A view of Swoon’s “Switchback Sisters” show at the Deitch Project’s space in Long Island City (photo by Luna Park & used with permission)

Now that the ethical issue of Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment as the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has dissipated a little (though there’s still the issue of his personal art collection that remains unresolved), I want to discuss possible meanings of his appointment and where they can — and in some ways, I hope will — lead.

One issue in particular that interests me is the assertion that Jeffrey Deitch had a seminal role in introducing street art to New York. That point has come up again and again probably because it’s one of the primary things that distinguishes his art tastes from those of his gallery dealer peers. It’s a funny thing to hear as someone who has been a careful observer of street art but who usually avoids his gallery. Even though Deitch Projects exhibits the work of artists who are considered “street artists” (Keith Haring, Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Dash Snow, Swoon, and more recently Os Gemeos and Shepard Fairey) I never really cared for his gallery’s take. It may be a surprising thing to say considering how much time and money he spent developing his stable in the field, but while he appeared to revel in the carnivalesque of street art, he always seemed to do it in a way that robbed it of its weird quirkiness, it’s unpredictableness, and ultimately any bite.

A view of the wall across from the Deitch Project’s space on Wooster. (click to enlarge)

When he showed the work of Swoon it felt sanitized, even if it was intensely beautiful. The wall at the corner of Houston and Bowery, which is curated by his soon-to-be-closed gallery (it debuted with a resurrected Haring mural followed by the current Os Gemeos mural) feels precious in the same way that his gallery shows do. The very public spot is flooded with light that makes it appear luxurious, expensive and … well, that word again … sanitized — all things I don’t usually associate with street art. Perhaps it should be expected when street culture collides with high-end gallery culture.

I’m not discrediting what he accomplished as he was able to bring street art to a demographic that hadn’t purchased it before, but he wasn’t the only one. In my opinion, his biggest contribution to the field was the street art outside his gallery, which street artists clamored to fill. Those walls hosted some of the best stuff in that neighborhood and their proximity to Deitch makes me think it was more than coincidental.

But what I can’t stomach is the false notion that he had a major role in street art’s triumphal “arrival” to New York. It’s a falsehood that even Roberta Smith regurgitated in her article in the New York Times a few months ago:

An early advocate of graffiti art in the 1980s, he has more or less introduced New York to its vibrant successor, street art, which originated in San Francisco in the 1990s among artists on the fringe of the skateboard scene.

Too bad it isn’t true. Roberta Smith, who is normally a really interesting critic, has had difficulty with writing about street art before. When she reviewed the Os Gemeos mural she seemed at a loss and resorted to boring descriptions of what she saw with no insight and no critical perspective. I’m guessing she really meant to say that Deitch introduced street art to her slice of the art world at the time but she doesn’t say that. And even that isn’t entirely true.

One of the “Beautiful Losers” (via)

What did Deitch really do? He packaged the “Beautiful Losers” group out of the Bay Area, which included McGee, Johanson, Fairey, for high-end consumption.

The fact is that street art was truly invented in New York, where the perfect storm of an exploding graffiti scene, a sophisticated art scene, a movement to empower nontraditional voices, and a plethora of derelict public spaces sowed the seeds of a movement that was ready to flower. Even if by the 1990s the city’s street art scene was less active it never went away.

For those interested in the early period, a great source is Allan Schwartzman’s Street Art, which was published in 1985! Most of those images will look familiar to street art lovers today. That early generation did things that look remarkably current (versions of wheatpastes, illegal public interventions, culture jamming, … ) and their talent will surprise you. They are an unsung generation and only a few names are familiar to today’s art world, including Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but I hope that changes. The fact that they are not well-known today is why we often see street art that isn’t in fact original but lauded as such by people with no sense of history about the scene (for instance, compare John Fekner c.1980s to unknown artist c.2009).

Left: Don Leicht with one of his “space invaders” he created with John Fekner in the early 1980s at the cutting-edge Fashion Moda in the South Bronx; right: a work by street artist Space Invader on the streets of London, April 2010.

While it’s great to have advocates of street art, like Deitch, in all levels of the art world, let’s not rewrite history and claim he accomplished something he didn’t.

Which leads me to another issue I’ve been thinking about, namely what is Deitch really trying to accomplish? I felt like he gave us a clue in the New York Times profile of artist William Powhida last December:

Jeffrey Deitch, founder of the high-profile New York gallery Deitch Projects, which sponsored a murals project here in addition to its booth, argued that the show’s slick commercialism and the emphasis on celebrity artists simply reflected a broader shift. He described it as “the collapse between the avant-garde and mainstream pop culture.”

He added:

“What’s happening is that there is this completely new audience of young people who are coming to art in the way they used to come to rock music or hip-hop. That’s a very positive thing.”

I have been thinking quite a bit about these paragraphs since I read them online. They seem to reveal a lot about the gallery owner-cum-museum-director’s ambitions. My instinct says it is about creating a new strata of the art world, which has the same relationship to fine art as television has to cinema. We have to face one thing, street art is not the same as what we have come to define as contemporary gallery art. It’s not that street art may not aspire to the same status but that it isn’t always as substantive. The rebellious world of street art simply plays by a different set of rules that involves memes, placement, and populist discourse, to name a few of the distinctions that make its voice powerful and unique. Like all generalizations, these are not always true.

Would Isa Genzken’s “Mutter Mit Kind” (2004) make any sense on a Brooklyn street? (via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk)

The fact is that they are not the same thing and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Often street art looks more traditional than contemporary fine art, in that wheatpastes and poster, can feel almost conservative in their aesthetics, and much of contemporary art would lose its power and status if it was removed from the white box and placed on the street. Imagine a work by Isa Genzken at the corner of N7th and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg — it would be dull and forgettable. Placed in a gallery, Genzken’s work is “activated.” It requires the context of the white box to make it relevant. When street art pioneer Dan Witz began his career in the 1970s, he told me during an interview last year that he experimented by placing objects on shelves around the Lower East Side. He used found objects — batteries, plastic caps, anything really — but no one seemed to realize they were art and since he (or anyone else) ever documented them they disappeared into the ether. Only when he started painting super-realistic objects like hummingbirds on derelict spots around the neighborhood did people start to notice. In a recent conversation with street artist Gaia, he emphasized the point, “You need it to look like ‘art’ so that people don’t overlook it on the street.”

What I’m suggesting is that the language of street art and fine art represents two parallel avenues that may cross, blur, and energize one another but they lead to different destinations, even if sometimes they end up in the same zip code. People talk about Shepard Fairey as a major figure in the street art movement, but his aesthetics don’t interest me as much as his creativity at finding new modes of cultural distribution. Fairey distributes posters online that sell out in a matter of minutes. Other street artists do the same, this is pretty amazing, and they often do it without a gallery system or even an outside service.

If Deitch can find a way to expand the art world and incorporate new groups, modes of production, and ideas into it, I’m all for it. The man has an obvious knack for promotion. He can make things that others may dismiss feel exciting and interesting to a general audience — that’s his skill. The art world today is bigger than ever. In the 1940s, New York’s art world numbered only a few hundred people, by the 1970s (according to Tom Wolfe’s snarky The Painted Word) it numbered a few thousand, and today it is probably in the tens of thousands, if not more. With the bigger industry and audience there will have to be a way to feed their hunger for art. Like what happened with cinema during the advent of television, new forms will emerge. At first they may seem awkward and puerile, but eventually they will mature and be a force in their own right. Today, in the era of reality TV, art house cinema still exists, as does the Hollywood blockbuster, the experimental film, and YouTube. They are all parallel, though some may not stand the test of time. But contemporary art is just that, about now, and the more the merrier in my opinion, but don’t expect all of it to be good.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

24 replies on “The Emergence of Real Pop Art: Jeffrey Deitch & Street Art”

  1. Thanks for pointing out that 1980’s street art book. I’ve just ordered a copy.

    Great points about how the context in which you place art can change it’s meaning and importance. I try making this argument all the time, but less eloquently. And I didn’t realize that Dan Witz had started out working with found objects.

    1. Hey RJ, Btw, visited with Elbowtoe today and say the drawing he did of you, looks awesome. Also, Dan Witz said he might try that did type of art again but the first time around no one even noticed. KInd of funny.

      … sorry, my spellcheck changed the word I typed before.

      1. I love how the collage he did of me turned out. He’s getting better and better.

        Dan could try again, but I don’t think anybody will notice unless he signs them or something. Brad Downey has definitely smashed random windows and called it art, but I’ve never seen anybody taking photos or otherwise noticing after the fact.

  2. Interesting article – Tony Shafrazi got there first!

    The group show of Barry McGee, Espo and Reas at Deitch in 2000 was very important. With Barry McGee’s recommendation, it was enough to persuade Os Gemeos and others to be represented by Deitch.

    In my lectures I always quote the Allan Schwartzman book to explain how so much has already gone before.

    Not quite as good but a similar era is the book –
    Soho Walls: Beyond Graffiti ~ David Robinson

      1. And of course, Alleged Gallery. If I remember correctly, there’s a letter in the book Young, Sleek and Full of Hell in which Margaret Kilgallen explains to Aaron Rose why she is going to start selling art through Deitch instead of through Alleged.

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