On seeking out the “old” artists of the 20th century at the turn of the millennium, I remember how my question: “Do you happen to know where the well-known artist such-and-such lives nowadays?” would pretty much worldwide produce the standard reply: “Oh, is he/she still alive?”
The rediscovery boom of the “old ones” had not yet set in, so my research on these largely forgotten artists seemed a rather lonely affair around 2000…
…but what a great time I had with the old Latin American artists! It was a true privilege to meet these wonderful energetic people and outstanding personalities. On top of that, some of the works were still available at absolutely reasonable prices.
Carmelo Arden Quin
Take, for instance, the Uruguay-born artist Carmelo Arden Quin (1913-2010), then already well into his nineties and stranded in the banlieue of Paris: what a marvelous, inwardly and outwardly handsome man with his magnificent white beard! I visited him several times, and we had beautiful conversations about life and art. This never led to any big style purchases, though, as the dating of his (and not only his) works from the time of the Grupo Madí around 1950 seemed all too uncertain, so I rather passed up the chance than fall for a fake. Wild rumors circled about the contemporary appropriation by the artists themselves in order to outdo each other with the earliest dated work.
Julio Le Parc
The Parisian banlieue was also where I went to see Julio Le Parc, born in 1928, whose kinetic light art had already deeply impressed me as a youth in my hometown Ulm. In the years to come, our technical curator Käthe Walser was to reconstruct all relevant works of this genre together with Julio to present them in our museum in Zürich in 2005 and subsequently add them to the collection. This eventually led to the triumphant comeback of the previously almost forgotten artist (more about Julio Le Parc’s works in a later post).
Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez
Again, it was in Paris that I met Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2010). He was very friendly and cheerful, and already detached from the artistic everyday life surrounding him. I was able to purchase a few excellent works directly from him and some more later in the art trade. The atmosphere with Soto was and is nothing like it is with his Venezuelan countryman and peer Carlos Cruz-Diez, also born in 1923. Carlos has managed to perfectly and constructively integrate his entire family into the workings of his art production. His sensitivity and his physical, mental, and intellectual vigor were and are downright contagious, in a way that makes you want to be infected by him. Accordingly franc and exemplarily transparent were the purchase negotiations with him, always resulting in a win-win for both parties (more about Carlos Cruz-Diez in a later post).
María Freire, Nelson Ramos, and Wifredo Díaz Valdéz
I was able to meet María Freire (1917-2015) in Montevideo when she had already retired from active art life. We spent delightful hours together. She was a very unassuming person who seemed to live in her own orbit. I also encountered Nelson Ramos (1932-2006) in Montevideo, and I purchased a few important, first-rate works for the collection from him. I even succeeded in coaxing his artistically reworked kitchen door from him, although it took some effort… Unforgettable is the sight of him in his small garden as he prepared a delicious churrasco, much like a sweat-pouring volcano at his forge. It was likewise in Montevideo that I happened upon Wifredo Díaz Valdéz, born in 1932—a very fine, self-confident man, who then counted little among his peers. This exceptional artist, a “philosophical carpenter”, nevertheless made it into the Uruguayan pavilion with his sculptures at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Víctor Grippo and Roberto Obregón
I was only able to meet the famous Víctor Grippo (1936-2002) once, shortly before he died, in Orly Benzacar’s Buenos Aires gallery—too late for a true exchange of thoughts. Roberto Obregón (1946-2003), a Venezuela-based Colombian, was another artist whom I only met once. At least I just managed to purchase a very poetic work of rose petals from him.
León Ferrari, Ennio Iommi, and Gyula Kosice
It was different with León Ferrari (1920-2013), this outspoken, blasphemous artist whose works are the most anticlerical of all I ever saw. Smart, witty, affable, a savvy and shrewd womanizer, he was absolutely aware of his future value even years before his international breakthrough on the art market. Correspondingly tough were our purchase negotiations, which nevertheless yielded a few, albeit smallish results. Things went better with Ennio Iommi (1926-2013), a small chubby man with an equally cuddly wife—a charming couple! We quickly became friendly, and I was able to secure a few of his most beautiful works that were still left—certainly also due to demand not being too intense at the time. Gyula Kosice (1924-2016) was an altogether different story. The eccentric and whacky artist welcomed us in his own, very impressive museum, full of virile impetus and ambitious to the last. A bundle of energy and a devil of a fellow in one person! As with his colleague Arden Quinn, however, the authenticity of a number of his works remained ultimately obscure…