James Curtis never felt like a James, like many great men, James did not become a victim of his circumstance. James Curtis became DIEGO CORTEZ, the rest is (art) history, his own and others he helped co-author. Get your pen and paper out kids, ”Nothing is new and everything is new”.
Interview & Photography MATEUS LAGES
What was your initial involvement in the New York art scene?
I lived first in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (1973) with the photographer Jimmy DeSana, whom I met in Chicago. After arriving in New York, I went to work as a studio assistant for artists Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci, both of whom had come to SAIC as visiting artists. In the 70s I crashed around with friends for 10 years, also in Europe, mostly not having my own place. I stayed with artists, musicians and writers – Betsy Sussler (BOMB editor), Laurie Anderson, David Byrne (while he was touring) and Jane Rosenblum. I joke about my bisexual period in the mid-70s as being somewhat connected to my lack of an apartment. I studied film with Stan Brakhage at SAIC, so when I came to NYC I initially met Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney from Anthology Film Archives. They presented my experimental films to the public and sent me on the road in Europe visiting various cinematheques. My first performance art work was presented at Artist's Space with Laurie Anderson. Other performances followed at The Kitchen. Within two years after moving to New York I decided to stop being an artist and work behind the scenes of the art and music worlds. This led me away from the art world which I felt was too caucasian and into the semiotics scene (Sylvère Lotringer and Semiotext(e)) and the punk and new wave music scenes, where I met new friends like Fab Five Freddy, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was knocked out by the intensity of the graffiti scene, and attended some United Graffiti Artists meetings in Harlem. I felt fortunate to be involved in these emerging underground art and music scenes, including the rap & DJ scenes happening in Harlem and in the South Bronx.
I read that you turned down an offer to manage Madonna...
Yes. I had worked as a manager for some punk bands, also as an agent to Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1982 he brought his then-girlfriend, Madonna, to my tiny apartment at Henry Geldzahler's building in the West Village. Jean said "I want you to make Madonna as famous as you made me." I was amused and skeptical. She played her demo cassette of 3 tracks, "Holiday," "Like a Virgin" and one other, all good. I asked if she had a band and planned to tour. She said "No, I want to travel the country playing at gay discos lip-synching to my songs." I said, "So what do you want me to do, push the button on the cassette player?" It didn't work out. I told her I wanted to curate art shows and not work in the music scene anymore.
How did you make the transitions through these mediums and roles?
The 70s were nice in that the downtown art and music scenes were relatively small. Everyone knew everyone. The % of viable artists and musicians was also higher than today, where we seem to have reached a cultural glut. Life back then was cheaper and without all the sense of speculation that surrounds young people today. Though I was gay in mostly heterosexual scenes, I structured my identity more on what I did than who I was. I have shunned gay culture, especially its music and dress codes, just as much as the straight mainstream culture.
We all hear stories and it sounds like New York was rough back then. Do we experience a watered-down version?
Large cities will continue to experience one mega-disaster after another until vegans and hedonists are on equal footing.
Everyone thinks of their time and youth in NYC were the golden years, will the kids now think the same?
I'm skeptical of young artists today who think they missed out on something incredible during the punk era or the Soho art scene of the 70s in New York. I find new scenes, whether it's the zine scene or the radical farming scenes upstate, or emerging artists and musicians today who are great and inspiring to me. Manhattan has changed, somewhat for the worse mainly due to real estate issues, but it has also resulted in the expansion of new artist neighborhoods throughout all the boroughs which were in need of revitalization.
What made you devote yourself to the arts?
My grandmother dragged me to the theater and museums when I was a kid growing up near Chicago. My parents were not college-educated. They were reverse racists (they criticized and joked about white folk for being backwards and weird). They were not intellectuals but had a sense of decency with regard to racial matters. I grew up in a lower-middle class black neighborhood in a very wealthy white community of suburban commuters. If you've seen the movie Home Alone, you know what I'm talking about. My interest in literature happened on its own. When I was twelve I was traumatized when my mother refused to buy a used set of the Harvard Classics at our Episcopal rummage sale. I cried until I was home and didn't stop until both my mom and dad returned to the church and purchased the set. I read the entire 50 books within the next two years.
I was infatuated by European classical music as a young child and listened to Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. and not popular music at all. I refused a friend's offer of a ticket to an early Elvis concert at the Chicago Stadium in the 6th grade (1957). Ironically, I would later author a book on Elvis. I really didn't like pop music until Motown, then the English mod rockers in 1963-64. My earliest favorite painter was Georges Rouault, which probably explains my current affinity for folk art. I had a few crazy friends as a child, including John Belushi, whom I knew in kindergarten. I played hide and seek with Sam Shepard in the summer at his grandmother's home nearby. Several of my nerdy friends committed suicide in junior high and high school. In college I studied acting with Jean Scharfenberg ("Lee Strasberg and the Actor's Studio"), a craft which came in handy much later closing difficult art deals with hesitant collectors. After progressing as an actor from classical and modern drama to perform in avant-garde plays (Beckett, etc.), I abandoned acting to make performance art works (1970). A professor from Chicago’s SAIC saw one of them and invited me to enroll there. I studied film, music, video and performance art there before changing my name and moving to New York in 1973.
On making the transition from art to curation, are your curatorial works works of art?
Yes. I single-handedly invented the "curated-exhibition-as-a-work-of-art" syndrome. Seriously, I think once you are an artist you always remain an artist, even if you have retired in your role as artist to become a kind of post-artist in the Duchamp or Beuys tradition. I always was thankful that I studied and became an artist first, before becoming a curator, as opposed to most curators who merely studied art history.
How did the 1981 exhibition ‘New York/New Wave’ come about?
In 1980 I was at the end of my fascination for the NYC music and club scenes. A new wave of visual art emerged from this important music and club context and it brought me back to the art context which I had abandoned in 1975-76. In 1978, while living in Bologna, I had a conversation about new developments in NYC with Renato Barilli, the Italian critic and curator, whereby he invited me to guest curate what became New York/New Wave at the Galleria de Arte Moderna. It became an exhibition of 120 artists, mostly emerging artists, sprinkled with some well-known names like Andy Warhol. The show documented the punk and new wave music scenes of the late 70s. The Bologna show was cancelled after some political and cultural regime changes, typical in Italy. I mentioned the saga to Alanna Heiss, PS1 founder and director, and she offered to mount the show there. It opened at PS1 in February, 1981. Several thousand people attended the opening, but I was too tired from installing to attend, so stayed home asleep. The entryway to the show presented ten important late 70s and early 80s graffiti artists (Lee Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, Lady Pink, Haze, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Zephyr, etc.). The balance of the works were either on paper, including photos, or found kitsch sculptures. There were no paintings in the show, except a featured Jean-Michel Basquiat on the last wall in the last room. The show really collected the detritus from the music and club scenes, and not art works made for the art context. Except for Glenn O’Brien’s article in Interview, the reviews were pathetic.
What did the punk mentality contribute to modern pop culture?
Punk has had many repercussions in the general culture. Because of its radicality it represened an anti-bourgeoisie position, both culturally and politically. The 1990 MoMA show High and Low was a decade-and-a-half-late observation of what punk had understood in the mid-to late 70s, or what the 1981 Jean-Jacques Beineix film Diva beautifully illustrated. That is to say, that high culture and low culture were often joined at the hip. Little did we know how potent and relevant the post 60s pop and kitsch art contexts would remain.
Were the arts less accessible before the Punk movement?
The punk movement did impose the notion of street into the aesthetics of high culture. It brought the academic/conceptual art world down from its ivory tower into new semiotic exchanges of language study. When I say language study I do not mean national languages, rather languages emerging from newly emerging scenes – valley girls, drag queens, graffitists, rappers and rockers.
How close knit was the community? What type of people would you see out the the Mudd Club and CBGB’S?
I went to three clubs regularly: CBGB's, the Mudd Club and Club 57. CBGB's was founded by a slightly earlier generation, though many were younger than me. The Mudd Club was founded by my generation and Club 57 was founded by a newer generation. CB's was an anti-music establishment rock club which attracted a high (European filmmakers) and low audience (East Village junkies). The Mudd Club was founded by punk intellectuals, in other words, anti-intellectuals. Club 57 was more infantilist, first in its location in the basement of a church, and secondly for its theme nights, curated by members including Anne Magnuson, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, John Sex, etc. After awhile, there was healthy exchange between Mudd and Club 57 regulars.
You probably can’t get away from the Basquiat and Keith Haring questions. How did you meet them?
I met them at a soccer match in Hamburg. No, I met Jean-Michel in 1978 on the dance floor of the Mudd Club. We became instant friends due to his blonde mohawk and my faux hawk, and our somewhat quirky dance steps. I met Keith in 1980 while researching the Bologna show at his tiny 1st Avenue apartment. He was finishing SVA, and Jon Rudo, my boyfriend-to-be, introduced me to Keith and Kenny Scharf.
You were one of the main protagonists in the documentary “The Radiant Child”. How do you see your role in the rise of Basquiat?
My role was that of enthusiast and friend. I was his agent beginning in 1980 which meant selling his early works to collectors and advising him on dealers, the traps of the art world and critiquing his work. It’s strange that at time I was insistent that Jean's work was not only connected to the graffiti scene, but as his career became anchored in art history, I emphasized his connection to graffiti culture. When Jean left Annina Nosei in the Spring of 1982, he called me to again work together but I suggested to instead introduce him to the Zurich dealer Bruno Bischofberger. A few months later, I had to prevent Bruno from canceling Jean-Michel's 1982 Fun Gallery Show in the East Village. It was the best show he made in NYC. In the final years due to his drug usage I distanced myself from Jean-Michel. When I would see him we were still very close in spirit. After he died, I advised his father with gallery and authentication issues. I am still a devoted friend and supporter of Jean-Michel’s work, but I am skeptical of the cult of personality surrounding him rather than an understanding of his work, as it celebrates him for the wrong reasons.
Watching people rise, fall or die. How does that shape a person?
I have no theories about life in general. The length of life is relativized by the quality of one's life. When I look at the career of Jean-Michel Basquiat, I see a full life, a full art career with an early, mid and later period. When I analyze Keith Haring's career I feel it was cut short by factors less his own doing, without such clear career developments. I do see quality and relevance in Keith's work due to its connection with street culture, graffiti and hip hop.
Who were some of the early artists you knew who didn't receive the recognition you thought they deserved?
There have been some, perhaps many, but I'd rather not mention their names as it labels them as losers which is unfair. There are always possibilities for neglected artists to be rediscovered and for stars to fade.
What way do you approach works by young artists?
I've been lucky to encounter so many emerging talents. I did pay my dues in terms of studying and analyzing art and to come up with my own theories about it. I spent thousands of hours in museums before I began curating shows in 1980. I'm often shocked at how little people in the art world know about art. The ones who know more may still not have their own theories about art. It is important to build your own framework of cultural theory.
Do you ever find new art that is truly unique anymore? All art seems to be heavily relied on reference. How would you judge art that you could not reference?
All art since cave drawings refer not only to other experiences but other representations of experiences. Nothing is new and everything is new. Art that I cannot relate to is usually just bad art. Though it sounds pretentious, I feel a bit like an art barometer.
What motivates you to press on these days and still take on so many projects?
I like what I do and I hate most of what surrounds me.
Where do you see art going in the next few years?
It's better to focus on now. What will be relevant in the future is what is new now.
Is there a benefit to all this commercialization and accessibility?
Not at this point. Only 10 years ago I would have defended the art market as a force to protect and secure artists' lives and well-being. However, like exaggeration in any market, we have gone beyond a balancing point.
Your top contemporary artists? (121 selected):
Sophie Calle, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Ai Wei Wei, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Brian Eno, Ennio Morricone, Issey Miyake, Caetano Veloso, Seydou Keïta, Boris Mikhailov, Hélio Oiticica, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Alice Coltrane, John Cage, Oorutaichi, Alice Waters, Alighiero e Boetti, Marina Abramovic, Mike Kelley, Yayoi Kusama, Ryan Trecartin, El Anatsui, Sun Ra, Willem Dafoe, Nino Rota, Oscar Niemeyer, Wendy Ewald, Thomas Hirschhorn, Diane Arbus, Daido Moriyama, Korakrit Arunanodchai, Richard Serra, Lina Bo Bardi, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Beuys, Kate Valk, Luigi Ontani, Gilbert & George, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Laurie Anderson, Reinbert de Leeuw, Tom Jobim, Cory Henry, Archie Shepp, William S. Burroughs, Jessye Norman, Kara Walker, Hassan Khan, Francesco Clemente, Elizabeth LeCompte, Spike Lee, Larry Clark, Christopher Williams, Stan Brakhage, Pedro Almodóvar, Yoko Ono, Gerhard Richter, Paul McCarthy, Phyllis Galembo, Bruce Davenport Jr., Shiro Tsujimura, Maurizio Cattelan, Os Gêmeos, Pina Bausch, Jean-Luc Godard, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Haruki Murakami, Rosemarie Trockel, Kronos Quartet, Bob Dylan, Abbas Kiarostami, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Rachel Harrison, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Marcel Broodthaers, Sonic Youth, Pussy Riot, Louise Bourgeois, Tadanori Yokoo, Hank Willis Thomas, David Hammons, Luigi Nono, Richard Avedon, Nan Goldin, Terrence Blanchard, William Forsythe, Yun-Fei Ji, William Eggleston, SWOON, Pierre Boulez, Makoto Aida, agnès b, Robert Wilson, Shirin Neshat, Roberto Bolaño, Jordi Savall, Mestré Didi, Philip Glass, Nobuyoshi Araki, Fernando and Humberto Campana, Devendra Banhart, Barbara Sukowa, Paul Virilio, Arvo Pärt, Andreas Gursky, Lou Reed, Neo Rauch, David Byrne, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Shigeru Ban, Arto Lindsay, Kipper Kids, Wu-Tang Klan, Julia Kristeva, CocoRosie, Bernard Faucon, Toru Takemitsu.
This interview was originally published at U+MAG issue nº 103.