Diego Cortez (1946–2021)

June 23rd, 2021

Diego Cortez, the filmmaker and curator known for launching the career of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he met on a dance floor, has died. Patti Astor, cofounder of New York’s Fun Gallery, announced the news on Facebook. A luminary of the Downtown New York art scene of the 1970s and ’80s and a cofounder of the era’s storied Mudd Club, Cortez notoriously organized the groundbreaking 1981 “New York/New Wave” exhibition at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, introducing the broader art world to Basquiat, Henry Chalfant, Sarah Charlesworth, Jimmy DeSana, Fab 5 Freddy, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Kenny Scharf, among others, and ultimately changing the shape of global popular culture.

Born James Curtis in 1946 in the small town of Geneva, Illinois, Curtis moved with his lower-middle-class family to the posh Chicago suburb of Wheaton, where he grew up. While attending Wheaton College, he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater but soon shed his conservative upbringing, acknowledging his homosexuality, founding a chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and majoring in film. He began doing performance art in a largely Spanish neighborhood, and adopted his new last name, Cortez, of which he later noted, “It had a lot to do with social and political content. Racial issues have always been a strong thing to me.”

After obtaining his master’s degree in film and performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied under Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and Nam June Paik, Cortez in 1973 moved to New York. There he held an assortment of jobs, working as a studio assistant to Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci, and as a guard at Alanna Heiss’s Clocktower Gallery. He joined the avant-garde artists’ collectives Collaborative Projects, more commonly known as Colab, in 1977, and in 1978, with Anya Phillips and Steve Mass and a reported budget of just $15,000, he cofounded the Mudd Club, where he met Basquiat the following year.

In 1981, seeking to boost the profiles of the many young artists he knew in the city’s kinetic Downtown scene, he staged “New York/New Wave” at P.S.1. The jam-packed show, which featured 119 artists and musicians of all kinds working across various media—unusual for the time—instantly polarized critics. “Why so many people? Is the art world eager for a possible new wave slap in the face?” wrote poet and critic John Perreault in the SoHo Weekly News, going on to characterize the exhibition’s contents as “tidewrack”—the detritus left behind when the tide goes out. Writing in Artforum, Richard Flood described the exhibition as “paced for an audience with the attention span of a fruit fly” and dismissed it as “large and trashy and unapologetically trite.” “I can tell they’re scared,” wrote Glenn O’Brien in Interview of the art-world old guard. “And why? I think because here is art based on life, not on art. The public might like it.”

The public did like it. Though Basquiat, who died just a few years later, was the show’s biggest breakout star, a startling number of the exhibition’s artists would prove Cortez incredibly prescient in regard to the zeitgeist of the coming years. As O’Brien noted in a 2003 Artforum piece on the 1981 show, “I find quite a few names who went on to serious things: Kathy Acker, David Armstrong, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Byrne, Sarah Charlesworth, Henry Chalfant, Larry Clark, Arch Connelly, Jimmy de Sana, Dondi, Brian Eno, Fab 5 Freddy, Peter Fend, Futura 2000, Jedd Garet, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Duncan Hannah, Roberto Juarez, Bill Komoski, Greer Lankton, Lady Pink, Marcus Leatherdale, Arto Lindsay, Judy Linn, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch, Ann Magnuson, Christoper Makos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Frank Moore, Lee Quinones (LEE), Rene Ricard, Kenny Scharf, Kate Simon, Duncan Smith, Kiki Smith, Steven Sprouse, Ken Tisa, Harvey Wang, Larry Williams, Robin Winters.”

Cortez continued to work as an author, lecturer, and consultant, and as a filmmaker and performer, directing videos for Blondie, Nico, and Talking Heads, and performing with Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass. Though “New York/New Wave” necessarily remained his watershed exhibition, he continued to curate into the past decade.

“I haven’t given up hope,” he told Philip Taaffe in 2009, “because there are always great artists, great minds, and great ideas. New ideas are what give you hope. You have to base your opinions on the quality of the ideas in the artworks. If you are mostly interested in the politics of the art world, the artist’s persona, or the art market, you will find yourself distracted from the essentials. These things,” he concluded, “mean little to me.”