Diego Cortez, a curator who stood at the center of Downtown New York’s vibrant art scene during the 1980s, has died. Patti Astor, who cofounded New York’s Fun Gallery, posted news of Cortez’s death on Facebook, writing, “Another one of the great art warriors is gone.”
Cortez is credited with having helped define an anti-establishment sensibility that pervaded art of the era in the city. Much of this is thanks to his 1981 show “New York/New Wave,” which appeared at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in Queens and introduced the larger public to a star-studded cast of artists, including Keith Haring, Frank Moore, Greer Lankton, Fab 5 Freddy, Sarah Charlesworth, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Jimmy DeSana, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was listed as “Samo” at the time.
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Born in 1946 in Geneva, Illinois, Cortez got his start in Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim’s New York studios. Cortez organized then “New York/New Wave” exhibition with the hoping of showcasing a new generation of artists who had not yet received mainstream attention. It is now remembered as one of the most important shows of the ’80s, given the large number of artists who became famous in the years after the show was mounted.
“It wasn’t really a show about artists. It was a show about the detritus of the music scenes of the time, because the scenes were kind of expiring at that moment,” Cortez recalled in a 2017 video interview about the show.
Even during its day, “New York/New Wave” was greeted as an important event. In Interview magazine, critic Glenn O’Brien wrote, “Here’s a whole new art world ready to replace the old one. Of course the old one is not going to just pack up and move to Chicago because of an art show in Long Island City. But I can tell they’re scared. And why? I think because here is art based on life, not on art. The public might like it.”
But it was Basquiat who emerged as the show’s cause célèbre. Cortez had met Basquiat on the dance floor of the Mudd Club, the Tribeca watering hole Cortez had cofounded in 1978, and struck up a friendship with the artist. For the P.S.1 show, Basquiat created made more than 20 new drawings and paintings, as well as promotional materials. Thanks to his appearance in the show, Basquiat attracted the attention of dealers such as Annina Nosei and Bruno Bischofberger, who put him on a path to market success before his death in 1988 at the age of 27. After Basquiat died, Cortez served on the estate’s authentication committee.
In the decades since, “New York/New Wave”—and Basquiat’s inclusion in it—has become essential to the lore of Manhattan during the ’80s. The Barbican Centre in London and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt have even staged reconstructed versions of Basquiat’s mini-presentation within the show.
Looking back on the exhibition in 2003 in Artforum, O’Brien wrote, “That idea of art coalescing to reach the public without mediation seems so outside the realm of institutional practice it’s practically dangerous. Nutty world, huh?”