Images Courtesy of Kathy Grayson
When I ask Jeffrey Deitch how Kathy Grayson rose from receptionist to Deitch Projects director, co-curator and co-editor in a few months, he flinches. “Kathy may have worked at the reception desk, but we never had a ‘receptionist’,” he says. “With Deitch projects I tried to recruit staff the same way I recruited artists. Except for an accountant, I never put out a want ad. We were just open to people who presented themselves, and Kathy presented herself.”
I spoke to Deitch on the balcony of his new Los Angeles home, formerly belonging to Cary Grant, overlooking a vast canyon, the Hollywood sign, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s tennis court. New York’s Deitch Projects prominently ended in June, as Deitch assumed directorship of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Grayson took custody of many orphaned, ex-Deitch Projects’ participants with her new gallery The Hole. She was 22-years-old when she began at Deitch Projects and over seven years her voice became inextricable from the mammoth presence Deitch established. Deitch Projects forged an anomalous model, where the gallery didn’t represent a stable of artists, but functioned as a project space, or Kunsthalle, or museum, or maybe circus. Openings were sweaty blowouts and the shows themselves often had nothing for sale.
Both Deitch and Grayson maintain relatively public profiles, at least for art curators. Deitch is 58-years-old this year and has cut something of a celebrity figure, even briefly hosting a reality TV series called ‘Artstar’. He is typically described by the round, buffalo horn-rimmed glasses he designed himself, and his tan suits, fitted by a tailor named Caraceni in Rome for the past 20 years. It is hard to find a picture of him not enthusiastically smiling. Grayson’s photoblog ‘Art From Behind’ documents her quotidian personal and work life, like studio visits, openings, and meals, peppered with private scenes of art world debauchery involving moonings, jello-shots, yachts, and close-ups of her boyfriend’s balls. As a member of the performance art troupe The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Grayson appears on stage in little more than boots, paint and wig.
I ask Deitch and Grayson individually if they see themselves in the other, and they both answer by laughing at me. But when they articulate their fundamental ideas on art, it’s like they’re reciting from the same manifesto. “It’s hard to tell how much of my attitude to art came with me to Deitch and how much grew with Jeffrey,” Grayson says over the phone while walking across town to her new office. “What’s certain is that our philosophies grew together.”
Deitch and Grayson agree the Deitch Projects philosophy crystallized via long, giddy art talks, when Deitch would join the new employee on her Saturday shift at the reception desk. They’d discuss what they were seeing, what they were psyched on, and what they were not so psyched on. “It was like oh my God, did you see this?” Grayson describes the tone. “Like kids excited about stuff.”
They agreed a particular art mood was blooming and Deitch suggested co-editing a book articulating it. Titled ‘Live Through This’, the book offers essays by Deitch and Grayson expounding on the premise of ‘art as life’: that art should be indistinguishable from an artist’s life, that art should be suffused into general culture, that art that referred to other art that referred to other art, was boring. The book shows this kind of art sprouting in wildly different forms and disciplines, beyond MFA programs, and beyond New York City. In the tradition of historical art movements, Live Through This lists the creative precepts Deitch espouses. TRAVEL GUIDE TO LIVED ART includes:
Art is about lived experience
Art is part of a creative, artistic life orientation
Faith in ability to communicate through art…
… Not ironic
… Not depraved
Art as a natural part of pop-culture
… Art not as art historical reference, but as cultural history
Grayson’s essay mentions a particular drawing by Chris Johanson that was the catalyst for her seeking a position at Deitch Projects. In black ink a man crawls on all fours with floppy, furry ears, asking, HOW DID I BECOME SUCH A FUCKED UP DOG PERSON? The image thrust her into panic. “I couldn’t help feeling like I was on the wrong side of this implied dichotomy,” Grayson writes in Live Through This. While studying art history at Dartmouth College, Grayson projected a career as an assistant curator at a museum, maybe even contributing an essay to Artforum once in a while. Johanson’s solo show was coming up at Deitch, and Grayson felt an intense need to meet the artist. “His art was like this blast of sincerity that burst through my weird theory bubble,” Grayson says. “That kind of grounding connection to both people and art. I thought, I’m way in theory land. I’m treating art to illustrate stupid theory. I just hate myself and I hate everything.”
“She didn’t look like she does now,” Deitch gives his impression of Grayson upon her arrival at the gallery. “She looked like a Dartmouth field hockey champion. But she had the instinct, the ability to live the art. A lot of people with this academic Ivy League education, there’ll be a gap between them and the work and living artists. They can interview them and write about shows but they can’t really connect.”
Grayson wasn’t a regular Deitch Projects attendee before working there. Her only knowledge of the gallery came from a theoretical post-feminist college essay she’d written on Deitch artist Mariko Mori. And she knew Johanson had an upcoming show. “I’m just the luckiest person in the world it turned out that Jeffrey created a gallery that any of his staff, if they pursued it, would support them in a big way,” Grayson said. “Anyone at Deitch could have come up with a show, and if it was a good show, we would have done it.”
Deitch’s administrative benevolence is something of a relic from a downtown New York art era that nurtured him as a 22-year-old sometime conceptual artist, freelance critic and receptionist at Leo Castelli Gallery, immersed in 1970s Soho. Deitch arrived in town knowing no one, yet talked a broker into lending him an empty Tribeca space for a month, where he assembled a group show entitled ‘Lives’, with luminaries like Andy Warhol, Vito Acconci, and Jonathan Borofsky, among others. Everybody Deitch asked said yes, despite none having heard of him. The exhibition presented artists whose own lives form the essential element of their practice - the same approach Deitch has inveterately evangelized till today.
Deitch intentionally perpetuates what he feels is the art world’s singular faith in the young and fervid. “People loved me simply because I was interested in what they were doing,” he remembers. “I took them seriously and they took me seriously. I really appreciate how younger people with nothing specific to offer besides their enthusiasm and belief in art are treated with respect by senior people in the field. It’s a wonderful part of the art community and I hope it’s something that’s sustained as the art world becomes larger and more professionalized. It’s something that I appreciate in retrospect.”
Grayson had just begun at Deitch Projects when Deitch spotted a New York Times review of Dirt Wizard, an exhibition she’d put on at Brooklyn Fire Proof Gallery. The show presciently featured artists Grayson continues to work with today, like Johanson, Xylor Jane, and Keegan Mchargue, the Times calling it, “Extremely ambitious, given the circumstances [of the] hardscrabble gallery.” On the same page was a review for an Assume Vivid Astro Focus exhibition at Deitch Projects. Deitch trekked to Brooklyn to see the show, came back and told Kathy she should be doing those shows with him.
“There’s no mystery how Kathy and Jeffrey would’ve linked up,” Johanson says over a gallery office phone in Chicago (he doesn’t have a cell phone). “Kathy shares the same type of passion for art for art’s sake as Jeffrey, which is a lot different than art for consumption sake. It’s a peaceful, blown-up way of sharing art love: A real vibrant appreciation and need to share art with people. Kathy’s a really exciting nice person, and she’s amped. There’s a lot of square energy in the art world, and she’s round. She has circular energy.”
The Deitch-Grayson dynamic had the energy kindled by their aligned ideology as well as what they uniquely offered each other. It wasn’t just youthful energy that Grayson brought, but youth experience. In the 2005 exhibition ‘Super Mario Movie’, artist Cory Arcangel teamed up with collective Paper Rad in the tampering of original Nintendo 8Bit Mario Brothers game cartridges. Removing certain props and disorienting others, the game became a film of Mario crying on passing clouds, flickering fireball patterns, and floating waterfalls. The exhibition induces a particularly emotional response in a generation with vast childhood hours spent in Nintendo’s foggy thrall. Other Deitch Projects’ artists such as Takeshi Murata, Ara Peterson, and Jim Drain, to name a few, work with computer game iconographies that anyone born before a certain year may find spiritually foreign. Deitch points out he’s never played a video game in his life.
Paper Rad member Ben Jones worked on the Super Mario Exhibition, as well as the 2009 Deitch Projects solo show, ‘The New Dark Age’. “Jeffrey’s hung out with the most interesting people in the history of art,” Jones says. “When you see him you think he’s probably just been jogging in the park with Yoko Ono or Mick Jagger. He’s like the Highlander, the guy who’s lived forever. He’s seen everything a million times, so when someone like Kathy reveals herself, he knows, and he knows to align her.”
Deitch also had less interest in partying at that point in his life. He’d paid his dues, counting some of the most unhinged figures in 1970-80s art as friends, like Alan Vega of Suicide, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom Deitch sadly delivered the funeral eulogy. “I’m too old, thankfully,” Deitch says. “When someone like Kathy tells me about it, or brings me things from it, I’m in a position to help her articulate the idea in a larger historical context. That’s really what a gallery like Deitch projects was about. I need to build a circle of brilliant younger people like Kathy who do live that life and we can have a dialogue about it, and because I have so many years living the art life, it’s not alien to me. I get it.”
One manifestation of this is the ‘NEST’ installation by Dash Snow and Dan Colen, where 30 employees spent a week filling the gallery with shredded phonebooks, fabricating an epic Hamster nest for a week of high jinks; spray-painting black power phrases and boners on gallery walls, a Gang Gang Dance performance, nudity, and peeing wherever one liked. NEST ran a pronounced risk of being written off as an impudent indulgence, and of being burned to the ground as a highly flammable tinderbox. At the very least these are risks few galleries can touch, or want to. Deitch ensured assiduous video and photography coverage, and a handsomely designed, thick documentary artist’s book for distribution.
“The book was important, or otherwise the whole thing is ephemeral and dissipates,” Deitch says. “In our conceptual vision, NEST was a project with historical significance. We told Dan and Dash to keep it cool, like no smoking indoors, then when making the book we found a photo of Dash making a torch out of a spray can and there’s this gigantic flame that could have ignited the place and all our art storage and people inside. With 15 years of these projects being really extreme, and dangerous with the crowds, we were miraculously blessed with little incident.”
Deitch’s tolerance of his artists’ mischief extends to Grayson, whose Art From Behind blog has offered unbridled disses to many outside exhibitions, museums, artists, and publications - extending to the occasional Deitch Projects endeavor. “I think it’s funny,” Deitch says, but then adds, “I did try to say to Kathy, please don’t do this!”
One example is Grayson’s resistance to the Shepard Fairey show marking Deitch Projects’ finale. “I’m a graffiti person. I love graffiti and the tradition, and if you love graffiti you naturally hate street art, because it’s the opposite of everything you love about graffiti,” Grayson says. One blog post titled, ‘A diss to build a dream on’ gloats in the mural being a tagging target. Besides her personal take on the show, Grayson defers to Deitch’s conceptual vision in hosting it: “Because of the Obama poster, Shepard was for a moment the most famous artist in America, and that pressed Jeffrey’s Warhol buttons. I think he was interested in an artist that was the most well known artist in America and had never had a solo show in New York. It’s a genuine and valid approach, and very Jeffrey.”
Now that Grayson is at the rudder of the Hole Gallery, she’s even more in awe of Deitch’s erstwhile captaincy. Especially impressive is Deitch Projects’ ostensibly long and seamless financial stability. At 24, Deitch left his beloved New York art scene to get a Masters of Business Administration degree at Harvard. He went on to manage Citibank’s first art investment advisory department, spearheading an art advisory industry. Deitch Projects’ magic was Deitch’s penchant for envisioning fantastical exhibitions, and besides having the academic and theoretical background to contextualize them, having the steel business acumen to facilitate them. Throughout Deitch Projects’ lifespan people could only speculate whether Deitch was rich or broke. In fact, nobody could confirm how the hell Deitch Projects functioned. It’s commonly believed Deitch ran the gallery as a personal museum, supporting it through weighty private sales within the second-degree art market. “All of the things I learned about how to produce projects I have to unlearn because Deitch operated in a different business model to every other gallery,” Grayson sighs.
The core of Deitch’s approach was his willingness to do whatever it took to achieve an artist’s vision, no matter the cost. In the early 1990s Deitch was forced to sell a partial interest of Deitch Projects to Sothebys to fund the multi-million dollar production of Jeff Koons’ ‘Celebration’ series. It took three years for Deitch to finally buy it back. “Jeffrey’s approach is the artist is the most exciting thing,” Grayson says. “You got to do the project and then you find a way to pay for it. Jeffrey never said no. He said yes, then scrambled and stressed out and turned grey trying to figure out how to pay for what he’d said yes to.”
This is what Grayson just had to navigate when she instinctively agreed to an artist dinner following the Cody Critcheloe and SSION-BOY exhibition at the Hole. The Hole didn’t have the budget for the restaurant meal, so Grayson ordered a bunch of pizza. Grayson decries the business obligations of being a gallerist, but feels she has no choice. “After Deitch I didn’t want to go work at a museum as an assistant curator, I wanted to keep doing what I was doing, so I was forced to open my own gallery,” Grayson says. “I don’t want to be a curator who travels around the world doing a biennial somewhere. You’re not building the connection and the community that you could be, you’re just this weird, floating, crappy, urban nomad person, who learns a little about everything.”
Like Deitch Projects, The Hole is set up as a project space, and facilitator of projects beyond its walls. The Hole has taken over the Bowery billboard where Deitch Projects organized murals, the current one a spaghetti of tags by Barry McGee, and jibe at the previous mural by Shepard Fairey. Also like Deitch Projects, The Hole seeks out exhibitions that would otherwise never happen. An example is the current Mat Brinkman exhibition, Phantasmatgoria. The last time Brinkman exhibited in New York was the 2002 Whitney Biennial as a member of Forcefield, Brinkman since living alternately on the road and in a Texas trailer park. “I’ve been working for six years trying to get Matt to do a show,” Grayson gushes. “Matt doesn’t give a fuck. He does not want anything to do with the art world. He doesn’t care if he’s in Artforum or if people buy his work. He just wants to make work and he’s found a sustainable way to do that.”
Unlike Deitch’s old, Spartan New York studio apartment, his Los Angeles home is decked out with art with work by many artists whose first New York solo shows were with Deitch Projects, such as Evan Gruzis and Aurel Schmidt. (He tests if I recognize each piece we pass.) Deitch is beamingly satisfied with the Deitch Projects years, and Grayson fits into the completed equation. “I’m happy that among the many things Deitch Projects did, was help Kathy Grayson to thrive,” he says. “Just as much as helping to support the career of names like Tauba Auerbach or Barry Mcgee, I like to think we helped launch the career of Kathy Grayson. That’s one of our accomplishments.”