptitude but I have to tell you, you don't know what you're doing. You have to get yourself an art education." I listened to him. When I returned to Wesleyan to register for my junior year, I switched my major from economics to art.
TGL: What was your experience as an art history major at Wesleyan University?
JD: Wesleyan University had a superb print collection. I became the apprentice to the curator of the print collection. I learned connoisseurship in a hands-on way with the art. I could experience connoisseurship of works of art, not just from color slides on a screen, but from actual prints by Dürer, Mantegna, and Rembrandt. It was the first year of co-education at Wesleyan, so it was still mainly men and there weren't many other art history students. We had the entire print collection to ourselves. Wesleyan had two other features in its curriculum which were important for me. First, the world music program, which was one of the best in the world. I studied Japanese reed flute, the Shakuhachi, and I began to understand that important art and music were not just from the European American tradition. And the other, was that Wesleyan was infused with the teachings of John Cage; Wesleyan University Press published the most important John Cage books.
Wesleyan also had an art library with a rack with the latest art magazines. I remember picking up a copy of Avalanche in 1973 with Vito Acconci on the cover. I thought, if this is where art is going, that's where I'm going to go too. I was fascinated by the austere advertisements for galleries like Sonnabend and Castelli. I'd drive down to New York City and visit the galleries that advertised in Avalanche.
TGL: Which professors had the greatest influence on you?
JD: There was a great professor, one of the electronic music geniuses, Alvin Lucier. I took Alvin's course and spent as much time with him as I could. That was a revelation because that took me right to the center of avant-garde practice. What Alvin did was a fusion of avant-garde music and avant-garde art. I was able to get a good education as an undergraduate, which prepared me to encounter the real world of art.
I was also lucky to study with Michael Fried, one of the great art historians and critics. His perspective on art is different than mine, more formalist, more conservative, but it was a great counterpoint. I remember studying with Michael, and thinking that I don't agree with what he is saying, but being too shy to challenge him, but to this day, his teaching stays with me and forms a counterpoint. He was adamant: “Don't talk to the artist. That's just going to confuse you with something irrelevant. Just look at the work, it is all in the work itself." And I thought, is that really correct? I've since then taken a much more universal view: the art does not stop with the object. It's the artist and the context, the artist's statements, the community around the art, the context helps determine the meaning.
TGL: What did you do after graduating from Wesleyan?
JD: The Monday after my graduation from Wesleyan, I drove down to Soho, parked on West Broadway, walked up to Leo Castelli Gallery and asked for a job. The two Brundage sisters - who later became friends - were at the reception desk. They barely looked at me, I saw their attitude said, "Not only is there no job, there never will be a job for you." Castelli was on the second floor 420 West Broadway that had the major galleries at the time. I went up to the fourth floor to John Weber, and there was no reception desk, they didn't need one because nobody was asking to buy. There was a window into the inner office, so I went in there and knocked. The director Naomi Spector was there, and I asked Naomi for a job. Naomi said, "Our secretary just left, but John Weber only wants to hire a pretty girl." I made Naomi a proposition on the spot. I said, "I would love the experience of working here. How about I work for a week? I don't need any pay, volunteer basis, and if you like working with me, maybe when John Weber comes back, you might recommend that you take me on. Otherwise, no problem. I'll just leave." And she said, "How can I say no to that?” She sat me down and started giving me dictation, which I had no idea how to take. I stayed late enough to decipher my notes and type her letters. The next week, John Weber returns from the Basel Art fair, and he looks at me. He doesn't say anything. He rushes into the inner room, slams the door. I hear all this yelling going on. I started packing up, and just as I was about to leave, Naomi sticks her head out the door and says you're hired.
TGL: What was working at John Weber Gallery like?
JD: I was lucky because John Weber Gallery was at the epicenter of the art discourse in 1974. It was arguably the world's most interesting gallery for new art, focusing on conceptual, minimal, and land art, it was the place where the most interesting things were going on at that time. The gallery, my little office, which wasn't much bigger than a Pullman kitchen, served as the clubhouse for a whole group of artists. Carl Andre would stay up all night long watching B movies on TV, and he wouldn't wake up until about two in the afternoon. He had this ritual that he would come into the Gallery at 3p.m. and pick up his mail and his messages. Carl in those days - prior to the tragedy with Ana Mendieta - was the leader of the art dialogue. The great museum directors, curators and other artists came in to see him. Carl was often late, so I had to entertain the people as they waited for him. And so it was me, 21 years old, talking with the director of the Stedelijk Museum, famous artists, and great art critics. It wasn't just Carl, every couple of days Sol LeWitt came in. He became a mentor to me, he was generous with his time and patient with my questions. Bob Mangold, another artist in the circle, was always there too. It was an amazing education. I came to New York City, not knowing a single person, and within six months, it seemed like I knew everybody from the important collectors and museum curators to the artists to the art truckers and framers.
There were three of us who worked at the gallery: Naomi Spector, the director, I handled front office things, answering the phone, typing, filing, graphic design, and then there was also an art handler who handled the exhibition installation and art storage. He was an extraordinary person named Christopher D’Arcangelo. Christopher D’Arcangelo, who tragically took his own life a few years later, became the first great artist I encountered of my own generation. The first night after I finished, I volunteered to drive Chris home, because that's what people did in Connecticut. He couldn't believe that I had a car and had actually offered to drive him home. Chris lived on Amsterdam Avenue around 115th street in a Haitian neighborhood. I didn't know the New York streets yet, so by mistake, I drove right into Holland Tunnel instead of turning right on Sixth Avenue, and we ended up in New Jersey. I turned around and eventually we made it to Amsterdam Avenue. I went up to Chris's tenement apartment that he had renovated into a live/work studio. I remember my astonishment. He had built a perfect cube in what had been a bedroom, he was an expert in sheet rock because he worked with Stephen Antonakos on his neon Installations. On the viewing wall, there was one of Chris's paintings made out of painted angle iron, and it was outstanding. This was as good as the works that we exhibited at the gallery. Chris had really absorbed the lessons from Antonakos, Mangold, LeWitt, Andre. He was only 19 at the time, and he had created this amazing work. My discourse with Christopher D’Arcangelo, which took place during the next couple of years, was as important for me as my discourse with these great senior artists.
TGL: What inspired you to curate the exhibition Lives in 1975?
JD: 1975 is when punk rock was really starting to emerge and there were amazing performances at CBGB with the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, and my favorite band, Suicide. I wanted to stay up for these performances and hang out afterwards on the street. It was getting more and more difficult for me to get to work at 10 a.m. Naomi was tolerant, but she would say, "Jeffrey, this is not good. You've got to be here at ten.” There was a conflict between staying out, absorbing the art and music at night and the dialogue with the artists and musicians my own age and being at the gallery. The other problem was that if you're working in a gallery all day, you can't go out to see what's at the other galleries. So, I negotiated a new arrangement, I would write the gallery newsletter, but I wouldn't have to work full-time.
The John Weber Gallery Newsletter was a wonderful project, because it got me engaged with all the artists to interview them and write. And it gave me time to develop my own project: my first curated exhibition Lives, which is about artists who used their own lives as an art medium. Performance was the most interesting development going on in art. I was there to see every performance at The Kitchen and other alternative spaces. I was stimulated by the work of artists like Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Jonathan Borofsky, and Scott Burton. And so this exhibition concept came together.
TGL: How did you find the location for Lives?
JD: Another great friend of mine at the time, Julian Pretto, had this unique talent of using art in real estate. He was able to convince owners of empty buildings in Tribeca to let him take charge of their building. Julian convinced the owner of this grand building on the corner of Hudson and Franklin to give him the entire building, which was vacant, because all his tenants had moved out to move into the World Trade Center. Tribeca had been the center of the spice and coffee trade, and the commodities businesses all emptied out in the mid '70s. Here was this grand building that Julian had total control of, and he stocked it with young boys who in return for their office rooms with the bathroom down the hall, agreed to work on the renovation and management of the building. Julian offered me an entire floor and said, "We'd like to do an exhibition here." I was already thinking about putting together Lives. I said, "I got a show for you." We opened Lives in December 1975. It was one of the first alternative exhibitions of its type in an abandoned space. It wasn't a junky warehouse at all. It was an elegant office floor.
TGL: Was it difficult to get artists to participate?
JD: All the artists I asked immediately said yes. It's not like today, where you can't even talk to the artists, usually it's a gallery intermediary and they have to vet it. Every single artist from Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, to my young friends, everybody said yes. Not only that, every artist volunteered to create a hand drawn, handmade page for the Xerox catalog. A few of them gave me instructions by phone of what to do and I did it for them. The show was accompanied by a Xerox catalog, which I produced for $500.
It was an incredible experience for me, it seemed like the entire downtown art world came out for this. It immediately put me in a central position as someone who was doing things, making things happen. A lot of the artists in the show are still part of my circle, I still do things with Jonathan Borofsky. It also gave me a lot of confidence that I could actually do something like this. It was a good motivation for me to go to the next stage and take this more seriously.
TGL: What was your favorite work in the show Lives?
JD: There were some remarkable works in the show, my favorite piece that continues to resonate was a work by Hannah Wilke called Intercourse With. This was around the time of the invention of the answering machine, it’s like ancient history, but the answering machine was an amazing innovation. Hannah collaged a few weeks of her answering machine messages, some of them were very funny. Others were shocking. There were messages from her mother and from childhood friends of hers like Francis Coppola, who still called her by her real name, Arlene Butter, not Hannah Wilke, her artist's name. What was astonishing were all the messages from artist studs, who were trying to chat her up and asking her out on dates. It was an amazing revelation about what a young woman artist's life was really like. The work later was part of the famous show on radical women that Connie Butler and others curated.
TGL: After this show you got an MBA at Harvard, why did you decide to do that?
JD: It was expected by my family that I go to graduate school. I basically had three choices: Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, or Harvard Business School. I didn't have aptitude for medicine, law school was three years and business school was two years. I applied to Harvard Business School. I actually didn't apply to any other graduate school. I asked John Weber for a recommendation and John told me that he wrote me the best recommendation possible. He must have written a very good recommendation, because I got in.
I wasn't really prepared, because I had taken one math course in college: math for poets. I had a tough time the first year there. My friends in New York asked, "Why are you going to Harvard Business School? Why don't you stay here and do shows with us?" I said, "I'm going to Harvard Business School to study Art Criticism." It was kind of a joke. But in fact, the knowledge of applied economics, game theory, channel policy for marketing, all these things that I learned, I was able to apply to my understanding of art and how art was disseminated into the world. I learned a lot about art at Harvard Business School.
My second year there, I wrote a thesis on Andy Warhol as a business artist. I interviewed Vincent Fremont and others at The Factory. I turned this into a talk for the College Art Association the year after I graduated. It was a sensation when I delivered this talk. People were so interested in the topic, there was standing room only. That was the first time I ever experienced anything like this, people rushed up afterwards and came to talk to me. Later, I adapted it for Art in America. It was my story on Andy Warhol as a business artist, that really framed my trajectory into art.
TGL: What did you do after you graduated from Harvard Business School?
JD: I spent one year at a museum in suburban Boston called the DeCordova Museum, because I wanted to test out the idea of going into the nonprofit side, and maybe my trajectory would end up being a museum director. I'd gotten a good job offer to become deputy director of the Virginia Museum, I would've been in charge of fundraising, operations, and administration, but I understood that if I started on the administrative side in a museum, I would probably never get the opportunity to be a curator, which is the core reason for being there. I turned that down. That was a prestigious, good paying job. Instead, I took a job as curator of the DeCordova museum for $13,000 a year. Some of my fellow graduates from Harvard Business School were making $350,000 a year as first year hires at Goldman Sachs and other firms like that.
TGL: What shows did you curate at the deCordova Museum?
JD: I called Carl Andre who was from Quincy, Massachusetts, and his friend Frank Stella was from Malden, outside Boston. My friend Jonathan Borofsky was from Newton in the Boston suburbs. I found quite a few fascinating artists born in Boston or surrounding areas, and I put together an exhibition, with the theme: Born in Boston. It was a great way to introduce radical and important art to this sleepy museum in suburban Boston. The Boston art world was conservative in those days. It was mainly color field painting and almost no conceptual art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I thought Born in Boston would be interesting for a wider audience. I visited the editor of the Boston Globe and pitched the story, and they made Born in Boston the cover story of the Sunday Magazine. In those days, every cultured person in town read the Boston Globe, so that Sunday, the opening of the show, there were lines of cars coming in from Boston to suburban Lincoln. The Museum was packed, and the exhibition looked great with major works by Carl Andre, Frank Stella, and other important artists.
I noticed the director looking at me angrily. I thought maybe I made him jealous, because he's never had anything like this. It turned out that the director received 50 plus angry phone calls from people in Lincoln: "What are you doing bringing in this traffic?" I was hauled before a board meeting: “What did you do to bring all this traffic to our town?" I explained the best I could, but they had been drinking before my arrival and were laughing and insulting me. I resigned before they could fire me. It's interesting, a lot of the experiences I had when I was young in my 20s, have been echoed later on, like when I endured a similar episode at MOCA in 2013.
TGL: After you left the museum, you started to work for Citibank. How did you make that transition?
JD: I changed course, I decided to forget the museum curatorial track. I would go back into the art business, and rather than open up a gallery, I wrote a business plan for an Art Advisory Department for a major bank or financial Institution. First, I took it to Don Marron, because I knew he was a great art collector and ran a research firm called Mitchell, Hutchins. He generously spent an hour or more with me and said, “This is interesting. You have to go to one of the big banks.” I went to Chase Manhattan Bank with my plan and the head of the Private Bank loved it and offered to hire me. But then, I heard that Citibank was talking with Sotheby's about creating the American version of what Sotheby's did in England with the British Rail pension fund, and I went to visit them. I made a decision that at that point, in the late 70s, Citibank was the more dynamic company, even though it was more complicated with Sotheby's involvement, whereas at Chase, I could do it from scratch. I decided to go with Citibank.
TGL: How was your experience at Citibank?
JD: I had a great time working at Citibank for almost 10 years from 1979 to 1988. Co-managing this department, building this business, building the art advisory department and then building the art lending department. They're still thriving today with a large loan portfolio, and I still have a number of friends in the Citibank network. It allowed me to see the entire world, to meet the greatest collectors, museum directors, and visit the back rooms of every important gallery, which I never would've had access to at that age. Many of the great dealers took the time to help educate me.
TGL: What did you learn from your time at Citibank?
JD: I fulfilled an important goal, which was to learn the connoisseurship of modern art. Before, when I went into the Museum of Modern Art, I could not differentiate a cubist Picasso from a cubist Braque. Through my whole experience at Citibank, I was able to put this all together: to learn artists, dates, and most importantly, understand quality and ascribe value to it. Every Friday evening when I was in New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art and studied. I went to lectures at the Frick, Metropolitan, and I was also able to have a lot of mentorship conversations with great art historians, in particular Bill Rubin, the Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA.
TGL: Why did you leave Citibank?
JD: After almost 10 years, I felt like I had learned enough. A number of my great clients asked me, "Why don't you do this on your own? You don't have to work for Citibank to work with us.” It was hard for me to open my own business, because I was comfortable at Citibank. To operate an art advisory business on the top level is actually very expensive with the air travel, hotels, photographers, and the expertise you need to form condition reports. I was frightened to do it on my own, but I took the plunge and I was able to set myself up well.
TGL: How did you develop your friendships with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons?
JD: Before I was at Citibank, I continued to be involved with the downtown art world. I met Basquiat around 1980, and I believe that I was his first collector. I was the first person to write a review about his work. We developed a relationship that continued until I unfortunately had to deliver the eulogy at his funeral.
And Jeff Koons, I remember people saying to me around 1980 or so, "You gotta meet Jeff Koons. Have you met Jeff Koons yet?" Jeff was known to work on Wall Street. He was working as a salesman in a bucket shop, different from Citibank, but people didn't really know the difference in the art world. We met at a Francesco Clemente opening at Sperone Westwater Fischer gallery. He was wearing his signature windbreaker, and he was the fully formwed Jeff Koons already. We started a dialogue right then and we never stopped.
TGL: How did you make your business successful?
JD: I had helped an important client, the great collector of contemporary art Dakis Joannou, buy a small apartment next to his larger apartment in Trump Tower. I made him a proposition: a year’s worth of art advisory services for use of his apartment. Instantly, I started with a prestigious office, well maybe not so prestigious today but it had a different image in1988. I had this beautiful apartment that was my home office.
I had maintained a great dialogue with Leo Castelli, my hero, for many years. I spent a lot of time working with Leo on a business plan of how he could build on what he achieved with the gallery. Leo was fascinated, he loved talking about this, but in the end he didn't follow any of my advice except for one thing, because he didn't want the gallery to continue without him. The one thing I said that he did follow was: "Leo, you have a lot of hidden assets here." He was still operating the print gallery that had been the province of his late wife, Toiny, and it had an enormous inventory by all the Castelli artists. It was costing them a lot of money to maintain these works in a warehouse. I had the idea to sell half of the inventory. We could sell it for $2 million. We were still in the Japanese bubble period, and I knew that we could find wealthy Japanese who would be impressed by the name Castelli. With my friend, Ikkan Sanada, who was a great bridge between Japan and America, we cooked up the idea to syndicate the inventory of Castelli Graphics to a group of Japanese investors. Ikkan brought this group of Japanese farmers to New York and we entertained them. I remember they rented a giant stretch limousine with a sky roof, they were going crazy driving through New York City. We introduced them to Leo Castelli, and they were dazzled and paid the $2 million for half the inventory. This was in the first month of my independent business. My commission was 10%, and $200,000, was a lot of money in those days. All of a sudden, I had my working capital. I had free rent, $200,000 in the bank, and I was off and running.
TGL: When did you switch from your art advisory business to your gallery?
JD: I ran the art advisory business on my own for close to 10 years, starting in 1988. I needed an additional creative outlet and opened a project gallery, Deitch Projects in January 1996.
TGL: Did you continue curating while at Citibank and running your art advisory business?
JD: I challenged myself to stay engaged in curating, and I don't know how I found the time to do that. I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and somehow I managed to curate Cultural Geometry with the Deste Foundation in Athens. I was able to do this while I was still a Citibank Vice President, and then I curated Artificial Nature and a few other exhibitions when I was already independent. Then in 1992, I did Post Human, which is still the most influential show I've ever done. I keep trying, but it's hard to top that. It was originally going to be just in one venue, a private foundation in Lausanne, but Ida Giannelli, who directed the Castelli di Rivoli outside Torino, which was the greatest contemporary art museum in Europe at the time, loved the show. She asked, "Can we take it?" And Zdenek Felix, who ran the greatest contemporary art space in Germany the Deitchtorhallen, also asked for it. The show ended up going to five venues, culminating at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It could have gone to five more, but I had already spent almost 2 years of my life on it. I was ready to move on to the next project.
We made a big impact. It influenced the careers of artists who saw the show when they were younger, like Vanessa Beecroft. That's the ultimate: when an exhibition actually inspires artists’ careers. I can't take full responsibility for that, but when you look at their work, you can see a connection with Post Human. The opening at the Castello di Rivoli was a major event. It seemed that half the Italian art world was there. It was wonderful to present the show at the Castello di Rivoli, because at the time there was no Tate Modern, no Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, no Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
TGL: How did you come up with the concept for Post Human?
JD: I was ahead of the curve there. Now there's a whole academic field called Post Humanism. I believe I was the first person to actually use that term. The concepts that I wrote about: genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, are now part of popular culture, but when we did Post Human these issues were still very new.
TGL: When did you consider returning to the museum side?
JD: Like I said earlier, I always considered going into the museum side, and I always tried to have an active dialogue with art historians. I had gotten to know Kirk Varnedoe, who was an art historian, curator, and the genius of his generation. I sometimes went to his lectures at NYU Institute of Fine Arts, and helped him get loans for some of the exhibitions he organized for the Museum of Modern Art. When Kirk joined the museum as the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, he asked me to consult with him about who should be appointed as the Curator of Contemporary Art. After one of our discussions, Kirk's wife, Elyn Zimmerman, told him that she thought I would be the best candidate. Kirk asked me if I would consider leaving the business side and becoming Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Modern Art. I had just begun my independent business, so I had to think about it, but then I said to count me in. I interviewed with Aggie Gund and all the key board members. I was endorsed by both Bill Rubin and Robert Rosenblum who were the opposite poles and views of where contemporary art was going. It was interesting to be endorsed by both sides. I was ready to start the post, but then Kirk made some calls to gallerists in town and asked, "What do you think of Jeffrey?" Somehow through this, the word got out. I suspect it was Robert Hughes, who was the most influential art critic at the time. He took this up as a cause and was incensed that MoMA was going to hire an art dealer to become a curator. I believe Robert Hughes approached Kirk Varnedoe and said, "If you hire Jeffrey Deitch as the curator, I will not stop until you are driven out of your job as chief curator yourself." Kirk called me into his office, and related this to me. He didn't tell me who the person making these threats was, but the only person with this kind of power would be Robert Hughes. It was very emotional. It was one of the only times, as an adult, that actual tears came to my eyes. Kirk was born for his role as Chief Curator in the Museum of Modern Art, I had other options. So, I withdrew and went back to my business. It's lucky I did, because I hadn't made enough money to put aside yet. The early '90s was a good period when art was inexpensive and that's when I was able to buy some great works of art at low prices, which gives me the cushion so that I can go through the rest of life without worry.
TGL: What was running Deitch Projects like?
JD: Deitch Projects was an excellent business, we made a lot of money. I had freedom to do whatever I wanted. Freedom to create my gallery program without thinking about any commercial purpose, because enough money was coming in through my art consulting and some of the artist relationships, and our representation of the Keith Haring Foundation. I could do crazy things that cost much more than you could possibly bring in with revenue. We had a unique situation. Some people described it more as a private ICA than a commercial gallery.
TGL: You then became the director of the MOCA in Los Angeles, what was that experience like?
JD: I had been able to accomplish a lot as an art dealer, gallerist, art advisor, but I hadn't had the opportunity to direct a great museum. I had curated Post Human, and other influential shows, but it's different to be able to develop an exhibition for a top museum where you can get almost any loan you want. A number of people in the Los Angeles art community had been following Deitch Projects, and loved what I did with the art parade and performance program. They saw the tremendous crowds that I brought to the gallery, and thought that this is what they needed at MOCA. I knew it was a challenging situation when they approached me. The museum was essentially under the control of the attorney general. But, it was a great opportunity, so I said yes. I closed up Deitch Projects and my art consulting business, and moved to Los Angeles even though a few of my friends who knew the situation warned me not to go. But, I'm a confident person.
The week after my appointment, I called up one of my art world friends, a long-time trustee of MOCA and LACMA, and someone with great insight and wisdom. We sat down for lunch and he said, “I wish I could tell you something else, but this is going to be an impossible situation for you. You shouldn't have done this.” And he went into details, which I can't share. I did everything I could to make it positive, but in the end it was too contentious.
TGL: Do you regret working at MOCA?
JD: When I look back on it, I did some great exhibitions. I achieved many of my goals. I presented the great Art In The Streets show, which was the definitive exhibition on the history of street art, beyond what anyone had ever done. It was worth it just for that show. And I did another show that I'm proud of called The Painting Factory. We recently released websites for both exhibitions. In three years, I did 50 exhibitions and projects. I was full of energy there, but it didn't end well.
I don’t regret it. It’s less the MOCA situation that I regret, and more the fact I had to close up my business, and a lot of it I can't get back. In retrospect, I realize that with Deitch Projects, I had created an art platform that in many ways was more interesting than MOCA.
TGL: What did you do after MOCA?
JD: After all my effort connecting with people in LA and understanding LA, I decided to stay in the city and create a new platform. I found an ideal building in the ideal location. I had developed a good rapport with Frank Gehry while I was at MOCA. I showed Frank the site and he volunteered to design the renovation of the building for me. It's amazing what Frank did. I am so grateful that I was able to work with Frank Gehry to design my Los Angeles gallery. We have embarked on an ambitious program with solo exhibitions of major international artists and thematic shows with younger talents. It's costly to maintain because it has the scale of a small private museum. We've managed to keep it going through the pandemic. I'm happy to be back in Los Angeles with a lively artistic program.
TGL: How do you approach selling artwork? What skills do you need to sell art?
JD: I remember one of the artists around Castelli complaining, "Leo never sells, Leo doesn't try to sell." I saw Leo, so elegant, perfectly dressed, having civilized conversations with collectors. Never hustling them. He was presenting the frame for the artworks: giving the intellectual frame, the aesthetic frame, the elegance, the right context. He was connecting with people, but never blatantly selling them. By creating this authoritative atmosphere, it gave people the impetus, the confidence to buy. People wanted to be able to walk in and talk with Leo. The price of being able to do this was to participate in his world by collecting, by buying some artworks. I'm never comfortable being an aggressive seller. My model is the same. I do not harangue people on the phone. If I am excited by a work of art and I can express my excitement, there's at least one person out there who's going to share my excitement, and they're going to want to buy this piece.
I try to present things in an authoritative way. The gallery has to look perfect. Every morning when we come in, we paint the scuffs off the walls, the windows have to be nice and clean, people have to look good at the reception desk. You create this atmosphere where you give the art authority, you give the artists respect. Then, through how I write about it, how I talk about it, I express my excitement. And hopefully somebody is as excited as I am, they see how I respect this work and would like to be part of it. I've found that, unfortunately, very few people just walk into a gallery and say, “I want to buy.” It almost always comes out of relationships. Something I've been lucky to do over the years is build real relationships. You build relationships by sharing the art experience: viewing exhibitions together and visiting with people in their homes. Almost every major sale that I've made over the years is to someone with whom there is a relationship. Relationships with collectors, curators, critics and of course, with artists, is the most rewarding part of our field.
TGL: How do you approach curating? What skills do you need to curate art?
JD: I'm always challenging myself to find a pattern or theme when I'm out looking at art. I want to create a structure out of what I'm seeing. When I finally get excited enough to begin thinking about a show, I don't stop at a broad concept like “new abstract painting.” When I curated The Painting Factory at MOCA, I knew I wanted to do a show on new abstraction. I had followed the work of some terrific artists: Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon. I drew on my visits with Andy Warhol, my conversations with Christopher Wool and visits with Rudolph Stingel early on, and I put together this artistic and intellectual thread. Understanding that all of these artists I was excited about worked with adaptations of printing processes and mechanical processes and were looking at Andy Warhol's innovations in painting. So, I came up with the theme: The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol. I put together this whole thread that worked. That's an example of how I think about a show, I try to find a strong conceptual theme rather than just “new painting,” or in a more recent project, “New Figurative Painting.” The figurative painting project became Unrealism, my new book published by Rizzoli, with extensive texts and a visual essay which articulate the theme.
TGL: What is your perspective on the Covid-19 crisis?
JD: It’s a terrible crisis, but we will get through it. It was devastating to live through the AIDS crisis in the '80s and early ‘90s. At certain points it looked so bleak that there seemed to be no way out, as good friends of mine were dying. But, we got through it, and we got through other challenges. The current pandemic is extreme, but I'm an eternally optimistic person and I can see our way out of it. We are continuing to make our plans for our exhibition program. I'm actively working with a group of Los Angeles galleries who have formed a Los Angeles Gallery Association. A new sense of community and purpose is coming out of this. I believe in trying to turn adversity into opportunity.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
JD: I realize I've been privileged, I’ve actually met most people in art who I want to know, because I make an effort. There is someone who I've read, who has so much culture and wisdom, and that would be Simon Schama. I'd love to have dinner with Simon Schama. I've gotten a lot of stimulation from reading his books and essays.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to readers of The Genius List?
JD: I have a simple philosophy: Contribute to the world more than you take. My advice to artists and creators is that you do not need to ask permission. If you have an exciting creative idea, you don’t have to wait for someone else to endorse it: just find a way to realize it yourself.