Farewell Deitch: New York City Will Never Be the Same without You

Posted: October 13, 2010 in Non-Traditional Galleries and Spaces, Personal Anecdotes
Tags: , , , , , ,

Dear reader, I have a terrible confession to make: I have been putting off writing this post for as long as this blog has been in existence. I had first discovered Deitch in 2008, while researching street artist Swoon for a seminar class at University, and promptly fell in love with their whimsical website and unique mission. Soon after returning to New York City in June 2009, I went to visit their exhibition spaces and was instantly impressed with everything about Deitch. Imagine my intense sadness when I heard the announcement in January 2010: Jeffrey Deitch, founder and proprietor of Deitch Projects, would be closing up shop in June 2010 to become director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. It couldn’t be! It wasn’t fair! I had just returned to New York City and I was eager to revel in urban art and Deitch Projects was to be one of the mythical gateways that would allow me to better glimpse SoHo’s legendary contemporary art scene.

It was only with terrible longing that came the realization that I really couldn’t put this post off any longer, especially since Deitch’s last associated project had just recently ended. And so, a few days ago, I finally sat down to write this post. After my hiatus, it seems only appropriate that I open with both a tearful goodbye and a thoughtful reminiscence. I apologize in advance for the lengthiness of this post (and the lack of pictures in it), but there was no way, in good conscious, that I could minimize the importance of Deitch Projects. Therefore, dear reader, this post will be my testament and farewell letter to Deitch.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of an era. Mr. Deitch closed the doors of his remaining private galleries, and on October 3, 2010, the last event associated with Deitch Projects came to an end. Having once boasted three primary exhibition spaces on Wooster Street, on Grand Street, and in Long Island City (by 2010, this number had dropped to two shortly before Deitch Projects had closed, as the Grand Street location had closed earlier than the other locations), a wall space on the corner of Houston and Bowery Streets, as well as numerous other temporary installation sites around the city, Deitch Projects, for the past 13 years, has been synonymous with SoHo’s contemporary art scene. For over a decade, Deitch has been associated with the names of prominent contemporary performance and urban artists such as Yoko Ono, Vanessa Beecroft, Barry McGee (aka Twist), Jeff Koons, Dash Snow, Swoon, and most recently, Keith Haring, Os Gêmeos, and Shepard Fairey (these last three actually had magnificent projects exhibited with Deitch just this past year, and believe me, dear reader, I am sorry that I didn’t tell you to go see them as they were happening).

As is to be expected, Mr. Jeffrey Deitch is himself quite the character. Aside from his trademark designer spectacles, he had starred in the 2006 reality TV show Artstar (which, having lacked the personal drama and eliminations that characterize reality TV show competitions, would have been more appropriately billed as a Deitch Project art documentary/infomercial in 8 parts), and is well-known for his eccentricity and enthusiasm for hosting the most fabulously flashy and chaotic events.

The term “revolutionary” tends to be thrown around a lot in the art world (mostly in reference to artists, so I feel a little less guilty about using the word in this context), so trust me, I thought long and hard before deciding to use that word in my writings. However, Jeffery Deitch’s vision for Deitch Projects could indeed be characterized as such. Let me spin you a story: once upon a time in the 1960s and 70s in happenin’ New York City, art was being appropriated by a radical bunch of artists who regarded art as a vibrant expression and reflection of life itself. These artists were seeking non-traditional media with which to represent their radical modern ideas. They were looking to change the very meaning of the word and were inviting everyone to discover the true meaning of art with them. Artists did what they wanted, dammit. Meanwhile, art was springing up in unexpected places and was getting attention from everybody. Throughout the 80s, art became widely celebrated as a spectacle that was no longer confined to museums and as a constantly evolving force that both affected and actively engaged its viewers.

Sometime in between then and now, alternative exhibition spaces and workshops that reflected the lively nature of the art began dwindling in numbers (since NEA funding dried up in the 90s and rent throughout the city began drastically increasing), and the wild art scene matured into a relatively tame fixture in New York City, giving birth to the hundreds of private galleries which now inhabit the Lower East Side in the process. Although they provided a departure from traditional spaces, such as larger museums, the atmospheres offered by these institutions were very much the same (albeit commercialized). The galleries no longer gave the artist total control. In galleries, no matter how contemporary the art, they have invariably come to be entombed in their bland prison cells…I mean, positioned carefully in spotless exhibition spaces that boast pictures in frames and objects on pedestals…which is of course, where they belong.

Deitch however, was no such white box. Deitch Projects realized that the best art came from unrestricted artists, and this made it a good time for everyone in the process. The physical gallery spaces comprised simply of a single white room, true, but it wasn’t just what was in the exhibition space that made Deitch Projects a pillar in the SoHo contemporary art world. The room was merely an anchor, a base of operation, for the numerous projects sponsored by Deitch. In the past, Deitch Projects has collaborated with musicians to create shows (such as Björk, Scissor Sisters, and Fischerspooner), sponsored extravagant annual art parades (seriously, Google some pictures), and affected the aesthetics of the neighborhood by inviting artists to utilize their façade and an otherwise broken-down wall less than a mile away.

Understandably, Deitch Projects attracted the attention not just of the art-lovers of high society and established contemporary artists, but simultaneously engaged a more radical and diverse audience and group of artists. The focus at Deitch was not only on the artwork(s) that inhabited the gallery space and the artist(s) who created it, but in actively rejoicing in the very idea of art through performances and events. By involving those working on the outskirts of mainstream contemporary art scene, Deitch Projects stepped out of the gallery and added a new dimension to the contemporary art scene. Also, by not limiting itself to its gallery space, Deitch Projects had invited a whole new audience to share the experience of art.

So the question remains as to who will champion the contemporary art scene in New York City now that Deitch is gone. Sure, Mr. Deitch has made sure that the artists whom he has represented have found alternative representation, and sure, anyone who has spent more than five minutes wandering around the Lower East Side will realize that there is no shortage of contemporary art galleries to continue propagating the well established and newcomers to the contemporary art scene alike. But as art critic and Paper Magazine senior editor Carlo McCormick has said, Mr. Deitch “understands how a T-shirt can be a signifier, or how being a skateboarder gives you a particular view of the world, or what it means to be a graffiti artist, and…[that] studio practice that isn’t just a shitty, watered-down version of what you do on the street.” And that, my friend, is the keen eye that the SoHo contemporary art scene is now without.

Unfortunately, some don’t appreciate the importance of Deitch’s work in New York City. Critic Bruce Hackney (who was previously the managing director of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Chelsea and now runs his own management company for artists) has accused Mr. Deitch of simply creating a brand name for himself and his gallery. And that brand says “young, hip, trendy, cool: lots of chaos and irreverence.” Apparently, Mr. Hackney believes that radicalism in contemporary art is no longer necessary or relevant. But what you seem to be focusing on, Mr. Hackney, is the style of the creators without the context of their culture. What you seem to be forgetting, Mr. Hackney, is that art isn’t limited to the gallery, and that it is precisely for the reason that art can come from anywhere (even the L train, as much as it pains me to admit) and can affect everyone.

Mary Boone (of Mary Boone Gallery, est. 1977 on Fifth Avenue) has stated that she doesn’t believe downtown’s art scene will change much, despite the departing of this legendary figure. But I think Stephan Stoyanov (of Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in SoHo) understands it best: “It’s going to leave a void. He took a lot of risks over the years- I can’t say that for a lot of our colleagues in Chelsea. For the last several years, if you went to Chelsea, it’s always just painting, painting, painting. Jeffrey was never afraid.” And it’s true, because no matter how you spin it, through his unique collaborations and sponsorships, Mr. Deitch had spent over a decade striving to bring outsider art to the mainstream of the contemporary art scene, and to bring a new audience into the art world. Mr. Deitch was, in essence, redefining contemporary art the way the radical artists of the 60s had done. Through his chaotic events, Jeffrey Deitch was breathing a new life into the New York City art scene. And there is a distinct flavor that will be lost once the remnants of Mr. Deitch’s galleries stop functioning for good.

However, despite what I’ve made it sound like, Mary Boone was right after all: Deitch hasn’t died, he’s just moved on. The artists of New York City will continue to create art and the contemporary art scene will continue to evolve without his patronage. I know that Mr. Deitch will bring his unique energy and revolutionary vision with him to the Museum of Contemporary Art and to Los Angeles, and we wish him nothing but the best of luck there. It’s just that it must be said: Mr. Deitch, New York City will never be the same without you.

Please note, quotes were taken from The Observer article “Dear Jeffrey Deitch: Thanks for Never Being Boring!” from January 12, 2010.

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