Filling the Hole: Deitch Protégé Kathy Grayson Brings Monet’s Garden Into Her Gallery

And lots of emerging artists

  • Earlier this month, the 31-year-old art dealer Kathy Grayson was in her gallery, the Hole, speaking over a saw buzzing in the background. She was awaiting the arrival of 100 bags of pea gravel, 2,500 square feet of synthetic turf, four types of pond grasses, six cherry blossom trees, three willow trees, five dozen water lilies, dozens of tulips and stalks of bamboo, and a Japanese bridge to stretch over a pond. At the behest of the artists Kembra Pfahler and E.V. Day, she was transforming the Hole, for a month, into a recreation of Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, where the painter spent the final years of his life and painted his famous Water Lilies. Once the garden was complete, she would hang in it 12 photographs Ms. Day took, on an artist residency at Giverny, of Ms. Pfahler posing in the gardens in her role as lead singer of glam-punk band the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black: naked, save for thigh-high boots, head-to-toe body paint and a black wig teased into a two-foot-high rat’s nest.

    Most gallerists would be overwhelmed with the logistics of such an undertaking, but Ms. Grayson seemed unfazed. Which is not surprising, since she’s a graduate of the school of Jeffrey Deitch, and is widely considered to be the dealer’s protégé. During her eight years at his now-defunct downtown gallery and creative incubator Deitch Projects, she was around for large-scale fantasy-land installations like “The Garden Party,” a group show following the theme of the erotic garden, familiar from paintings by Giorgione and Manet. Unlike the Old Masters’, Deitch’s was interactive: Italian artist Paola Pivi made a grassy hill that visitors could roll down. When Mr. Deitch closed his gallery two years ago, to become director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, downtown mourned its loss. Was the fun over? The parties? The concerts? The Art Parade? Many looked to Ms. Grayson to fill his shoes. It’s taken a couple years, but she may be hitting her stride.

    Kathy Grayson grew up in Baltimore. Her father, a nuclear physicist, and her mother, who worked for the Department of Energy, met at an Atomic Energy Commission meeting. (Her older brother is now an executive in alternative energy.) They sent her to the exclusive private school Sidwell Friends, where, as a teenager, she would invite classmate Chelsea Clinton to her parties, knowing that the Secret Service would prevent the police from shutting them down.

    During her senior year at Dartmouth, where she majored in art history and studio art, she came to New York for an internship at the Whitney Museum. At the 2002 Whitney Biennial she had what she later described in an essay as a revelatory encounter with the work of street artist Chris Johanson and the psychedelic art and music collective Forcefield. Their work, she wrote, “explode[d] what we expected from an art experience.” Mr. Johanson showed at Deitch Projects, so, as soon as she graduated, she applied for a job there.

    “She looked like a Dartmouth field hockey champion,” Mr. Deitch told Theme magazine in 2010. “But she had the instinct, the ability to live the art. A lot of people with this academic Ivy League education, there’ll be a gap between them and the work and living artists. They can interview them and write about shows but they can’t really connect.”

    Ms. Grayson could connect. A tall, imposing woman, her girlish voice and loud hairstyle—she’s cycled through a number of electric colors—can belie her serious demeanor. Within a year of starting at Deitch Projects as a receptionist she’d curated the group show “Dirt Wizards” at Brooklyn Fire Proof, in Bushwick. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith praised the show in a capsule review that also mentioned a Deitch Projects show. “I was very impressed,” Mr. Deitch told The Observer. He told Ms. Grayson she should be doing shows like that for him.

    “Kathy established a vision early on,” he said.

    The artists she worked with were part of her social circle, a close-knit community that thrived on collaboration. Among them was the late Dash Snow, who was known as much for his partying as he was for his art. In 2007, Ms. Grayson organized the exhibition “Nest,” which consisted in Snow and Dan Colen filling Deitch Projects with 2,000 shredded phone books, then, during all-night, drug-addled fetes, tearing Sheetrock, urinating and shooting spitballs at the walls. “It was the most radical project we ever presented,” Mr. Deitch maintains.

    Ms. Grayson was living the art. “If by colorful lifestyle you mean drugs, crime and all the naughtiness, then, yeah, there are mega-drawbacks to that shit,” she told SOMA magazine in 2006. “And it takes a lot—sometimes more than I’ve got—to keep it together.”

    “I was in the trenches,” she told The Observer. “Staying out every night, attending everything, meeting with artists, sleeping on floors, going to grad school studios, everything.”

    Through Mr. Snow, she met the Chinese-born Canadian conceptual and performance artist Terence Koh, who remains a close friend. “He brought her to one of my house parties over at my home in Chinatown,” Mr. Koh said over email. “We bonded instantly as we were both really into Chinese wine at that time and finished a whole bottle within the first hour of meeting each other.”

    She put on sponsored events that combined art and music, at one time performing, in full body paint, as part of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

    “They attracted a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in art,” said Zev Deans, who managed Deitch’s branch in Long Island City. “People who would normally be scoffed at by the highbrow art scene. That’s why I liked her. Because she didn’t give a shit, and Jeffrey didn’t either.”