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Deitch Projects Artists

by Rachel Corbett
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Around this time last year, more than 30 artists got word -- in many cases via the internet -- that their dealer, Jeffrey Deitch, was closing his gallery, Deitch Projects, and moving to Los Angeles to head up the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, and they were all about to be on their own.

“There was a rush to judgment,” said former Deitch artist Dzine (aka Carlos Rolon). “We were all wondering where some of the bigger artists were going to go, like Kehinde [Wiley]. And there was buzz about [director] Kathy Grayson taking over Deitch… and then everyone just kind of went their own way.”

So, where are the artists now?

Well, cutthroat dealers swiftly snatched up the gallery’s biggest stars, like Kehinde Wiley, whose paintings of Old Master-styled black youth can fetch upwards of $100,000. Wiley surprised the art world when he went with the austere Sean Kelly Gallery, where he’ll hold his first show in May. The move was seen as “super ballsy,” at least in the words of Rolon, because Wiley’s grandiose style is not an obvious fit for the gallery, famous for representing Marina Abramovic and Joseph Kosuth. It suggests that the artist might be looking to recast his esthetic, distance himself from Deitch’s brand of youthful irreverence and draw a more international audience.

Meanwhile, public sculptor Jonathan Borofsky went back to working exclusively with his gallery, Paula Cooper, which also nabbed coveted Op-Art painter Tauba Auerbach, and Mary Boone got Jim Isermann -- all “big steps up” for those artists, said advisor Lisa Schiff.

Rumor has it that Auerbach was courted by no less than Pace, 303 Gallery, David Zwirner and Gagosian, but Anthony Allen from Paula Cooper Gallery, which “had been following her work for some time,” said in an email that Auerbach’s “interest in linguistic systems, her predilection for abstract imagery and her versatility across various media” was a particularly good fit with the gallery’s “longstanding interests and choices.”

But, in some ways, the real inheritor to the Deitch legacy might be Salon 94’s Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. The sometime Work of Art judge and former director of Deitch’s old art advisory business in the early 1990s, Greenberg Rohatyn has recruited four of the ex-dealer’s alumni, the most of any New York gallery so far.

“She could be the one to pick up where he left off,” said Schiff. “One of the things Jeffrey was so interested in was art as entertainment -- Jeanne’s not doing exactly that, but she understands it. Even participating in the TV show I think shows that she’s fascinated with trying to understand a new platform for art.”

Even though Greenberg Rohatyn said she builds her stable of artists from more divergent esthetics, mediums and philosophical approaches than Deitch did, she couldn’t resist Deitch video artist Takeshi Murata, whom she’d already approached “many times,” or mechanical and kinetic sculptor Jon Kessler, who was her “first call” when she heard news of Deitch’s departure (“he was just a total natural for us”). Then she gradually fell in love with Jules de Balincourt’s Americana subject matter over a stretch of studio visits. And, though she’d never heard of Rolon before he cold-called her one day, she liked his “socially conscious, totally over-the-top collaborative work.”

Now, the four former Deitch artists have big projects in the works: Salon 94 is featuring Murata this year at the Frieze Art Fair and de Balincourt at the Armory Show in the spring; Kessler’s got a solo show underway for the gallery’s Bowery space in February, and Rolon is at work on a popup nail salon for its Freemans location, opening Sept. 7, 2011, with an accompanying performance piece in the window of the New Museum the next day.

Of course, not everything’s fallen so neatly into place for all of Deitch’s artists. Several still don’t have New York galleries at all.

“Maybe it was to my own detriment that I was kind of off in my own world -- I have two kids and didn’t socialize with the staff and artists,” said painter Kurt Kauper, who has yet to land a local gallery. “New York’s the city I live in so I feel like I should have representation here.”

For now, the much-lauded artist is still showing with ACME in Los Angeles and has entertained a few studio visits. But he’s mostly focused, he says, on creating new work -- large-scale paintings of nude women that are a departure from his longstanding focus on men. “I’m not John Currin or Cecily Brown, so people need to see a body of work.”

“It’s been an interesting year,” added graffiti-inspired painter Rosson Crow, who is showing with Honor Fraser in Los Angeles in February, and said she’s not worried about finding a replacement gallery for Deitch just yet. Indeed, like Kauper, the time off seems to be giving her a chance to take some risks. “I’ve really been experimenting with different stuff and trying not to get stressed out.”

Ultimately, the artists without galleries aren’t necessarily any worse off than those who accepted offers right away. “Picking a gallery in New York is so defining for an artist,” said Schiff. “It can really be a problem if you make the wrong move.”

Kathy Grayson, a former Deitch director and long considered the dealer’s heir apparent, is sensitive to this concern. She’s not announcing the official artist lineup for The Hole, the gallery she co-founded last year on Greene St. and later on Bowery in Soho, until this fall because “I don’t want to stress artists out by locking them into exclusive representation until The Hole gets more on its feet here on the Bowery,” which just opened its first show in June, she said. “I want to give it a bit before I start asking for permanent and binding commitments.”

Still, it’s clear from Grayson’s short exhibition history that she’s following in her mentor’s footsteps, assembling a like-minded menagerie of art-world cool kids. Artist Evan Gruzis, a likely contender for Grayson’s roster come fall, said of the Deitch dissolution that it was “certainly a shock to the system, but also an exciting time for the artists to band together and form a kind of community,” something that Grayson’s been ably fostering.

So far she’s already shown Deitchians Kembra Pfahler, Chris Johanson, Takeshi Murata, Jules de Balincourt, Rosson Crow, Robert Lazzarini, Barry McGee and Steve Powers at either The Hole or her “New York Minute” exhibition at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Plus, she’s got an exhibition from Gruzis on the way this fall, and a Ben Jones show on the horizon after that.

She also brought murals by Deitch icons Kenny Scharf and Barry McGee to the street-art wall on Bowery -- but she may have waited too long to secure those commitments. It was recently announced that McGee signed with Cheim & Read and Scharf has been working with Paul Kasmin for a while now. Another street artist, Steve Powers, has signed on with Joshua Liner Gallery.

In the end, it seems that only a few artists have disappeared inside the hole that Deitch left, but, who knows? Perhaps that’s exactly where they’ll reemerge.

RACHEL CORBETT is news editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email