When Jeffrey Deitch opened his gallery in Soho in 1995, his program had promise. He exhibited the great Japanese artist of sound and light Mariko Mori, Chen Zhen’s installation of street latrines from Beijing (a tribute by the late artist to the old ladies tasked to clean them), and the African-American performance artist Jocelyn Taylor, who took over the windows of a whole Soho block to create an ironic red-light district—the highpoint in a career that would dissipate thereafter.
Deitch was fond of calling his gallery “a project space,” meaning, among other things, that he didn’t owe the artists who showed with him much more than a platform. Although he claimed not to represent any artists, he went through a lot of angst trying to hold on to some of them, including the nude-model spectacle-maker Vanessa Beecroft. Indeed, it was Beecroft’s erotic exhibitions that seemed to raise the salivation levels of an aging Jeffrey, careening him into a kind of circus mode.
Soon he was pushing graffiti artists like Barry McGee and his incomparable wife, the late Margaret Killgallen, a remarkable painter, to risk arrest by tagging on the streets near his gallery, and promoting some dubious performances inside it. After the truly inspired dealer Colin de Land died in 2003, Deitch appropriated Colin’s last muse, Kembra Pfahler, and used her to produce art parades, messy parties in a Williamsburg warehouse, and—a good clue to Deitch’s level of hubris—the syringe-filled and shit-stained newspaper environments of Dash Snow. These orgiastic scenes were the product of Deitch’s priapic wishful thinking—and indicated a shocking lack of perspective for a putative tastemaker.
In that role, Deitch adopted the Warholian stance of detached amusement at others’ catastrophes. The apogee, and nadir, of this sangfroid performance was Snow’s overdose in a Bowery Hotel, while his wife and friends tried to find out where he might be. This event, as unnecessary as it was, was treated by the art world as the inevitable denouement of the creative life. But it might’ve said more about the dealer, and the reckless environment he created, than the artist who suffered inside it. It is fitting that Deitch has decamped to Los Angeles, where a garish lack of self-discipline and responsibility for others is the spectacle. I shall not miss him.
Charlie Finch is a art and culture critic living in New York.