Bruce D. Kurtz, an influential art critic and curator who explored the complex intersection of high art and popular culture and was an early champion of video art, died Saturday in Phoenix of complications from AIDS. He was 59.
Kurtz had been an outspoken activist in the fight against the disease. In 1990, he founded a Phoenix chapter of the organization ACT UP. His position as curator of 20th century art at the Phoenix Art Museum helped lend credibility to ACT UP's consciousness-raising efforts in the largely conservative city.
"In a world populated by institutional drones, Bruce was a lively maverick," said Lisa Lyons, independent curator and former director of the Lannan Foundation, where Kurtz served as an advisor in the 1990s during the organization's tenure in Los Angeles. "Passionately dedicated to both art and social justice, and never afraid to speak his exceptionally active mind, he made an incalculable contribution to the foundation."
Gregarious and urbane, Kurtz typically wore his love of art on an extravagantly attired sleeve.
He began his career in 1966 as an artist who took inspiration from Andy Warhol's work. Kurtz made geometric floor sculptures of laminated Formica -- an inspired choice of material that infused the industrial forms then emerging in Minimalist abstraction with the glamorous yet domestic aura of Pop art.
It was as a critic, however, that Kurtz became widely known. He wrote for numerous publications, especially Arts Magazine and Art in America, where his subjects included such younger artists as Robert Smithson, Nam June Paik, Richard Serra and Peter Campus. He also conducted the first published interview with Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, the Italian collector of American avant-garde art, which appeared in Arts Magazine in 1972. The article discussed Panza's extensive holdings of landmark works by Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg and others, which later formed the basis of the permanent collection at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.
Within a few years of the 1965 introduction of portable television technology, video art exploded as an adventurous new medium for artists. Kurtz became one of its most effective critical analysts and spokesmen. His essay "The Present Tense" is featured in "Video Art" (1976), a standard resource book.
His 1973 essay "Video Is Being Invented" summarized two directions early video had taken.
One was its unprecedented use by artists for perceptual exploration. The other was community television, in which a powerful communications tool previously restricted to corporate control was made available to ordinary people. Blurred boundaries of art, society and pop culture resonated in video art.
Kurtz was in a good position to witness the birth and growth of these dual strains. He was teaching in upstate New York, an epicenter of activity for these new video formats, as well as in proximity to Manhattan, where art publishing was centered. Binghamton's Experimental Television Center, founded in 1971, was the home of perhaps the first video synthesizer, which Paik, Shuya Abe, Charlotte Moorman and other artists used to create eye-bending works of art. The nearby Everson Museum in Syracuse had established a groundbreaking video program.
With Campus, Kurtz also appeared in Hermine Freed's comically incisive 1974 video classic "Art Herstory," which had feminist fun with the male-dominated history of Western art. Kurtz's image was spliced into a Renaissance painting of a Madonna and Child, where he assumed the role of a complaining angel who bemoans the tedium of posing for the unhurried artist.
A native of Bozeman, Mont., Kurtz received a bachelor's degree from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1964 and two master's degrees from the University of Iowa in 1966.
He taught art and art history at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., from 1969 to 1985. That year he left academe to enter the museum world, assuming his position in Phoenix.
"Bruce was our first long-term curator of modern art," said James Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, "and a decade later his impact is still felt daily."
Because of the proximity of Phoenix to Los Angeles, Kurtz became a fixture in the late 1980s L.A. art scene. "I've always had a great affinity for the West," he told the Arizona Republic, "and I wanted to be in a situation where I could make a difference."
In 1992, Kurtz was guest curator for the annual invitational show at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. He also inaugurated the Phoenix Triennial, a survey of contemporary art from Southern California and the Southwest. It featured such prominent Los Angeles artists as John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Jill Giegerich and Judie Bamber, while major works by Mike Kelley, Lari Pittman and other artists were acquired for the Phoenix Museum's collection. The 1993 edition, which launched careers for Texans Rick Lowe and Michael Ray Charles, was described by a reviewer for the Arizona Daily Star as "among the most daring shows mounted in the state in years."
Perhaps the most widely known traveling exhibition Kurtz organized was 1992's "Haring-Warhol-Disney," which traced the legacy of mass-media cartoon imagery from Walt Disney in the 1930s through Andy Warhol in the 1960s and on to Keith Haring, a leading graffiti and post-Pop artist of the 1980s. The show built on several ideas that had originated in slightly different form nearly 20 years before in Kurtz's first book. "Spots: The Popular Art of American Television Commercials" examined its pop culture subject through methods of art historical analysis.
Kurtz was also the author of two college textbooks for Prentice Hall: "Visual Imagination: An Introduction to Art," and "Contemporary Art: 1965-1990," the first of its kind to incorporate a large number of Los Angeles artists into the narrative of postwar art.
Kurtz left the Phoenix in 1994 and moved to Paris, where he had taught American students in the 1970s under the auspices of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He returned to Phoenix last summer.
Kurtz is survived by his parents, James and Mary Kurtz, and a brother, Roger, all of Palo Alto, Calif.; and a son, Kreg, of Arlington, Va. A memorial celebration is planned for Thursday at the Phoenix Art Museum.