Art Talk: Jeffrey Deitch On What Makes Good Art
Tell us about curating for Luxembourg & Dayan’s booth ‘Modern Figures’ at Art Basel in Hong Kong?
The best contemporary artists are great students of historical art. Richard Prince said something simple but profound, “Art is about continuity and contribution.” The artist is part of a continuity of artists from history and you cannot have innovation without a dialogue with what’s gone before. Spending most of my time in contemporary art, I try to make time to understand the historic.
I’ve also been involved in writing a book on new figurative paintings and it’s gotten me into thinking of its history; that's where [the ideas behind the curation] come from. There will be a thesis about ‘wrongness’ in modern figuration: the ‘right’ way which is more Pablo Piccaso and Henri Matisse, and a ‘wrong’ way which is a strain from Francis Picabia to Giorgio de Chirico. Many of great contemporary artists who did it the ‘wrong’ way, like Picabia, are very esteemed by the emperors.
Why did you bring this particular group of artists together? Why did you think they would work well at Art Basel in Hong Kong?
We have artists on the "right" side, like Picasso, and then we found two very interesting Picabia transparencies, a Balthus, a de Chirico. I wanted to present this interesting new view. I had been planning to do an exhibition with curator Alison Gingeras at the Musem of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles called 'Wrong Figures'. I left before we were able to do it but I still remained interested in this topic.
Art Basel wanted Luxembourg & Dayan to have this historic programme. I’m old friends with Daniella Luxembourg and Amalia Dayan, who was my intern but quickly became a director because she was so talented. They knew I was interested in this topic and asked me to help assemble the work for the booth and give it an intellectual framework. This is part of Art Basel's commitment to present the historical perspective in addition to contemporary galleries.
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You’ve curated several projects at art fairs recently—this booth for Luxembourg & Dayan and the JR work at The Armory Show in New York. What do you like about art fairs?
The idea of an international festival is something very deep in civilization and the art fair is a very contemporary manifestation of that. Art Basel in Hong Kong might be the most international of all the fairs because people come in from all of Asia, Europe, America. It’s a very efficient to get an overview of some of the best Asian art. They do a very good job of making sure they have the best Asian galleries here.
It’s also a great opportunity to connect with people; so many interesting people are here. There are the dealers, their booths, the collectors and major curators. So you have many interesting conversations and you make relationships here. Around the fair there’s exhibitions and galleries, especially this year with galleries opening in H Queen’s. This is a very exciting time. It would be exciting to be here this week even without the art fair.
You’re once again opening your own gallery this September in Los Angeles. What can we expect?
I’m opening with Ai Wei Wei. He’s an artist with a following beyond just the art world and I want people who are interested in world affairs and refugee crisis and such. The next one will show a new figurative painting I’ve been working on. We will have the space to do museum-level exhibitions. It won’t have monthly shows like the traditional gallery model, instead will be longer on a museum schedule and more ambitious. I’ve actually only programmed one year. I want people to see the space. I don’t want to programme it out three years in advance; I want to have some spontaneity.
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There’s lots of talk about Los Angeles being the next ‘it spot’ for the art world. Do you think that’s correct?
That definitely is correct. Every few weeks I hear of another ambitious young artist who’s moved there. The cost of having a studio there is moderate, so an artist doesn’t have to be in that cubicle in the basement. In New York City, a number of the industries that support artists like metal fabricators and plastic fabricators have gone out of business. In LA, a number of these businesses are still thriving. Artists can still find good fabrics there.
What about Asia—do you have any thoughts about the Asian art market?
Oh, it’s so inspiring. For the past several years I’ve been visiting Shanghai. It is amazing to see the development of art there, from a few years back when there were very few art spaces. ART021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair and West Bund Art & Design Fair were incredibly dynamic. In terms of the global economy, this is by far the most dynamic region.
I’m also impressed by how hard this young audience is working to learn. Almost every gallery has staff of young people fluent in international languages who are able to talk very articulately about the art. You see people taking photographs of the labels so they can look up who the artist is and research.
In the United States, contemporary art is the arena is where interesting people from different fields meet. The famous financiers, movie and music stars, tech geniuses—they connect in the art world. Something similar is happening here. It’s a very special community that is being built around the art.
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What does good art mean to you?
On the first level, a great work of art just has tremendous visual impact. The first ten seconds you’re struck by the visual power. It resonates, and you remember it the next day and beyond.
What separates a strong image from the truly great work of art is that the latter is always an abstraction of ideas and concepts. Brilliant artists are great intellectuals with the intellectual power of someone who writes a book of philosophy or a great novel. Tremendous thought goes into the development of an artistic vision; it’s a combination of someone’s personal experience, culture, reading, the other art they’ve seen, and their distillation of art history. Take artist John Currin, who has this sweeping knowledge of art history. There’s such intelligent commentary [in his work] about the past, present, future of art.
So it’s not just visual; the best art you can talk about for hours, even years. I started talking about works of Picasso 40 years ago and there’s still more to say. The best art is timeless.
This article first appeared on hk.asiatatler.com.