Diego Cortez, an influential figure in the arts and music scene of downtown New York who, in 1981, staged a large-scale exhibition featuring dozens of artists who introduced 20-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat died Monday in Burlington , North Carolina. He was 74 years old.
The cause was kidney failure, said her sister, Kathy Hudson. He died in the hospice care of his home but lived nearby in Saxapahaw.
Mr. Cortez seemed to be everywhere in SoHo, Tribeca and beyond in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was one of the founders of the Mud club, a gritty and repulsive nightclub that opened in 1978. He has performed with Laurie Anderson and Kathy acker; directed music videos for Blondie and the Talking Heads; mounted exhibitions of drawings and photographs by rock singer-songwriter Patti Smith; and wrote “Private Elvis”, a book with photographs from Presley’s time in the army that Mr. Cortez found in West Germany.
Then came the Show “New York / New Wave” in 1981. Held at the cutting-edge PS 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS 1) in Long Island City, Queens, the exhibit demonstrated Mr. Cortez’s eclectic knowledge of the visual and musical worlds he had been immersed in since his move to New York City.
He recruited over 100 artists for the show, including Ms Acker, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, David Byrne, William Burroughs, Futura 2000, Ann Magnuson, Fab 5 Freddy and Basquiat, whom he had met on the dance floor of the Mudd Club.
“It was huge – literally 600 to 700 pieces of art that took three weeks to install, using two installation teams,” PS 1 founder Alana Heiss said over the phone. “He was very persuasive: we started with a group of galleries on the first floor and ended up on two floors. “
“Diego was full of unquenchable passion,” she said.
Curt Hoppe, a photorealistic painter whose work was in the exhibition, recalls: “He brought together the upscale and downtown areas, the graffiti artists and the downtown artists, and he hung it in an unusual way , splashing everything on the walls. It was a captivating spectacle. “
He added: “Diego was the epitome of cool.”
In a maximalist show that Mr Cortez is packed with existing and future stars, Basquiat was introduced to a wider world. Known first for his graffiti art, he had transformed into a painter who incorporated images of angular people and symbols with words and phrases. The exhibition, for which Basquiat created around twenty new works, drew him to the attention of dealers. At the time of his death in 1988 at age 27, he was a superstar.
“What makes this work is the intensity of the line,” Mr Cortez said in 2017 when the Basquiat part of “New York / New Wave” was partly re-staged at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. “Jean-Michel was really more of a designer. He keeps this innocent aspect, this childish aspect which is important, because it is a little not adult.
Mr. Cortez remained linked to Basquiat long after the PS 1 exhibition. He organized a few other exhibitions of his work; advised his estate and sat on its authentication committee; acted as a consultant to Julian Schnabel when Mr. Schnabel shot the film “Basquiat” (1996); and played a bit of the role of what the credits called a “fight-fighter at the Mudd Club” in “Downtown 81”, another Basquiat movie, from 2001.
James Allan Curtis was born September 30, 1946 in Geneva, Illinois, and raised near Wheaton. Her father, Allan, was a warehouse manager for a steel company, and her mother, Jean (Ham) Curtis, was a manicurist.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University, he earned a master’s degree in 1973 from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where he studied film, video, and performance art. His teachers included avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage and videographer Nam June Paik.
He changed his name to Diego Cortez before moving to New York City in 1973, adopting it as an artistic pseudonym and as a reflection of the Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago where he had lived.
Once in New York, he worked as a studio assistant to conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim and later to video and performance artist Vito Acconci. Over the next several years, as he became more involved in the inner city music and art world, he held various jobs, including one as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art. The work inspired Mrs. Anderson in 1977 to release “It’s time to go (for Diego)”, a song about how Mr. Cortez, working late at night, told people when it was time to go:
Or, as he said, get them out of their… artistic trances.
People who stood in front of a thing for hours.
He jumped in front of them and snapped his fingers.
And he said, “It’s time to go.
Mr. Cortez’s career after “New York / New Wave” has been multifaceted, but he has never staged another huge exhibition like this. He was an agent and occasional curator; collaborated on projects with his friend Brian Eno, the innovative musician and producer; and was artistic advisor to the Luciano Benetton and Frederik Roos collections. He composed an album, “Traumdetung”(2014), a mixture of music and its snores. And at one point he tried, unsuccessfully, to set up a museum in Puerto Rico.
“Her main goal was to support artists by getting collectors to buy their works or to bring them into museums,” said her sister Ms. Hudson, who has organized exhibitions with her brother at the John Hope Franklin Center in Duke University, where she worked. .
In addition to her, Mr. Cortez is survived by another sister, Carol Baum, and a brother, Daniel Curtis.
Patti Smith, in a telephone interview, said that she first met Mr. Cortez in the 1970s. He then urged her to resume her work on her visual art, which she had in large part. party ceased to continue during a long hiatus in public life. “He was a bridge to help me get my feet back on the ground,” she said.
He helped organize an exhibition of his drawings and photos at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2002 and an exhibition of his photos in 2010 at te New Orleans Art Museum, where he was curator of photography at the time.
“He didn’t like to stand in the light of others,” Ms. Smith said. “He wanted Basquiat to fend for himself. He wanted me to be alone at my show in New Orleans. He was really interested in seeing people he thought had promising flowers.