People have called Jeffrey Deitch many things in the four-plus decades he’s been in the art world — brilliant, radical, odd, provocative, flashy, unqualified, overqualified — and he’s warranted such attention because few have served in as many different roles as he, and with as much fervor: assistant, critic, curator, director, dealer, author, disruptor. And there are no signs of his popularity (or significance) fading in the decades to come. How could it? Even if Deitch stopped launching buzzworthy shows at his gallery in New York and new one in Los Angeles that launched with Ai Weiwei’s “Zodiac,” his body of work demonstrates a particular vision — and notably, longtime support of female artists — that has forever impacted the contemporary art scene and many public spaces holding traces of his discerning taste.
What shows stand out most for him over his long career? We asked Deitch for 15 or so. That was a foolish question. He rattled off close to fifty from just a 15-year stretch (1996–2010) during which his gallery hosted more than 250 artist works by too many notable people to name here, so consider this just a casual walk, skip and a few lengthy stops down art memory lane with Deitch, who shares some past experiences that still surprise him today.
VB16 Piano Americano-Beige (Grand Street)
“These are the really great images that Vanessa used that she made artworks with, so definitely start with this for sure.” Vanessa Beecroft’s performance piece that explored sexuality in consumerism, and was the inaugural show at Deitch Projects on Grand Street, is still talked about today. It featured models in various forms of dress moving about the space following specific rules. Their wardrobe was inspired by a Juergen Teller photograph, and the seated models referenced the actresses Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.”
“The most important of all the Chinese artists of his generation was Chen Zhen, who sadly died young, but this piece is unbelievable and the gallery was the first to show this generation of Chinese artists.” Zhen took 101 chamber pots from Shanghai and suspended them from wood frames, which surrounded a large globe filled with different electronic devices. Each pot held a speaker that played the sounds of women washing them, just as the artist remembered hearing as a child in Shanghai. Zhen died of cancer at age 45.
“That’s our most sensational, infamous show, with a Ukrainian artist [Oleg Kulik] living in the gallery for two weeks as a dog, and he really kept in character. His wife fed him dog-food-like gruel, like this porridge gruel every night … He lived as a dog, but she lived with him and emptied his bucket with his waste.” It was Kulik’s first exhibit in the States. His marriage survived the performance, but Deitch notes that it didn’t last after Kulik started gaining international fame as an artist: he left her.
“Women were invited to come in the gallery, go behind this curtain, and take off their white panties and then hang them from what Japanese women have hanging above their bathtubs in their little apartments. The whole thing filled up, and we gave it as a gift to MOCA. We dared them to install it. I should say that [I told them], ‘I will give you a contribution if you hang this piece.’” The mixed-media installation was by Noritoshi Hirakawa, and it doesn’t appear to have ever been shown there. On MOCA’s website, it currently has “No Image is Available” and notes it was gifted by Deitch.
“This is Barbara Kruger. I’ve asked Barbara if we can do something on this level again. It was unbelievable how great this was. There were 26 different slide projectors [projecting words on the floors and walls]. Now you don’t do that. It was all with regular slide projectors, and you’d hear them clicking. Nowadays, of course, it would just be digital. This Barbara Kruger show was just phenomenal, very important show.” The installation was the first at Deitch’s Wooster Street space and also included videos of talking heads.
“Cornelia Parker won the International Association of Art Critics award for Best Show of the Year [by an Emerging Artist for this]. It’s an exploded church. Yeah, she blew up a church … well, wait a minute (reading), ‘The charred remains of a Texas church struck by lightning.’ An amazing thing to install. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever presented.” The English installation artist and sculptor had collected the charcoal remains while she was doing a residency in San Antonio and had heard about the church’s demise.
“This is the great Cecily Brown and the best show she’s ever done. These paintings are all worth $3 million now, they were $8,000 then.” Her layered, abstract paintings were inspired by the artificial nature of early Hollywood movie musicals with their saturated Technicolor treatment. And yes, Deitch mentions, while smiling, he does own one.
“This was the first time that [Malian photographer] Malick Sidibé was shown in the United States, and the poster for this is phenomenal too. This was a great show … And do you know what was so interesting? The place was packed with all these immigrants from Mali. There must have been something in the local newspaper. This was before, you know, Internet, Instagram — somehow the people in that community found out about it. Particularly on Saturday it was packed with all these immigrants from Bamako who went to the clubs, and the older people telling the kids, ‘That’s the club I went to.’” The images documented the city’s club scene from the late ’50s to mid-’70s.
“We did this great George Condo show. We did not sell a single thing. Can you imagine that? I wanted to show Condo, and after we didn’t sell a single painting, we couldn’t show him. They were $65,000 [a piece] … I could have bought for $30,000.” A former Warhol assistant, Condo characterized the portraits as “artificial realism.” Condo’s paintings now sell for more than a million dollars.
“This was with Vanessa Beecroft … it’s just insane that we got the Navy SEALs to pose. They only have two poses: attention and at-ease, so you want the two together. It’s unbelievable that we were actually able to do this. The Department of Defense [approved it].” The show brought together two of Beecroft’s Navy pieces: “VB39: Navy SEALs” and “VB42 Intrepid: the Silent Service.”“It was the most insane thing imaginable. They loved it. After the opening, the big commander gave me this [special] coin. He said, ‘You put this on a bar any place where there are soldiers in the United States Navy, and someone’s gonna buy you a drink!’”
“’Street Market’ is one of our all-time most important shows so that needs a lot of coverage, because that’s one of the best shows anyone ever did. Not just us, that’s like the best show in a gallery.” The streets scenes by Barry McGee, Todd James and Stephen Powers included actual discarded items from the streets, bringing the outside in with touches of their own graphic art.
“Okay, so this is the Keith Haring show. We had mind-blowing stuff. This was from this club in San Francisco. I was really stupid, I should have just bought stuff in the show and I didn’t. Now if you wanna buy it, it’s $11 million. I think they sold for a million.” SoHo’s Paradise Garage was said to be the first multicultural gay dance club, and Haring often produced art for events there.
“That was a big-big event [with artist] Santiago Sierra that was a disaster, because the people that were hired to be workers went on strike. They just said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to humiliate ourselves for some guy’s artwork. You know it’s all about the exploitation of workers and stuff like that.” The installation included nine prisms that were affixed to the gallery wall on one side and, on the other, were to be held up, per Sierra’s very specific and lengthy directions, by Mexican or Central American citizens while facing the opposite wall for four hours.
“You see, in Mexico, you can just pull up on the side of the street, and there are people who want work. In New York, it’s not like that. We had to pay employment agencies, and we were paying them a fortune … at the same level as art handlers. So these two older guys, these very distinguished-looking black guys, they kind of became the foremen, like the leaders. They come up to me in this very rational way and say, ‘We don’t know what the hell this artist is doing, and we’re not part of this, and we’re all walking out.’ So then the artist went crazy. He’s really a nutcase. It’s like we were the enemies exploiting him.
“Then we found some agency in New Jersey, and we paid them even more money to get a bunch of guys and get vans to truck them in from New Jersey. The artist, at that point, was so frustrated, like we were supposedly undermining his work, that he went on strike, and he left. We were able to get a few photographs here, but then basically shut down the show. He’s crazy. But I’ll never forget these worker guys saying, ‘We’re not doin’ this. You’re not humiliating us like this.’ And to think this artist was supposedly like the ‘friend of the people” and all that. He was the one exploiting.”
“That’s one of the legendary shows.” ‘Free Basin,’ an empty wooden pool by DIY architect collective SimParc that was actually skateable, was the biggest draw (and the biggest piece) featured in exhibit on skate culture. I was talking with James Jebbia [founder of clothing brand Supreme] about trying to sell the bowls, and he was really interested. And then what he does is go directly to SimParc and buys the bowl, cutting me out. And it’s still there in the L.A. Supreme [store], and people think this is Supreme. Weinvented this. And there’s a good anecdote. When I was walking by the gallery [during the show’s run], I saw the lights were on at 11 at night or so. Of course I have the key, so I open it up, and I walk in on this session of nude skating. I forget her name, she had an art gallery in Chelsea, and she’s in the center standing there nude like a statue, and the SimParc guys and their friends are all nude, skating around her. That was crazy.”
“There’s this video A.V.A.F. and honeygunlab did to Yoko’s Ono’s ‘Walking on Thin Ice,’ which is incredible.” The multimedia installation by A.V.A.F. took over the interior and exterior of the gallery, which created excitement at street level, which was something many artists would do at the Grand Street location.
“David LaChapelle [retrospective], that’s a good one, because he recreated his New York apartment.” More than 500 images by the famed photographer were projected onto the gallery’s wall, and guests were welcomed to walk through the apartment set that also served as a backdrop for a photo shoot with Courtney Love, Pamela Anderson and Amanda Lepore during the show’s run. “David came to the opening as SpongeBob.”
“This is really essential because we built a fully functional film studio in the gallery.” Conceived by Michel Gondry based on his eponymous film, the exhibit invited people to make their own films versus being passive consumers of media.
“Kehinde Wiley is a superstar.” This is one of four Wiley shows Deitch Projects has presented in New York; the first was ‘Faux/Real’ in 2003. The Los Angeles artist’s vibrant portraits of black men, specifically, are unmistakable, presenting them in a way that popular media has not, with backgrounds with as much life and colors as the subjects themselves. For this particular show, his portraits were of four African football players who would be playing at the World Cup. Wiley cemented his place as one of the most important painters of his generation with his 2018 portrait of President Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.
The first 15 years of the Deitch Projects’ New York shows (and beyond) are covered in depth in the book “Deitch Projects: Live the Art”(Rizzoli, 2014), but Deitch has no plans of doing another when he hits the next 10- or 15-year-mark because he feels, “I’m in deterioration mode now.”
But it’s clear that he still sees a potential art fan in everyone he meets. On this day he was excited to invite the young, wide-eyed Uber driver, who was dropping him off at his L.A. gallery, to come inside. Currently on display is the Urs Fischer “PLAY” show that features office chairs of various colors moving about the 15,000-square-foot warehouse, each programmed with a different personality that changes day to day. When she walked in, her face had the look of, “What did I just walk into?” Inciting those reactions of wonder or surprise (or shock) is something Deitch still lives for, and with gestures like that, he is as relevant as ever.