Recently Jeffrey Deitch has been much in the news. He has just returned from L.A. where he held the directorship of MOCA for three years. Within this relatively short span of time, Deitch managed to transform radically the ways we approach museums, whether as insiders or outsiders, and, further even, he may have introduced a seismic change within the Art World proper.
The Brooklyn Rail’s two interviewers, David Carrier and Joachim Pissarro, have co-written a forthcoming book: Wild Art, which deals with parallel concerns Deitch chose to confront from the perspective of a museum institution. Deitch had barely touched land back East when he agreed to participate in this very timely interview—timely in more ways than one.
Jeffrey Deitch: Let me congratulate you both on this wonderful book Wild Art. It was introduced to me in the best way. Do you have any idea who brought it to my attention? [Silence.] Jeff Koons. Jeff Koons showed it to me and with his special Jeff Koons enthusiasm we looked through it together. As you know, it’s the artists who are always the aesthetic leaders, who open things up in art and it’s artists like Jeff who opened up the vision of the art world toward what you presented in the book.
Every decade or so, the art world needs to go through a kind of correction and be brought back into a more open, more tolerant view. Your book is very timely because, ironically, an academicism has set into the art community, and it comes not from the right wing, but from the left wing—from those who once counted among the most radical and most anti-establishment: it is the conceptual, post-studio artists, who, ironically have generated a very stiff new kind of academy. And this has become—not in all cases, but in many cases—intolerant.
Joachim Pissarro: Koons is constantly referring to this idea of being accepting of others, whether it be accepting of other forms of art, or accepting of what people look at—which induces us to open our eyes to art forms we would not necessarily pay attention to. And you, of course, hit the nail on its head immediately by referring to this kind of neo-liberalism, the new conceptual academy, which has become so much of a dogma, or a dogmatic way. It is accepted without thinking twice about it. Now, you go outside in the street and conceptual art doesn’t mean anything, people don’t know who the major players are. It’s not to say that conceptual art was, or is not important, but it’s very much an art world phenomenon.
Deitch: But I wouldn’t exclude a consciousness of conceptual art on the part of street artists. A lot of these artists looked at conceptual art—and in fact a number of the artists we think of as street artists, or graffiti artists, are very well-versed in the history of conceptual art. And so someone like Shepard Fairey, for instance, points particularly to Barbara Kruger as one of his biggest influences.
David Carrier: So, who are the most important artists they looked at?
Deitch: They draw from a wide range of influences. For instance, Keith Haring was a student of Joseph Kosuth so he was very aware of the discussion about semiotics that was common in the art community in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and drew on it and referred to it. But also, conceptual art comes from multiple origins. It’s not one-dimensional. If you can think of William Burroughs as having conceptual roots in his approach to writing, with his cut-up technique; Basquiat was very influenced by Burroughs. And in the early SAMO work, his concrete poetry goes back to very early origins of conceptual art: Dada and Futurism.
Carrier: Can you tell us how your interest in street art developed—before even there was a term to describe it?
Deitch: I’ve spent so many years in friendship and conversations with Basquiat, Rammellzee, Keith Haring, and more recently Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey, and Swoon. These are people who have every bit as much intellectual interest and cultural sophistication as artists who are academically pretentious. In fact, part of the reason to organize and curate Art in the Streets at MOCA in L.A. was to focus on a more serious context and demonstrate that these are artists, not uneducated outsiders. Swoon went to Pratt, Shepard Fairey went to RISD, Barry McGee went to the San Francisco Art Institute. They are very aware of the current dialogue and they chose this direction as something they thought was the most artistically viable, and they chose this medium because it was a way to communicate very directly with a much wider audience. I have always been very inspired by artists who address an audience beyond a small sphere of a few prestigious galleries, and museums, and one or two art publications.
The artist Robert Williams is a great inspiration with an amazing history, being part of the invention of underground comics, and one of the founders of Juxtapoz magazine, which I believe is the most widely-read art magazine in the English language. You can have the most stimulating conversations about art and culture with Robert. Many of these artists who might be considered outsiders or anti-intellectual artists are in fact as sophisticated and self-aware of what they’re doing in the context of art history as artists who are doing altered photographs with text.
Academic conceptual art, much of it, in its sort of gallery-ready form, has difficulty connecting with a broad range of cultured people who are interested in visual culture. Banksy, who is very much a conceptual artist, works in a way that is very direct; he plays with media and with culture and gets it on so many levels and really is able to connect with people. So, some of the more academic conceptualists are worried about protecting their position: they see a Banksy coming out of nowhere, drawing 75,000 people to a pop-up show over three days and getting nominated for an Oscar for his film. How do you think the academic conceptualists feel when all their lives they have relied on the same old system of validation by certain respected critics, magazines, museums, and galleries? Banksy doesn’t need this validation system because his audience is reacting directly: there is no need for a critic’s validation anymore. Academic conceptualism, however, can only thrive with this kind of validation.
Pissarro: How did your interest in this field develop?
Deitch: When I came into the art world the late Greenbergian academy, color field painting, and its counterpart in sculpture, were endowed with glowing praise by that particular critical group, which formed the art establishment. So when I came in, the conceptualists had to battle against this. And for me it was very exciting because I worked at a gallery that represented many of the great conceptual artists: the John Weber Gallery. It represented Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, Hans Haacke, and artists at the farthest edge of conceptualism, like Ian Wilson. I knew these people very well, and I was very much involved in this struggle to get this kind of art taken seriously by the museums, by the art establishment. What happened is that these radical conceptualists won and they toppled the control of the Greenbergians.
The influence of Clement Greenberg remained, of course, very, very strong and I have great respect for his insights. They’ve been crucial in my understanding of art. But, as we know, it went from stimulating, intellectual, and aesthetic dialogue to something that became a doctrine. Now, it’s such an irony to see that the former radicals—conceptual artists—created something that, in turn, has become a dogma, a doctrine, something that has to be fought back. It’s an ongoing cycle: one group will generate another counter-group, just to puncture the current establishment and their power, and, in turn, this group will become intolerant, and create the necessary situation for its nemesis. This is what happens again and again, whether it’s the Impressionists against the Academicians in the 1870s, or today’s new conceptual academicism struggling to defend its positions against this new radical force coming out from all directions. We’re in a field that has a built-in concept of perpetual revolution. It’s very exciting.
Pissarro: I would go further and I would say this is hypocrisy, which is that there is a rampant demo-phobia going on in our academic circles: a hatred (or phobia) of the people, (demos)—or the masses—which ironically comes directly from neo-Marxists, who are afraid of the masses and so, they live happily in the most conservative circles with others who share the same demo-phobia. Philosophically speaking, this kind of distrust of what the crowd is thinking originally stemmed from a kind of liberal West German Marxist trope that functioned during the growth of the two totalitarian systems. Simply put, the idea is that if you let any crowd be to itself, you end up with fascism. Crowds—the masses—inherently carry bad taste, and this bad taste will lead you to, or to support, any form of dictatorship. Of course, this is completely ridiculous, and historically wrong. This belief that the crowd has innate bad taste, and needs to be taught properly is embarrassing.
Deitch: I think there was a lot of validity in the way the Frankfurt school viewed the world at that time. But the world has changed immensely. The fascinating new audience we see today did not exist the same way 20 years ago. Very few of the great artists come out of the social elite. Occasionally they do, but that’s very rare.
Pissarro: So what was the clinching point that led you to become aware of this new situation?
Deitch: When I began Deitch Projects in 1996, the visitors were 90 percent, 95 percent the conventional downtown art world. They were art professionals, art writers, artists, and a small number of collectors for whom contemporary art was their primary avocation. People who were interested in new music, new theater, film—that wider audience wasn’t really coming. It was very directed toward this conventional world of contemporary art. And then, five years or so into this, a new audience started appearing when we showed Barry McGee for the first time. It was completely unexpected. I opened the door before the opening and there were all these kids sitting on the sidewalk with skateboards: people took the Greyhound bus from the Midwest, from Canada, and it was absolutely amazing. At the opening itself there were thousands of people, many more than could fit into the actual gallery. When we closed the door after the official opening was over, thousands of people were still in the street and Barry was hanging out there with them. He never came to the celebratory dinner; he stayed outside, signing books. And then, during the course of the show, these people would come in on skateboards and ask the prices: “Okay, I’ll take that.”
This new audience predicted what was going to happen in contemporary art, where the borders between the different media are dissolving. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are deeply into the tradition of abstract painting—that doesn’t go away. But, it’s more and more that it doesn’t matter so much to an artist whether they’re a pure painter or working in film or photography. It’s not only that borders between media are dissolving for the younger artists and the younger audience, it’s that the borders between the commercial and the fine art are dissolving. When I showed the work of Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Roeder in The Painting Factory at MOCA, we showed them as DAS INSTITUT: their collaborative project that plays with branding with industrial products, and fabric design. They are mixing that up with the tradition of Modernist abstract painting. And yet, at the same time, it’s not something completely new. This goes back to the Bauhaus.
Carrier: How would you characterize this new audience?
Deitch: This is a new audience that is watching films by independent directors, or listening to bands like LCD Soundsystem, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and No Age. Musicians like these are involved in a dialogue with art and literature. This new audience is not academic. They’re open to all kinds of influences—in a deep, immediate, and very direct kind of way—and what I saw in my gallery, one of the reasons that led me to want to work in a public museum was that I wanted a platform to connect with this expanded audience. Art in the Streets at MOCA was thrilling. A misperception was that the audience was all skateboard kids, but it was, in fact, very broad. It was the heads of Hollywood studios; it was families, three generations with the grandparents, kids, and the babies in the stroller. The show also embraced the Mexican-American community, celebrating the Cholo graffiti heroes. This enthusiastic new audience sees visual culture in a broader way and not in a narrow, academic way.
Pissarro: What about the fact that you apparently alienated the regular public of MOCA?
Deitch: Our membership went up 18 percent as a result of Art in the Streets and we attracted important new patrons. The museum and donor profiles have changed. When you go around and visit the potential corporate contributors, they don’t look like they did 40 years ago. They’re not 60-year-old white guys in blue suits and white shirts. The people making decisions in these companies are in their 20s or 30s, highly aware of the latest fashions and trends. There are posters of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and company on their walls. In many ways, here, the audience is ahead of the art establishment. This new audience gets it.
Carrier: Where did it all start for you?
Deitch: When I came into the art world, you’d be going into Micky Ruskin’s bar and you’d see John Chamberlain, drunk and hilarious, and artists arguing and fighting it out. Now, if an artist is drunk at a public opening, he or she is immediately ostracized. I have heard people say, “Did you see so-and so drunk at the party? I think I should sell his work!” So, artists are so conscious of dressing perfectly, behaving perfectly. This is part of the American character, this fanatical Puritanism—and it obviously goes back to the Salem witch-hunts! But, there’s also a wonderful strain of American radicalism that people trace through the beats and onward up. This puritanical strain asserts its influence in the art world, and is opposed by the renegade strain.
One of the reasons I’m interested in this broader expanse of what is art is that it’s a counterweight to this puritanical professionalism. I went to Harvard Business School, and I remember very well that a lot of the whole recruiting process was oriented toward recruiters from McKinsey and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. When I started going to the M.F.A. exhibitions at Hunter, Yale, Columbia, and I said to myself, “My god, what am I doing here? I’m like the recruiters from Goldman Sachs coming to Harvard, trying to recruit the M.B.A.’s.”
I come from this exceptionally lucky age cohort. I am part of the prime time of youth culture. I was in high school from 1967 to 1970 and I was an exchange student in Paris in 1968. I arrived in Paris in June 1968, two weeks after the riots.
Pissarro: You might’ve had my father as a professor! Coming out of clouds of smoke!
Deitch: Then, I was an exchange student in Japan in 1969, when students had taken over all the universities and the different factions controlled different buildings. I went to a public high school in West Hartford, Connecticut, but because I had absorbed almost all of the stimulation I possibly could out of Hartford I wanted to see the wider world. I was very lucky because the exchange student organization that took me to France was establishing a new program in Japan the following year and they wanted a known quantity among the students and I was one of the students who thrived in the French program. They asked if I would consider going to Japan the next year with a full scholarship. So I said yes! I’m part of this radical generation—I didn’t go to Woodstock because I was in Japan at that time, but instead of Woodstock, I was in the middle of Shinjuku Station where there were a hundred thousand students who poured in and occupied the rail station, bringing Japan to a standstill.
When I returned to high school, I would get inside meetings of the Students for a Democratic Society cells at Trinity College in Hartford. And then when I came to New York City I was very lucky to end up as an assistant in the gallery to tougher, more radical artists. I would spend hours talking to them and anything they needed—if they needed a ride, they needed something picked up—I said I’d do it, because I just wanted to be there, to hear them talk, interact with them. And then I began going to CBGB and Max’s every night, becoming deeply immersed in the beginning of punk rock.
I’m very lucky to have been part of this extraordinary time. I also did what my parents expected and got a prestigious education, but I was always very engaged with the radical side. One of my approaches to life has remained the same: rather than being on the outside trying to get in and push down the doors, why not get inside—go to Harvard Business School, a ticket to get anywhere—and do radical things from the inside? My credential from Harvard gave me the opportunity to develop and co-manage the art market department for Citibank. While I was there I built the most radical art collections of the time and loaned money to artists. That’s always been part of my approach: to be in the establishment, but to use the advantages of that position to do progressive things.
Pissarro: Is this something that can be replicated now? Can there be young gallerists and curators who can do something like that, or is your role tied to a certain period of American history? Are you optimistic?
Deitch: I think American culture is remarkably dynamic now. We are becoming the model multicultural country, and I am very optimistic about American culture. This is such an exciting period. When I began 40 years ago, contemporary art was basically East Coast America, Western Europe, and a little bit of L.A. It was a white male culture. Art is more and more global, multiethnic, and diverse. When you look at this change, particularly during the last 20 years, this is a phenomenal period—a transformative period. But new trends in art are tied in with commercial speculation and manipulation and political agendas and it’s hard to sort out. Perceptions of what’s important now are going to be different from perceptions of what’s important after all this sinks in, but it’s a tremendous period, and a great opportunity for artists, and also a great opportunity for curators, art dealers, and museums to help sort all this out and understand it. For me, it’s thrilling to be part of it.
Pissarro: What do you think is your next step, and how do you see yourself prolonging this major role you’ve had in the last 20 years?
Deitch: I’m trying to develop some structures that will use the commercial system in a new way to present art in a public way. I think the audience is so hungry for art that speaks to them, and that is framed in a way that is relevant to real life. People want to explore something in the arts that enlightens them in a more profound way about the culture they live everyday.
I am very interested in broad, cultural platforms like punk that encompass music, fashion, art, and writing. I am also very interested in disco, the most disparaged musical form of the past 60 years. Derided by most music critics, it was viewed as an unfortunate counterpoint to the tradition of the rock singer-songwriter, with their own individual expression. Here was this plastic, mindless music produced in a studio with many faceless performers. But, with the perspective of 40 years, we see that a lot of the best, most popular music now, finds its roots in disco. Like Daft Punk—they made one of the most exciting albums of the summer, remixing the disco foundation. My local heroes, LCD Soundsystem, also build on the heritage of disco. If you look back at disco, there were tremendous formal innovations: the musical collage, simultaneous playing and splicing of records. Disco DJs and producers like Walter Gibbons were among the inventors of this musical collage.
Pissarro: Which picked up in rap and New Wave rock—
Deitch: Well, it has parallels to the beginning of hip-hop. There’s a double emergence. These innovations were, at a certain point, considered opposed, but there is a lot of fascinating interchange between the beginning of disco and the beginning of hip-hop.
Carrier: Could you name a few examples of musical innovation in disco?
Deitch: Giorgio Moroder, he’s one of the inventors of this new, electronic sound. He was one of the first to use the synthesizer for pop music—whereas, before, it was primarily used by avant-garde musicians. And he used the synthesizer to make pop music by embracing one of the structural approaches of the vanguard electronic musicians. So when I see the heritage of disco—when you look at LCD Soundsystem, there’s this fascinating fusion of the foundation of disco, the foundation of contemporaneous avant-garde music; Philip Glass and Steve Reich. They are also important in the heritage of punk and New Wave music. LCD Soundsystem mixes that heritage to come up with something totally contemporary.
The other important formal innovation of disco is the dissolving of the barrier between the performers and the audience. You go to a music festival now and it’s always exciting to see the big rock band, but the most enthusiastic crowd, the real action, is in the tents, where you have the great DJs, and electronic dance music stars. At Coachella this year the most exciting event was the Major Lazer performance with Diplo. To see the total engagement of the crowd, the audience and the performers really fused together to create the spectacle. In art today there’s such hunger for direct engagement. A lot of this starts on the dance floor in disco where the DJ is riffing off of what the crowd is doing. Then there’s great sociological innovation in disco—it is the soundtrack of gay liberation. There is so much to learn from disco, to understand the foundations of the most popular new sound today, electronic dance music. I am developing a disco exhibition that will be a combination of an educational experience and a completely immersive club or festival experience. I hope to combine the two, in a way that museums have been heading toward, but that has never been quite realized to this extent, where people will dance in the middle of the exhibition. I’m looking forward to being able to realize that.
Carrier: Where is this new audience coming from? How is it expanding so fast?
Deitch: I call this new sector progressive culture: It is the same as the audience for the new designers. With fashion week here now, I am fascinated to see what’s going on around Lincoln Center—there is the entire structure around fashion week and the act of the audience engaging with advanced fashion. And it’s amazing how many people follow this over the Internet. If you look at sites like Nasty Gal, there is a high level of engagement, talking about and commenting on advanced fashion that has really become big—and this spills into art, music, and film. That’s the textbook case for how progressive culture presents itself. This message of openness, engagement, and empowerment: it’s what you hope can come out of the art world. This is interesting with a pop performer like Lady Gaga, who is expanding upon these many disciplines and engaging with all of them fluidly and simultaneously and bringing this progressive culture into the mainstream. So here she is, with her “little monsters,” articulating this message of openness and acceptance that contrasts with the intolerance of vanguard art critics—certain vanguard art critics, not you.
Pissarro: [Laughs.] This is a great way to close the circle. I’m so glad you mention this because it may give us a title for this interview, “Openness and Tolerance”—
Deitch: I think that’s perfect.
Pissarro: You bring up another term that I wanted to bring in: “generous.” Generosity, it seems to me, if I can reflect on what you’ve been doing for the past 20 years, defines your programs. You talked about taking on adventures and finding a part of this—and sharing it with everyone—this overall lack of fear that you have, is very interesting. In contrast, the art world, East or West, by and large, is very fearful, very timid. The artists, on the one hand, are super professional, very effective, more so than perhaps their ancestors or predecessors, but at the same time, they’re much more afraid of going outside of the perimeters established by the establishment. You do not pay attention to all this.
As we know Deitch Projects included many people. We spoke with Nicola Vassell, a close associate of Deitch Projects, and she gave us a few great quotes, which we wanted to share with you: “After having worked for Deitch Projects, I felt like an outsider in the art world. I couldn’t find, and was still looking for a position of where I fit in.” This is actually extremely moving. What you have done is to introduce a zone within the art world that is outside the art world itself. After you left for L.A. several of your colleagues had the unfortunate experience of finding themselves almost alienated within the current art world. I think we are witnessing a change—a big change—and I share your optimism. I’m 100 percent with you regarding your analysis of where the world is going, and your perception of American culture and its current state. But it’s going to take a while, and meanwhile, what we’re experiencing are these waves of resistance. The art world is kind of fossilized around certain, key positions—thought to be inalterable.
Deitch: Generosity matters so much.
Pissarro: Oh, and another great quote from Vassell: “He gave his life for art.”
Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.David Carrier
David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.