Was L.A. Hip Enough for Deitch?

Every divorce story has two sides. Amid the expected postmortems of Jeffrey Deitch’s troubled tenure as MOCA director is a contrarian undercurrent to the effect that L.A. was to blame. The city wasn’t smart or hip enough to appreciate what Deitch was doing.

Aaron Rose—Deitch’s Bulldog, the fount of pro-Deitch quotes for journalists seeking “balance”—told the L.A. Times: “Jeffrey’s resigning is really a statement about what the city is. All people in L.A. want is interior design. They want paintings to put over the couch.”

Jerry Saltz appears to be making a similar point more tactfully when he talks about Deitch being “too ‘weird'” and even “too crass” for L.A.

“It wasn’t that Deitch was an art dealer, though, that set LA off; it was his weirdness.

Vanessa Beecroft's 2000 photo of Deitch Projects artists, inspired by Manet and Paul McCarthy

“Deitch isn’t an art dealer in any traditional sense. At all. His gallery would go from being a salon to a club to a stage show to housing an actual skateboard tube to serious artist surveys to showing the latest street sensation. He produced the band Fischerspooner and helped oversee an event by his artist Vanessa Beecroft, known for her ‘performances’ featuring dozens of naked women standing in stilettos for hours, and Navy officers standing at attention on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid.…

“But LA never took to him. His powerful business sense, the very things the museum needed, scared everyone. It was thought that Deitch would show his own artists in the museum and continue dealing art on the down-low; he was too crass for LA.”

Saltz argues that weird is good and greed is at least okay. He welcomes Deitch’s return to “the rest of us weirdos” in New York.

I never heard anyone complain that Deitch was too weird, nor thought it myself. Crass? Well, there certainly was tons of handwringing over the ethics of gallerist-turned-museum director. It mostly struck me as theoretical. The Hammer’s Ann Philbin was once a dealer, as Saltz points out, and Armand Hammer’s picture ought to be in the dictionary next to the definition of CRASS. It doesn’t affect what you see at the Hammer.

James Franco as "Franco," General Hospital's psycho-M.F.A., with some of his so-called art

I was willing to consider Deitch innocent until proven guilty, and as far as I know, nothing Deitch did at MOCA was ethically objectionable. The worst I can say is that it was kind of creepy how he gave interviews supporting some of the arguably defensible monetization: the James Franco General Hospital shot at MOCA PDC, the Christie’s Elizabeth Taylor auction, the Mercedes sponsorship. Dozens of perfectly awful TV shows and movies have been shot at the Huntington, for cash money. Still, you don’t hear Steve Koblik talking up Iron Man 3.

Angelenos just want paintings to put over the couch? Sure, that’s true of most of them, and of most New Yorkers, and most Tulsans. People with that level of engagement to art rarely visit contemporary art museums. (Come to think of it, they may be the kind of people who go to MOCA only to see a Dennis Hopper show.)

Deitch haters and fanboys/girls alike have often applied the label “populist.” He’s not really that. Deitch is about coolness, not the uncool masses who might take to Norman Rockwell or motorcycles without boys on them. Deitch is the apostle of convergence. The Deitch Projects website speaks of “embracing the new convergence of art, music, performance, film and design.” Throughout his MOCA tenure Deitch has offered similar talking points. “We’re acculturated to the fusion of media now,” he explained in 2011. “Art, film, fashion, music are all going on and interacting simultaneously. And L.A. is very receptive to that fusion.”

Deitch wanted the Tupac hologram for "Transmission LA" but couldn't swing the loan

Was it? Like all manifestos, Deitchian convergence is hyperbole (over)stating a grain of truth. In Deitch’s optimistic vision, the youthful convergence crowd is large and overlaps generously with the traditional museum audience. That may have been realized with “Art in the Streets,” which drew new, young, and diverse audiences to MOCA and was also attended by almost everyone seriously interested in contemporary art in L.A. Some of the latter found it controversial, as it was intended to be. They also found a serious historical survey of a popular art form rarely addressed by museums.

On the other hand, a show like “Transmission LA: AV Club”—a Mercedes-sponsored, Mike D-curated rave that had some good art—was probably skipped by many MOCA regulars. So were the movie star shows.

Deitch’s core problem was that MOCA already had an identity, and everyone associated with the museum liked that identity. But smart, grown-up MOCA wasn’t much like Deitch’s visionary dream museum. Therefore, almost everything Deitch did to nudge MOCA closer to his convergence paradigm alienated his curators, museum supporters, and visitors.

The story of Deitch at MOCA: I love you, you’re perfect, now change. Takeaway: Never marry thinking you can change someone.

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