Generation Gap: In Defense of Deitch.
There has been a lot of gab around the Los Angeles art scene recently with respect to the resignation of four important artists from the board of trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Over the last week, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha have all left in protest of the dismissal/resignation of chief curator Paul Schimmel. Much has been written over the last days about this subject, mostly criticizing Jeffrey Deitch and MoCA for their current stance in terms of exhibitions and practices, yet I have not heard any from the industry, be it dealers, curators or artists speak out in Deitch or the museum’s defense. I’ve personally had the pleasure of working with Jeffrey Deitch in various situations – both in New York when he had his gallery and then again last summer at MoCA where we worked together on the exhibition Art In The Streets. Over the course of the years I have watched Deitch champion the work of some of the greatest artists of my generation, be it through exhibitions, financial support or the general facilitation of creative ideas. I must stress the words “My Generation” because mine is not the generation of Baldessari, Kruger, Opie and Ruscha. While I have great respect for what those artists have achieved, and I truly understand the walls each has broken down in their particular way, I must admit that for the most part they are not creating imagery that is relevant to the current century. Take for example, Helter Skelter, the 1992 exhibition curated by Schimmel at MoCA that was billed at the time as, “provocative art from a new generation of Los Angeles artists.” At the time of that exhibition that work was indeed provocative and the show was greatly successful as well as controversial. Part of this response was the fact that Schimmel was showing us what was “new” at the time. Many of the artists included in that show, which included names like Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon and Robert Williams, had histories in the low-art vernaculars of punk and car culture. This is exactly what Deitch & Co are attempting to do now…and it is controversial as it should be. As this world is changing it is important for young artists to speak for the time in which we live. While the MoCA served as that for many artists from previous generations at crucial moments in their careers, could it possibly be time to pass the torch to the next? Isn’t this the function of a contemporary art museum? A few years ago Deitch was brought in to invigorate a fledgling program. Under the previous director, visitor attendance was down as were financial contributions. He stepped in at a time when the institution was in a dire position and immediately went to work with a passion for progress as he quickly redefined what this new museum could and would be. For those of us in the younger generation this has been a very exciting thing. There is currently no major art institution in the United States that is attempting a program like MoCA. The modern world is changing very rapidly. An entirely new aesthetic and approach to cultural discourse has now been put into place. Contrary to the academic definition, the 20th Century, while important to preserve, might not be the most “contemporary” thing anymore. Maybe we are entering a post-contemporary world, and the MoCA’s new exhibition program is at the forefront of this new school of thought. While not every exhibition mounted since Deitch took command has been a smash hit, respect must be given for the attempts at experimentation and progressive thought that has gone into each and every show. Attendance numbers have almost tripled since he took the helm. When I travel the world from New York to Paris to Sydney to Berlin, the talk on everyone’s lips is about what is going on at MoCA. The museum is back on the world stage, and not in the eyes of the art world but for people in our creative culture as a whole. The art scene in America and around the world needs this new kind of thought and creativity desperately. While I am a big fan of each and every artist that has stepped down from the MoCA this week, as well as a student of Mr. Schimmel’s curatorial work, I can’t help but think that this is the price of progress. One of Ed Ruscha’s most famous quotes is that “Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head.” From what I can tell that’s exactly the kind of art this new incarnation of MoCA is trying to cultivate…and it seems like audiences are responding. This is something that is not only good for the future of creative Los Angeles, but for the future of art.