Interview by: Kenneth Wahrenberger
“Infinity is alive.”
– Nico in Andy Warhol’s film Sunset (1967)
Sunset (1967)—the sun sets on the Pacific Coast in an ephemeral scene accompanied by the poetic incantations of Velvet Underground singer, Nico. This rare, unfinished Warhol film commissioned by the Catholic Church is one of the latest fascinations of José Carlos Diaz, chief curator of The Andy Warhol Museum. He plans to feature this largely unknown film in his upcoming exhibition Andy Warhol: Revelation, opening October 2019, which will examine the spiritual side of the Pop artist and the ways that religion influenced his artistic production.
Diaz’s passion for revealing unseen works has fueled his curatorial endeavours. He began his career in his Miami apartment hosting one-off exhibitions and collaborating with experimental artists before moving up to organize and curate shows at Tate Liverpool, The Bass Museum in Miami, and, of course, The Andy Warhol Museum.
During his time as curator of exhibitions at The Bass Museum, Diaz worked with renowned artists including Swiss Pop artist Sylvie Fleury, South African performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga, and Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. In 2014, Diaz curated GOLD, a traveling exhibition in celebration of The Bass Museum’s golden (50th) anniversary. Given his deep involvement in the vanguard of contemporary art, it comes as no surprise that Diaz was included on Artsy’s 2016 list of 20 Most Influential Young Curators in the United States. Diaz made his Warhol Museum debut with Go West, the first solo museum exhibition of the dazzling works of Iranian artist, Farhad Moshiri. From his curatorial beginnings to preserving the legacy of Andy Warhol, Diaz discusses his foray into the contemporary art world, working internationally, and what lies ahead in his career.
The Jenny Holzer solo-show at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami (2003) curated by Diaz. Pictured, Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays as multi-colored wallpaper at the exhibition entrance. Courtesy José Carlos Diaz.
What inspired you to be a curator?
Growing up I always had a strong artistic side but I didn’t think I would pursue it as my career. In fact, when I graduated high school I went to the University of Miami in Florida to study international business. I totally flunked the first year. Instead of going back, I took a break and re-evaluated where I would study and what I would pursue. I ended up at San Francisco State University and graduated with a degree in art history—but I didn’t know what to do that either. I did think about teaching or opening a gallery, but I knew very little–when you study art history, you don’t learn business and you don’t learn how to network.
It was not until I moved back to Miami after graduation and completed a curatorial internship at the Rubell Family Collection that I had my first experience in the curatorial field. Through the internship I did an individual project on Jenny Holzer, and I produced a small solo show of her work. I brought her down to Miami, talked with her, and installed her work myself. Through the whole process I really learned what a curator does—it’s about being artistic, while not being an artist. It was about sharing art with the world.
I’ve heard about your curatorial experiment in Miami called The Worm-Hole Laboratory—can you describe this project and how it developed?
After I finished at the Rubell Family Collection, I moved into an apartment near what is now the Wynwood Arts District of Miami. I had a group of artist friends, and I thought, “What kind of space could I use to present their work?” So I decided to turn my apartment into a gallery space and curatorial forum. To me, this space felt like a wormhole, where ideas could jump from one place to another. I also really liked the word “laboratory” because it sounded experimental—like you could mess up and keep going!
From the project’s conception, I decided that any artwork sales from the Worm-Hole Laboratory exhibitions would be directed straight to the artists. The venture was not revenue generating, but it succeeded by drawing a ton of attention very quickly. The big idea of the project was that it could evolve and turn into something else. And it did. I got invited to curate exhibitions in retail spaces and art spaces in commercial galleries. During that time, I did dozens of shows and exhibited over 100 artists. It all came to a stop when I got a job offer to be a commercial gallery curator at Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts Gallery.
The first exhibition at the Worm-Hole Laboratory, titled Haunted (2003), responded to the spiritual realm of Diaz’s apartment. This image depicts a mural by Diego Singh.
In 2008 you moved to England and began working at Tate Liverpool and with the Liverpool Biennial. How has your experience working on the front lines of the international contemporary art world influenced your curatorial practice?
In 2008 I met my husband, but he took a job in Liverpool, England. So I decided to leave Miami and try my luck there. I moved there with a ton of wonderful experience from Miami, but found it difficult to find work in art-related fields. One of my biggest inhibitors to getting a job was that I did not have a graduate degree. I had the experience, but my resume in a foreign country did not have the same weight as it did back home. So I took out a loan and decided to enroll in the Cultural History Masters of Arts program at the University of Liverpool.
Ironically, after I enrolled I got a phone call from the curator of the 2010 Liverpool Biennial offering me a position that involved communicating with a group of Cuban artists, including Tania Bruguera. At the time, there were very few Spanish speakers in northern England, so my translating skills made me the perfect candidate for the job.
After the Biennial, I had an unpaid full-time curatorial internship at Tate Liverpool. I was then hired as a curatorial assistant where I worked primarily on a Doug Aitken project featured in the 2012 Liverpool Biennial. From these experiences I realized that I wanted to stay in the nonprofit world. It’s not very lucrative, but it felt very fulfilling to work with contemporary artists and present their work to the public.
Sylvie Fleury, Eternity Now, 2015. Courtesy of The Bass, Miami Beach. Photo © World Red Eye.
What was it like coming back to Miami after being at Tate Liverpool?
I moved back to Miami in 2012, and within a short time, I accepted a job offer at The Bass Museum as the curator of exhibitions. The Bass has a small, rapidly evolving permanent collection, which allowed me to work with a lot of contemporary artists, specifically in terms of new commissions or shows. Given the small size of the museum and the progressive atmosphere of Miami Beach, I had the freedom to try new things.
I commissioned public, outdoor artworks like a neon sign by Sylvie Fleury that states “Eternity Now,” which is still positioned on the Art Deco façade of The Bass. I also commissioned a performance piece by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga and curated a group exhibition titled GOLD, which featured works with gold motifs by thirty contemporary artists. We also did a show on El Anatsui’s monumental metallic tapestries, whose artwork was recently featured in the 57th Carnegie International.
GOLD exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York 2015. The show traveled to the Neuberger after headlining at The Bass Museum in Miami. Courtesy José Carlos Diaz
Flash forward to 2016 the start of your tenure at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Go West (2017) was not only your first major exhibition at The Warhol, but also the first-ever solo museum show of Tehran-based artist Farhad Moshiri. Why did you choose to exhibit Moshiri, and what was your approach to presenting his artwork?
Much like Andy Warhol, Farhad Moshiri is an art market darling. He regularly breaks auction records in the Middle East Contemporary category, and he has a very strong collector base. However, Farhad is a fairly obscure in the United States. While at The Bass Museum, I worked on a show with the art collection of the architect Peter Marino, and the exhibition featured four of Moshiri’s beaded paintings. It was the first time I had seen that many all together. I thought Farhad was fascinating because he is a recluse—he lives in Tehran, and each work takes months to produce. I had this vision to see a large quantity of his works in one space and when I had reached out to Farhad’s studio, I learned he had never had a museum solo exhibition. I guess a lot of the Middle Eastern curators had distanced themselves from him because the work appeared to be too Pop, too pretty, too derivative. I saw it as the opposite—very complex and loaded with context. That exhibition allowed me to present Farhad’s work to a new audience in the United States, and it also supported the legacy of Andy Warhol and The Andy Warhol Museum.
Your upcoming exhibition Andy Warhol: Revelation will take a deep dive into Warhol’s religious side, using objects from the museum’s s permanent collection. What new perspectives do you hope to convey about Warhol’s life and legacy?
I think it’s important for the world to realize that Warhol was spiritual, Byzantine Catholic, and church-going. It was a very private side of Warhol, but it’s an integral part of his life story. He’s often depicted as a monumental party guy who was very interested in the material world, but this exhibition will explore the hidden complexities of his faith and the ways it impacted his artistic production.
I have chosen a large selection of his works that present Catholic motifs in both explicit and implicit ways. Using our robust archival holdings, I also selected items preserved from his humble beginnings here in Pittsburgh, which reveal the influence of Byzantine Catholicism on his childhood and early years as a young artist. The show will look at the ways that religion may relate to Warhol’s sexuality, as well as his focus on Pop culture, iconic people, and kitsch.
It’s an exhibition that declares, “Yes, Warhol was religious,” but also branches out and looks into various manifestations of his faith to examine why his spirituality matters in the grand scheme of his art. There is limited research on this, but within the small amount of scholarship, there are differing opinions. Some people proclaim that Warhol was steadfastly religious, and they place him on a righteous pedestal. Others deny that his faith was genuine. I think he was a deeply conflicted person, who tried to reconcile his celebrity artist life with his traditional religious upbringings. I hope the art in this exhibition can show that complex relationship.
Go West (2017) at The Andy Warhol Museum featuring the work of Farhad Moshiri and curated by Diaz. Photo by Richard Stoner, courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum.
What do you think Warhol’s legacy will mean for contemporary art and America ten years from now?
There is always a chance that Warhol will fall out of fashion. The art field is so tumultuous. However, I think Warhol will always be referenced. Warhol is our Picasso, he’s our Kahlo, he’s our Dalí! He’ll always be a part of American art history and popular culture. The fact that we keep going back to him is really significant. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s looked at through a new lens once we digitize his entire film collection and it’s made available to a broad audience. Ten years from now there will be a whole new generation of curators, scholars, writers, performers, and musicians who are all responding to Warhol, whether implicitly or explicitly, and they will continue his legacy.