Experience, of course, plays a significant role! I clearly benefited from my many years of working as an art critic and journalist for newspapers as well as for art and architecture magazines. This required me to quickly grasp the essential features of any exhibition, of any work of art, and of any “artistic situation”. An additional asset in my specific case was the trained eye that I had acquired as a scientific travel guide (predominantly in Mediterranean cultures), which was one of the jobs I financed my art studies with. If you are traveling through Northern Spain on a tour of Romanesque architecture and, after having already visited and described seven Romanesque churches on that day, you suddenly stumble upon an eighth and a ninth Romanesque church which the insatiable travel party would like an ad hoc tour of, you swiftly learn to recognize and distinguish the relevant features—or else you’re lost. Added to this come countless art fairs, biennials, and exhibitions of all types, as well as plenty of studio visits and the perusal of (physical and digital) art folders.
The matter is rather straightforward if the “contents”, for example as in the works by Alfredo Jaar, emerge relatively clear and distinct and if the physical form of the work of art is authentically and aesthetically convincing in reflecting its fundamental idea. It is easy, then, to “verify” or “measure” whether the artistic realization is successful—that is, of course, if there was an idea in the first place, which sometimes turns out to be a general problem. Some artists only purport to have an idea, without there really being one. In most cases, however, it is possible to trace the idea, whether it is truly original or retrospectively grafted.
Slightly more difficult are such cases where the contents cannot be immediately traced or comprehended (please note: I am by no means demanding art to have “comprehensible” contents!): In these cases, where I am confronted with a potentially endless range of artistic expressiveness, I have to rely on my own, personal set of criteria. For the most part, the artists themselves comment on the presentation, which can comprise anything from the compensatory stream of words as from Mario Navarro on the one hand to the sphinx-like silence in the style of Antonio Dias on the other hand.
Assessing those in between
Immediately recognizing truly good art is not the problem. I managed as much in the instance of several artists who were very young at the time, such as the Carpinteros, Adán Vallecillo, or Javier Castro. It is also no problem to instantly see bad art for what it is. The actual challenge that requires a good degree of instinct & intuition is how to handle the wide range of works that are “in between” – by far the greatest part of the entire art production. Here, it was my task to detect talents early on and in time, and to gauge as yet inadequately realized potential, impeded by whatever circumstances. I closely watched many artists from this group, constantly hoping or expecting to see them bring forth a piece of art that would meet my criteria and that would not already be reserved for other clients.
There are those who hold back …
It is not always easy to establish the basis of trust for the artists to show all of their work; and having established the necessary confidence does not automatically imply that the artists will also sell, particularly if they can financially afford not to sell everything they produce. No doubt, there are quite a few artists who purposefully “suppress” the existence of certain works out of cunning calculation. This is absolutely legitimate. In fact, artists should never run the risk of completely divesting themselves of all their works, but rather always retain a few pieces from each creative phase in order to be prepared for unforeseen events.
There are artists such as Mario Cravo Neto, who did not need to sell. It was only after we became personally well acquainted that he opened his photographic archives to me, from which we then selected works together. Or León Ferrari, who clearly anticipated his upcoming market success and the associated rise in his oeuvre’s value in the beginning of this century: he economized his resources and only sold sparingly. The same holds true for Carlos Cruz-Diez, who was crystal clear about whom, when, and why he would offer which and how many of his early works.
… and those who change their minds
It is not uncommon for artists to be uncertain about the quality of their works. Usually, then, they simply will not show the pieces they are not really convinced of. Some who have become famous in their lifetime for their earlier works might try to sell a more recent, inferior product. This happened to me with Marta Minujín in Buenos Aires in 2006, which was not exactly boom time for her. She wanted absolutely nothing to do anymore with her splendid artistic past and tried to coax me into buying some unspeakable sculptures instead. It took me tremendous effort to have her search through her dusty filing cabinets for preliminary drawings of her great projects such as the Parthenon etc.—which I was able to purchase at a reasonable cost later on. When asked about her famous photo together with Warhol and the corncobs, she replied rather gruffly that she must have lost the negative… Several months later, a gallery offered the glossy pictures to me for an outrageous price. Apparently, the “queen of pop art” had returned to her old values. Today, the photograph hangs in the Malba in Buenos Aires, and her Parthenon of Books shone brightly in the limelight of the documenta 14 in 2017.