July 2010

Tastemakers Jeffrey Deitch

produced by MAYER RUS / portraits by HENRY LEUTWYLER

Culture Shocker

“For me, this move feels seamless—from what I did with the gallery to what I’m doing here,” observes Jeffrey Deitch on his second day as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “I have to engage people and get them interested in art. Except now, instead of selling the artwork to support what we do, I have to ask for contributions. That’s the business part.”

After 30 years as a New York–based independent curator and high-profile gallerist, Deitch, now 57, has moved across the country to take on a new position and continue his vigorous and constantly evolving dialogue about art, life and the cultural landscape.

Often when journalists report on Deitch, their narrow descriptions stick to his bespoke suits, Harvard MBA and 1980s career at Citibank. He does indeed wear beautifully tailored suits, but his polite manner is almost courtly—a far cry from the avaricious howling of latter-day Gordon Gekkos.

His office at MOCA is still underdecorated, but the atmosphere feels poised and deliberate: no scattershot packing crates, only an ebonized conference table surrounded by ergonomic desk chairs. The one artwork on display—a midcentury Josef Albers print, a green Homage to the Square—flashes on the white wall, a bright go-ahead image as insistent as a traffic signal.

Deitch Projects—the New York gallery he founded in 1996 and closed this summer in anticipation of assuming his MOCA responsibilities—utilized three exhibition spaces to present more than 250 shows, performances and installations. It established Deitch’s impressive reputation for both youth-quaking spectaculars and cross-generational views of recent art history. Fueled by a remarkably liberated curatorial vision, the exhibitions—an astonishing range, from Francesco Clemente’s nimble watercolors to manic installations such as Black Acid Co-op by Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman—attracted an uncommonly broad audience.

“I love the creative audiences here,” Deitch says of Los Angeles. “One of the things that really inspired me about this city was when I came out for the opening of MOCA’s Superflat show at the Pacific Design Center in 2001. I’d never seen a museum opening like this in New York. I understood then that L.A. has the ability to draw in this whole new audience—not the art-professional audience but one of younger, creative people who don’t really differentiate between visual art, exciting new movies and new bands.”

Since January, when MOCA’s board of trustees announced Deitch’s appointment, he has been quietly brainstorming and planning new exhibitions: Julian Schnabel was invited to curate a show, opening July 11, that will vividly link all the hyphenates—actor/director photographer/painter—that describe the late Dennis Hopper; video artist Ryan Trecartin will present Any Ever, an antic epic of seven interconnected works, beginning July 18 at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center satellite; and in September, The Artist’s Museum will provide a revealing look at Los Angeles art since 1980.

Deitch was born and raised in Hartford, a conservative city with a famously dull nickname—the insurance capital of the world—and a historically daring art museum. The Wadsworth Atheneum, the country’s oldest public art museum (1842), is a major site in the history of 20th-century avant-garde. “It had America’s first truly modern museum building, the Avery Memorial,” Deitch says. “For the opening in 1934, they commissioned Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts. That idea—of blending performance, music and visual art—is immensely exciting and just what I’m interested in doing here at MOCA.”

Among his curatorial influences, Deitch is quick to cite the landmark Matrix program, an initiative developed in 1966 by curator James Elliott for the Wadsworth. Its purpose was to showcase the work of emerging artists in focused solo exhibitions—a strategy that could easily be implemented in the PDC space.

“Matrix was an innovator in this kind of project room,” enthuses Deitch. “It was so influential to me, the idea that you could do something big in a small space. The Matrix exhibition record has been so open, ranging from hard-core conceptualism to Keith Haring.”

Under Deitch’s direction, MOCA is organizing a media-morphing collaboration with actor/artist James Franco, examining exhibition possibilities with Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy and mounting Art in the Streets, the first major museum survey dedicated to graffiti and art inspired by street culture. “I’ve been coming out to Los Angeles every year since 1980. I have so many personal and professional relationships here,” he says. “In 1981, Sherrie Levine was at CalArts, and she invited me to be a guest critic. I met Barbara Kruger there, and we started a dialogue.” He pauses and seems to be considering the passage of time and the interconnectedness of lives. “Now, Barbara is on the board of MOCA.” Suddenly, the dramatic move to museum director appears to be as seamless and fascinating as a Möbius strip. —Susan Morgan