Jeffrey Deitch talks to Alia Al-Senussi

Text by Alia Al-Senussi

Photography by Robert Longo

Jeffrey Deitch has recently made a leap of faith. Not by relocating from New York to Los Angeles, but from the "evil" commercial art world to the pristine halls of a museum directorship. His gallery in New York, Deitch Projects, was recognised for merging the worlds of the street and white cube. A strategy that generated huge acclaim for Art in the Streets, the blockbuster show he presented in his first year as director of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. His controversial switch hasn't made life any smoother, but he isn't especially concerned. After a difficult period in MOCA's history, Deitch is intent on shaking up the institution. The interview took place during Art Basel, Miami last December.

Alia Al-Senussi People might say that Miami is just about the party, but it's the nexus between the entertainment, art and creative industries.
Jeffrey Deitch Yes, that's what's really new about art. When I began in the '70s, the art world was just a small community. There were only a few hundred people and almost everyone knew each other. With my first gallery job, modest people would come in and pay $50 a week against their account. International superstar collectors and artists who live that lifestyle simply didn't exist.

AAS And art was not about just the one per cent.
JD It was an obscure pursuit. We all took it very seriously, and after a while the art sector's movements started having an impact on the rest of the world. I would say one of the biggest changes is how art, design, fashion, music and film are now converging.

AAS It means art is more open, more democratic.
JD Many people from the old side of art decry this. Like everyone else, I'm nostalgic, but I've always been idealistic and want art to be for everybody. I believe in its ability to enhance people's lives and expand consciousness. My model in the '70s was New York punk - Talking Heads, the Ramones, Suicide. Bands that were radical but wanted to be on the radio and reach young people. To be radical yet also move into progressive culture - that's always been an inspiration for me.

AAS What you've done with street art at MOCA is incredible. Some people might think "Why would you have it in a museum?" But I think you've proved exactly why.
JD The audience loved it and they were from all walks of life. There is something about street art that's like rock 'n' roll. It has attitude, brings a whole world with it and affects people directly. Not to denigrate art that takes a quieter and more philosophical approach, but I am very interested in artists who want to connect with a larger public and are trying to bring a more complex message to a large audience.

AAS For a long time when you were a gallerist and an art dealer you must have said to yourself: "If I was a museum director, I would've done this or  shown this artist." Are you living out all those "what ifs" now?
JD I think that almost everybody who collects at some point goes to a museum and says, "I wish I could do this." I had that ambition for a long time and this opportunity happened. I surprised everybody by going for it. So far it's been great, but it's a lot more difficult to manage a museum than a commercial gallery. The financial model for a contemporary art museum is very challenging. Part of what I'm doing is investigating how to do it.

AAS And expanding the reach of a museum so it's not just for the local community?
JD Right, so it's a great platform and so much more international than ever. Some years ago you would just pray that your MOCA exhibition might get a review in the local newspaper. Now you get international coverage on blogs and in magazines. It's fascinating. Los Angeles is such a contemporary, international city with so many different ethnic groups thriving. But many of these communities have little connection to the contemporary art museums. That's something to work on, so I'm excited about an exhibition we are presenting with Cai Guo-Qiang in April. And the leaders of the  Chinese community here have already become engaged with it.

AAS Can you tell us about it?
JD It's in the Geffen building. The exhibition is about his childhood dreams of space travel and communication with alien worlds. It will feature a newly commissioned sculpture of a wheat field with mysterious crop circles suspended from the ceiling.

I'm very excited about that because it is something that will engage the whole community. That's the model for me. One of the most accomplished artists in the world connecting with a wide audience.

AAS That's what's happening in the emerging market in the art world now. It's about making it appealing and educational in a different way.
JD A lot of the greatest artists are able to engage with the public and push our history at the same time. My hero, Andy Warhol is the best example of that. Whenever there is a great Picasso exhibition, it also draws bigger crowds than anything else. The power of standing in front of one of certain paintings is phenomenal. And people are very affected by that.

AAS Can we talk about the new interesting food artist, Raphael Castoriano?
JD We've just worked with Raphael on a spectacular project with Marina Abramovic. The highlight were these two life-size cakes of Marina Abramovic and Deborah Harry of Blondie, who performed. Two life-size anatomically correct nude cakes.

AAS How did you decide who got which parts?
JD The two cakes were carried in on stretchers and then placed on the stage angles. At the climax of Debbie's performance, she and Marina took knives to the hearts, cut them out of the bodies and exchanged hearts with each other.

And then ate them. The crowd went wild and they were astonishingly realistic. They were like Duane Hanson sculptures. Amazing. Very provocative and not everyone was able to handle it.

AAS So when people come to you with these crazy proposals, do you say "sign me up immediately!"
JD Well, I invited Marina and Debbie and just knew that something interesting would come out of it. We gave Marina complete freedom. She discussed the different ideas with me and I just said: "Let's run with it!" There was one thing that was slightly contentious. There were big circular tables and the nudes were at the centre of the table with skeletons on top of them. I said, "Let's just keep it to female nudes, no male nudes, because I just know from my experience with art performance that a lot of men simply can't handle a male nude." One of the things that is also exciting about Los Angeles right now is the convergence between media, progressive mass culture and the avant-garde. It is more interesting in Los Angeles or Hollywood than in any other place on earth.

AAS Jay-Z talking about Basquiat and Warhol in his songs. Or, Iron Man having beautiful paintings.
JD That's right. A number of artists are making films and getting directly into mass culture, while film-makers also want to get into the art space. Michel Gondry and some of my musical heroes, Daft Punk, live in Los Angeles and have a dialogue about contemporary art. We hope to do something. We have just had an incredible exhibition with Hedi Slimane.

AAS Obviously you're rooted in contemporary art. Did you ever consider working in any other field of the art world?
JD Well, in my years as a private dealer, I did a lot with Old Masters and tried to keep educating myself about the whole of art history. What's interesting is  what made art radical 150 years ago is very similar to what makes it radical now.

AAS Especially in a city like Los Angeles. You can visit the Getty or LACMA and just as easily cross over to see Cai Guo-Qiang creating his artwork at MOCA.
JD There's another very interesting thing in Los Angeles - all this strange, vernacular culture. Automobile customising, low riders, religious cults and mysticism. We just had a retrospective on a great innovator in independent film, Kenneth Anger.

AAS What is next for you?
JD  More projects and work on an exhibition I'm very excited about. A show about new abstract painting, entitled "The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol." I'm tracing a chain of influence from Andy Warhol as an abstract painter through to Rudolf Stingel, Christopher Wool, Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford, Sterling Ruby, Josh Smith, Wade Guyton, Kelly Walker, Seth Price, Tauba Auerbach, Kerstin Brätsch.

AAS A comprehensive show...
JD Yes, but compact enough so that each artist can be shown in some depth. §

  • Jeffrey Deitch - Alia Al-Senussi