Deitch knows everyone, but most people don’t know much about him. Like his hero Warhol, he’s an impresario of almost undetectable brio, a painfully painstaking man, patient with his explanations but only because, one suspects he suspects, you might be too inattentive to otherwise understand just what he has in his mind. He is solitary—a disciplined runner, he’s never been married and answers all his own e-mails—and in 1992, he curated a show largely drawn from Joannou’s collection called “Post-Human,” about the blurring of what is real and what is artificial. It’s a concept he can seem to embody: a kind of abstracted and evacuated person, almost holographic, not unlike his friend Jeff Koons. (“I think he has played the role of a post-human character himself,” says Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum and Venice Biennale curator.) Deitch will talk over people, but politely, unspooling pedagogic insight. That closed-off social affect, for what it’s worth, always annoyed the L.A. Times art critic (and Deitch arch-critic) Christopher Knight, who complained to me that “I’ve sat next to Jeffrey at dinners many times and I’ve never been able to have a conversation with him.”
…“The criticism that he gets sometimes is that he’s critic and curator and finance expert,” says Gioni. “Sometimes he is criticized for being complicit with the market. But he became his own model.” The other criticism, of course, was that he wasn’t actually serious about serious art—or not as serious as he was about the party taking place around it. Which he sort of confesses to: “I do not think that there’s any contradiction between being rigorous, super-serious, and being fun and lively,” he says. “Look at the greatest artists, Picasso. This is the most rigorous, toughest stuff. He pushed and challenged himself, but you see the images of Picasso—he’s having fun, he loves it. Toulouse-Lautrec, this is revolutionary, rigorous art. He’s hanging out in those clubs. He’s going to the Moulin Rouge and having a good time. Of course, obviously, the example of Andy Warhol, the Factory. That’s a fundamental thing, that there’s no contradiction between engagement and enjoying life, and a rigorous approach and disciplined approach to art, and you should be able to do both. Art that’s deadly serious—and some that I respect—it’s not the art that excites me.” [Carl Swanson on Jeffrey Deitch]
“You can’t separate them,” he said, on a drizzly afternoon in his office above Deitch Projects, on Grand Street in New York’s SoHo. “One of the biggest misunderstandings of this is that somehow there’s the art market and then there’s, let’s say, the ‘good’ part of the art world,” such as non-profit organizations or museums, with their educational mission.
“My primary interest is the art itself and being on the side that helps to produce the art,” he said, “but the art business is possibly the most important part of how art is supported.”
At Citibank, Deitch put this insight into practice. In his nine years there, from 1979 to 1988, he pioneered two major industries, art advisory services and art lending, that today are integral parts of the art trade. Rather than disavow the market, Deitch studied it, understood it, and used it to facilitate the work of artists he believed in, largely by encouraging collectors to visit and form relationships with the artists they admired.
“Jeffrey was embracing of the market,” said the artist Jeff Koons, who has known Deitch since the late 1970s. He could see that “it’s not bad if something is sought after and people place value on it.”
…Even before getting his MBA, Deitch saw the art world as “a window on global economics.” His boss, John Weber, was married to the Italian dealer Annina Nosei; he watched Italian collectors buy art as a hedge against Italy’s inflation during the political turbulence of the 1970s. Over the course of his career, he watched as the action shifted to Greek shipping families, American real estate and shopping mall developers, Japanese collectors and corporations, and Russian and Chinese buyers.
When he left New York to attend Harvard Business School, his art-world friends were surprised; he told them he was going to HBS to “to study art criticism,” a joke, he said, with measure of truth to it. [Anna Louie Sussman on Jeffrey Deitch]
Well, I love the excitement of a spectacle and a spectacle is something that it—I like an artistic project that takes on a life of its own, where I did not want to be like a conventional gallery where you put up your show and then you wait for the reviewer, you know, that you just wait for somebody to endorse it. I wanted to create projects that had their own energy, that were talked about, that brought people in, and we started this very early on. One of our early projects notoriously—can we get to the letter D?
…Okay. Well, the economics was very straight, we set a whole system, so each artist who was invited was offered if they needed it up to twenty-five thousand dollars as a production budget. It was very generous for that time. And if you’ve been to the original Grant Street space, it’s very interesting. It’s not that big, the whole plot is 2,500 square feet. The gallery space is maybe a thousand square feet, but high ceilings, and somehow you can do something that appears to be big but it doesn’t get overwrought and it’s something that’s doable, so for twenty-five thousand dollars you can do amazing things in there, and the deal was that we would, out of that funding, give the artist a studio space, assistants, materials, we put on the project, and if we sold it, the money would be reimbursed and the artist and the gallery would split 50/50. If we didn’t sell it I would just keep the project, it would go into my collection. But what happened from the beginning, we actually sold these crazy projects and we—I’ve always felt the economics of art, what you’ve got to do is inspire people, and so if you’re playing it safe, sometimes there are plenty of buyers for safe, decorative paintings and sculpture, but if you really go all the way with somebody, out of all the possible collectors in the world there’s gotta be a few who are going to be inspired and say, “This is amazing, I want to be part of this.” And that’s what happened. [Massimo Gioni in conversation with Jeffrey Deitch]