Diego Cortez in his Stanton Street apartment, 1977. Photo by George Schustowicz. Courtesy ABC No Rio Book Collection.
In the 1970s and 80s Diego Cortez né James Curtis was a conspicuous downtown trendsetter. His stylish good looks, ability to forge relationships with top talents, and a confident air that at times bordered on snobbishness lent an important boost to selected artists and musicians exploring new creative directions during this period.
These early years saw Cortez’s most memorable achievements: helping to found the Mudd Club; promoting “No Wave” music and film; organizing the exhibition New York/New Wave at P.S. 1; and most important, helping to launch the career of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
These are facts that recent obituaries have spotlighted but there was much more to Cortez’s career. Gallery 98 has assembled here a collection of diverse art ephemera that were stepping stones in Cortez’s multi-faceted life as artist, curator, promoter, and dealer. More items can be seen on our website.
Cortez earned a master’s degree in film, video and performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York in 1973. As a performer during a magic show at the Kitchen he pulled a “bloody handkerchief out of thin air” which was later sold at Stefan Eins’ 3 Mercer Street Store as part of the exhibition “Most Items Under $5.”
In the 1970s many of the opportunities for young conceptual and performance artists were in Europe. Soft Need was a German publication that specialized in conceptual art and the Beat Generation writers. Diego Cortez’s acquaintance with publisher Udo Berger landed him on the cover of issue #9.
One of the first downtown artists to gravitate to CBGB, Cortez affiliated himself with the rise of Punk together with his companions, photographer Jimmy de Sana and fashion designer Anya Phillips. The three of them co-edited this special Punk issue of File, a Toronto based magazine.
Diego Cortez, Guard Looking at Museum of Modern Art Press Pass; Special New ‘Terrorist’ Court Room, Photograph, 1978. Size: 20 x 15 Inches.
The left-wing terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany attracted the attention of artists in both Europe and the US. This photo montage by Cortez can be linked to his unfinished film where he and Anya Philips visit sites connected with the group. Cortez and Phillips also contributed an article about the trial of Ulrike Meinhof to the terrorism issue of X Magazine, a newsprint magazine published by artist group Collaborative Projects Inc. (COLAB). Diego Cortez also co-edited and designed the 1980 Semiotext(e) issue “Italy: Autonomia, Post-Political Politics.”
Cortez‘s film “CanXsearch” featured found footage of a cancer operation complete with the eerie sounds of medical equipment. According to the flyer the film was a “conceptual link between art and medical vocabularies.” It was screened at the international art fair Kölner Kunstmarkt (now known as Art Cologne) as well as part of a one-night, multi-media “Punk Art” symposium at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Cortez’s discovery of a large collection of photographs of an uninhibited Elvis Presley posing with women in seedy German bars during his stint in the Army, became the basis of his book Private Elvis. Cortez tried to give the book an intellectual veneer by combining Rudolf Paulini’s photos with cryptic text by Duncan Smith, such as, “By image network devices, Elvis impregnates consciousness and leaves trails behind.”
As “No Wave” music and cinema gained momentum in New York, Cortez teamed up with art writer Edit deAk to introduce some of the music groups and films in Italy. For this four-day festival in Bologna, Cortez selected the Contortions, Lydia Lunch, Rhys Chatham and others, while deAk screened films by Eric Mitchell, Beth B & Scott B, Vivienne Dick, and John Lurie.
When his plans for an exhibition of new New York art fell through in Italy, Cortez turned to Alanna Heiss who agreed to do the exhibition at her alternative art space P.S.1. Featuring over 100 young artists mostly drawn from the fringes of the nightclub and music scene, New York / New Wave spotlighted major changes in the art world. Although most critics did not catch on, Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice singled out Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat as impressive new talents.
Following Jean-Michel Basquiat’s debut at the New York / New Wave exhibition, Diego Cortez helped make the connections that rapidly transformed Basquiat into an art-world star. Cortez’s friendship with Henry Geldzahler was in part responsible for the article in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and the accompanying portrait of Basquiat by the legendary Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee. Cortez also arranged Basquiat’s first one-person show (under the name SAMO) at the Emilio Mazzoli Gallery in Modena, Italy.
Diego Cortez moved into the mainstream art world as the curator of this exhibition at the prestigious Marlborough Gallery. Pressure to Paint was one of the first attempts to bring together into a single exhibition an international lineup of painters who would soon be grouped as Neo-Expressionists.
Gagosian Gallery,Yamantaka Donation, an exhibition to benefit Tibet House New York, Guest curated by Diego Cortez, Folded Card, 1995. Cover image: The Thirteen-Diety Yamantaka Father-Mother, late 17th to early 18th century.
For much of the 1980’s and 90’s Cortez had a successful career curating exhibitions for top galleries in New York and Europe. This benefit for Tibet House at the Gagosian gallery included Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Philip Taaffe, and other artists he had worked with previously.
From 2007 to 2010 Diego Cortez was a consulting curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He is credited with organizing an exhibition of photographs by Patti Smith and donating over 500 works to the museum. In New Orleans, Cortez discovered the work of Bruce Davenport Jr., Lonnie Holley, John Isiah Walton, and other outsider artists from the South, and organized exhibitions of their work in New York and Japan.