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Street Art at MOCA 

How Jeffrey Deitch convinced an outlaw art movement to show itself for the landmark retrospective “Art in the Streets”

Thursday, Apr 7 2011

Click here for L.A. Weekly's exclusive MOCA "Art in the Streets" roll call.

Like many people, Jeffrey Deitch came to Los Angeles with a dream.

Yes, the troubled Museum of Contemporary Art appointed him its director to help stave off financial ruin. And yes, Deitch had cutting-edge ideas on how to bring new audiences into the institution.

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But one idea in particular had been brewing for more than a decade: a groundbreaking exhibition of street art, the most ambitious show of its kind ever mounted in the United States.

For the show’s elaborate opening act, he commissioned a young, exciting international talent to make the entire north wall of MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary his canvas. It was a bold move — and it was where the reality of street art began to collide with Deitch’s dream exhibition.

Enter the Italian muralist Blu, who created a mural of coffins draped in dollar bills in December. Unsanctioned by the museum and started in his absence, Deitch found it insensitive to the surrounding Little Tokyo neighborhood and the nearby veterans’ memorial, and ordered it painted over.

As Deitch explained in a recent interview with L.A. Weekly, “Blu’s idea when he is invited to do a wall is an opportunity to create a challenging, troublesome situation, not thinking that he’s one of 100-plus people in a joint effort — the point being to come together to make this a bigger thing for everybody, not to do something that undermines the whole project.”

Destruction of the mural brought a thunderstorm of protest from some fans of street art. Others understood that if you choose to do art paid for by an institution, you have to play nice.

This now-familiar saga was only one of many headaches Deitch endured in creating “Art in the Streets,” which opens April 17. Deitch knew the show would be revolutionary, but corralling art world agitators who have little museum experience, few records of their past projects and a general disregard for authority is a tall order for anyone.

The street artists and their fans have had their own anxieties about MOCA treading on their hallowed ground. Whenever a public institution attempts to define a cultural shift, it could very well become an instant cliché.

But when a major museum director offers to shine a light on an outsider movement that’s been waiting to take its deserved place in art history, it’s hard to reject the invitation, especially when he includes street-savvy co-curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose. And while the Blu controversy caused biters to question whether Deitch is fit to shepherd the country’s first major street-art and graffiti retrospective, he is the only man who could have made it happen.

Despite his accomplishments in the art world, Deitch is an outsider to museums, much like the talent featured in “Art in the Streets.” Before his controversial appointment as head of MOCA, in January 2010, the workaholic art dealer and his influential New York gallery, Deitch Projects, helped shape the futures of such contemporary art juggernauts as Barry McGee, Kehinde Wiley and Chris Johanson.

Deitch understands not only art as art but art as business. He’s a Harvard MBA who wears handmade suits yet still has the street skills to blend easily with the artists he champions. He has counted Basquiat, Haring, Scharf and Schnabel as friends.

Saturday nights on Lower Manhattan’s Wooster Street probably are quieter without his raging opening-night parties. But New York’s loss is L.A.’s gain. It’s no surprise that after he arrived in Los Angeles, Deitch wanted to stage something of a dream show that makes use of his resources and draws upon his new city’s high-caliber underground talent. To paraphrase Dr. Dre: You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.

“One of the goals of this show is to place the best of these artists coming out of street culture into the context of contemporary art history,” Deitch explains passionately in the solitude of the MOCA reading room, where, appropriately, Warhol books are strewn about. “I don’t think that there’s some separate category — real contemporary art versus street art. ... [I want] to look at this art in a similar way as a museum looks at new abstract painting. You look for the people that are original, the innovators who have exemplary technique.”

Since the 1960s, the appeal of street art and graffiti has been the way it’s wrenched creativity away from academia and carved out a place for itself and its audience. A visual phenomenon that made its way from the subway cars of New York City to the freight yards of south Texas, this crafted conversation wasn’t judged by any existing criteria, and it appeared whether or not anyone else cared for the subject matter.

Many times, like their audience, these artists weren’t schooled in proper protocol. The work had a language of its own. It was appropriate to hang a painting over the freeway just because someone could get it there.

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