Jeffrey Deitch, you are a curator, an art critic, an art dealer, and you have been the Director of MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) and done many other things. How would you describe yourself?
I am one of the very few people who have played every single role in the art world.
Have you been an artist?
Yes, I don’t want to be pretentious about it, because my artistic accomplishments are fairly limited. I began making a type of performance art in the mid-1970s. All of the works created themselves. I would start arguments on the street and photograph the patterns that were formed by the crowds. One of my bodies of work was influenced by my study of marketing at the Harvard Business School. I became fascinated by the end-of-aisle displays at the local Grand Union supermarket that were constructed by the stock boys. They would create these bold sculptural forms out of stacks of cereal boxes and other packaged food products. I began photographing these “found sculptures”, then bought wholesale quantities of these products and re-created their displays. I tried to interest galleries in showing them, but I was ahead of my time. A few years ago I showed one of these works at White Columns in New York and I was astonished to open the New York Times a few days after the opening to see the work reproduced with a rave review by Roberta Smith.
Why you did not continue to be an artist?
I come from a family where it was expected from me to study medicine, law or business, preferably at Harvard.
So you went to the Harvard Business School?
Yes, it was only two years and business was more interesting to me than law. I was already working in galleries and writing for magazines. I was one of the first to write about art from the economic perspective. One of my projects was to write a thesis on Andy Warhol as a business artist.
Was Picasso a business artist like Warhol?
Different, not a “business artist”, but Picasso, whether intentionally or not, built an immense fortune. He was one of the most radical artists of his time and he became one of the wealthiest men of his time. I wrote two interesting essays on the economics of art in Art in America, one on Warhol and one on Picasso. Picasso’s economic success was largely due to his belief in his work. Keeping so much of his work showed how much he believed in its importance.
Are there any artists today who have created that kind of value?
Yes, we have artists who have created immense fortunes with their work. Warhol was the closest to Picasso in building a very valuable estate. Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, and Jasper Johns also have a great belief in their own work and have built substantial collections of their own work and that of other artists.
You were a close friend of Jean-Michel Basquiat. What about him?
Jean-Michel’s father was an accountant, but during the first few years that I knew him I was not aware of this side of his family background. I was coming out of the Whitney Museum, where Jean-Michel’s work was part of the 1983 Biennial exhibition, just as Jean-Michel was coming in with his father Gerard, an accountant. It was just before April 15 when you have to file your taxes in the US and I said to Jean-Michel, “If you need help filing your taxes, let me know.” I was co-managing Citibank‘s art market department at the time and would help artists with financial questions. Gerard was astonished that Jean-Michel had a friend who cared about taxes – he could not believe it. The next day Jean-Michel called me and told me that his father wanted to visit, and the following day Jean-Michel and his father came to see me in the bank. Gerard wanted me to convince Jean-Michel to give him money to buy and renovate some real estate in Brooklyn.
And what did you do?
I said to Jean-Michel that the best investment was to keep his own work. His father was infuriated. The meeting ended acrimoniously because I advised Jean-Michel to keep his own paintings rather than selling all of them and investing the proceeds with his father. When Jean-Michel died dealers assumed that there was nothing left. But his father found among his papers a stack of warehouse receipts and found a storage vault filled with some of his greatest paintings and drawings from 1982 to 1983. Jean-Michel had actually taken my advice, and he left a substantial estate.
Did you discover many artists?
I would not say discovered – just that in the natural course of where life took me I have always found myself connecting with some of the most exciting artists. Even now I have become friendly with some of the best artists who are now in their twenties. I am always trying to challenge myself to articulate what new is going on in art, and explain why a particular group of artists is making an impact.
After all your experience, would you like to run a cultural institution like the Biennale in Venice?
I would be disqualified, as I have spent so many years on the business side. The art world today continues to have a very narrow definition of creative roles. If I am known from the business side, many people will not accept that I could be a curator.
But you were the director of MOCA in Los Angeles?
True, but the controversy about my commercial background was one of the factors that ultimately made it difficult for me to continue. People recognise that I curated some very good shows, but the art world is biased against people who move from one role to another.
Are you going to open a gallery?
No, but I will go back to an independent structure to articulate my ideas. I have found that after my experience at the museum it is easier for me to make money than to raise money.
Is there a lot more money today in the art world than when you started?
Yes, when I started 40 years ago, in the 1970s, there was hardly a market for advanced contemporary art. When I worked for the John Weber Gallery there was not even a reception desk because there were no collectors to receive. Giuseppe Panza di Biumo was the most important collector, and he would come once a year. The viability of the gallery depended on his visit.
Then it was impossible to imagine that contemporary art would become this platform where the elite of business, entertainment and the other creative arts now meet each other. The social activity around the art world is astonishing, combining the excitement of theatre premieres and high profile sports events with art connoisseurship. I would never have dreamed that radical young artists would be at the centre of this casino. This new economic success presents benefits, but it also presents a lot of challenges. Back in the 1970s I would go to parties where artists and their friends would get outrageously drunk, and it was lots of fun. Now if there is an art world party where an artist gets publicly drunk, the artist is likely to be ostracised.
Artists have had to change?
There is more pressure to conform. There is an endless amount of safe-looking art that does not offend anyone and trades very easily. There are also some great young radical artists who are not afraid to follow their vision. I am very much an optimist and I am genuinely excited by some of the new work. Artistic innovation today is coming from many channels, not just from the prestigious art schools.
Is there still one centre for art today?
It moved from Paris to New York in the 1940s. Today New York is still the most important art centre, but there are other dynamic communities like Los Angeles, Berlin, London and Beijing. Artists now connect with other artists all over the world through the Internet. I discovered the work of one of the most interesting young Chinese artists through a gallery in Berlin. One of their gallery artists had found her work on the Internet. But the art experience still depends primarily on direct engagement with the art and with the people who make it and talk about it. Artists need to be challenged by their peers. The Internet cannot substitute for a lively discussion in a cafe.
Are we living in an interesting period for art?
There is more fluency with visual images than ever before. A cultured person today possesses an immense vocabulary of artistic images and they have an enhanced ability to understand their meaning. Visual art is more central in our culture than it was in previous decades. When I was growing up, in the 1950s and early ’60s, music was something that the younger generation had in common. Music was accessible and free. It was available to everyone on the radio. In those days visual art images were not easily accessible. You had to buy expensive art books or visit a museum. Now with Instagram you have the ability to access art images for free, just like music. It is changing the art experience.
Where are we going to?
I find it exciting that art is opening into these unpredictable new situations. We now have a very interesting debate in the art world about museums embracing creators like Bjork, who are entering the fine art dialogue from the platform of progressive popular art.
Will the artists of tomorrow be different?
Maybe they will embrace the new larger audience, or maybe the best artists will want to hold back and address their work to a rarefied elite. The art audience is no longer the 1,000 people that followed the galleries when I started in the 1970s.
April 21, 2015
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