Nothing in Jeffrey Deitch’s reserved, even icy manner prepares one for the sheer carnality of the work he shows. The past year alone has seen Cody Choi’s copies of Rodin’s “Thinker” in Pepto-Bismol, Beth B’s baby dolls (heavily alluding to molestation), Emiko Kasahara’s orifice tubes lined with mucous-like silicon gel, Oleg Kulik’s gallery performance living (and defecating) as a dog, and last but not least Noritoshi Hirakawa’s “Garden of Nirvana” of donated ( and very lived-in) panties.
Mr Deitch says his greatest passion is exploring the hot springs of Japan–a far cry from the shock tactics of his gallery, where he appears more like a mandarin of fashionable transgression.
But Mr Deitch is more than just a canny ringmaster. He is also a shrewd businessman who has consistently gambled against the conventional wisdom of the art world and won. After almost twenty years of dealing privately, he opened his first gallery in SoHo last year just as everyone was leaving, assaulting the headlines almost every month with attention-grabbing shows by emerging artists, shows that were derided as sensationalist, but which achieved Mr Deitch’s stated goal of reaching a larger, non-specialist audience.
He also runs a lucrative secondary market business, as well as working closely on the collection of dealer Dakis Joannou, who collects for the Deste Foundation, not to mention his representation of Jeff Koons.
Mr Deitch, who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, first entered the art world in the late 1970s working for John Weber straight out of college. “I learned so much, being constantly around artists like Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt who would really change you.” Before going back to university in the late 1970s, “in part because it was what my parents expected me to do,” he organised a seminal show in a then empty TriBeCa building owned by Julian Preto. (It is now owned by Robert DeNiro and houses Nobu, one of New York’s trendiest restaurants.)
After graduating from Harvard Business School, Mr Deitch decided that “the time was ripe for the idea of arts consultancy in banking,” and he successfully proposed the idea to Citibank.
For the next nine years he co-directed Citibanks’s art services. “It was a combination of traditional banking–providing credit and capital–and an advisory service for those building up a collection.” In 1990 he decided to strike out on his own, focusing on private dealing, working with Jeff Koons and curating an innovative trilogy of exhibitions with the late designer Dan Friedman. “Artificial Nature”, “Cultural Geometry” and “Post-Human” were sponsored by Mr Joannou’s Deste Foundation and helped define in retrospect the art of the 1980s.
As the existing model of the contemporary art gallery failed in the 1990s, Mr Deitch watched and analysed. “First of all, you need a distinctive space,” he says. “It has to be a complete aesthetic experience. You cannot move into a building with thirty other galleries all looking the same.” To this he adds costs: “It is very difficult to make money showing emerging artists. At the same time the cost of representing artists is tremendous, just the archiving alone is a big burden.” Deitch settled on the skylit Fawbush gallery space on Grand Street vacated after Mr Fawbush’s death in 1995.
As for dealing with the artists, Mr Deitch decided to work with artists on “projects” rather than take on the responsibility of representing them. He adds that “if the project works out, and there proves to be a market for the artist, then that can change,” something he says has already happened with Mariko Mori. He has also quickened the tempo with up to one show per month, reasoning that “people come downtown probably once a month, and I want them to see something new and fresh every time they come.”
His biggest gamble now is on SoHo. “If you analyse things logically,” he says, “Chelsea does not make sense. The rents there now are higher than they are here, and the buildings that are left are terrible. Those galleries moving there now are unlikely to survive because, on top of their higher rents, they will have to pay as much as $250,000 in renovation costs. Down here, not only do I have the SoHo Grand hotel across the street, but I am close to TriBeCa and Wall Street, which will become the next up-and-coming area.”
However, he does have a vested interest in this opinion, as he has just bought a former lumberyard one half block down Wooster Street, which he intends to use as a gallery for major, established artists. He adds somewhat unconvincingly, “I guess I will have to go too if everyone leaves.”
Mr Deitch says he is pausing to consolidate, although he also claims to be involved in projects ranging from a major new exhibition curated for Mr Joannou in Athens, called “My World”, to his inaugural exhibition at the lumberyard: a gigantic new installation by Barbara Kruger, in collaboration with Mary Boone.
He has several artists, most prominently Mori and Koons, on display at the Venice Biennale and has just sold several of Koons’s long awaited new works to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Add to this a gallery schedule booked solid throughout 1998 and Mr Deitch’s pauses begin to look like other dealer’s sprints.
As Mr Deitch’s skylit office darkened in the late twilight of a Saturday evening, he explained, “I am here everyday because this has to be everything. Once you start caring more about your country house or your summer vacation, you lose your dynamism as a dealer. You can see it all around you.”