When you think about the division been historic and contemporary art it helps to think in terms of decades. Some of the work produced, even at mid-century, was made by artists still working today. For a time, the 1980s served as a kind of barometer. Anything more recent was contemporary and anything older was historic. As that decade recedes further into history, the dividing line is changing.

“This particular period in Santa Fe’s art history is something we’re all kind of familiar with,” says Christian Waguespack, curator of 20th-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art. “But the work hasn’t gotten the same critical museum attention as what we think of as the classics: Los Cinco Pintores, the Taos Society of Artists, or the Modernists. That moment in the ’80s is still kind of in that rough area. It’s contemporary, but it’s becoming historicized.”

The 1980s was a time when Santa Fe, despite its history as an artists’ mecca, grew to a prominent stature in the art market, holding it’s own against the East Coast and West Coast markets. And dealer and gallerist Elaine Horwitch was a part of the reason why. In fact, says Julie Sasse, chief curator at the Tucson Museum of Art, a lot of artists and collectors still refer to the era as “the Horwitch years.”

What made Horwitch, a housewife and mother of five with a penchant for collecting guns, a key player in the rise of Southwest art? It wasn’t just the work she was showing, says Waguespack, but the persona she crafted for herself.

“She was very much this over-the-top woman of the West, kind of embodying what Santa Fe in the ’80s was all about and how we wanted to be seen then,” he says. “It was a very loose and free environment.”

Southwest Rising: Contemporary Art and the Legacy of Elaine Horwitch opens at the New Mexico Museum of Art on Friday, April 16. The exhibit is a New Mexico-themed version of a February 2020 show conceived by Sasse for the Tucson Museum of Art. It positions Horwitch at the center of the rise of so-called “new Western art” or “Southwest Pop.”

Along with luminaries like Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Larry Rivers, she promoted regional artists such as Tom Palmore, John Fincher, James Havard, and Billy Schenck, whose work has achieved acclaim in its own right.

Southwest Rising is the culmination of Sasse’s efforts to resurrect the Horwitch years, which were in danger of being lost to history. Her mission, which began soon after Horwitch’s death in 1991 at the age of 58, was to record for prosperity the stories and the legacy of Horwitch. And she set about interviewing as many of Horwitch’s artists as she could for the 559-page book — part biography and part art historical narrative — before they, too, were no longer around to recount the wildness of the era.

“I think I was going to call the book Art Gal, but somebody said ‘that sounds sexist,’ so I didn’t,” says Sasse, who worked as Horwitch’s gallery director in Scottsdale and Santa Fe for 15 years. “But that was what was on Elaine’s license plate.”

The book eventually became Southwest Rising: Contemporary Art and the Legacy of Elaine Horwitch (co-published by the Tucson Museum of Art and Cattle Track Arts & Preservation, 2020), which inspired the exhibition.

“I think I was talking to our CEO, Jeremy Mikolajczak, and telling him, We have a huge amount of work in our collection that has Elaine Horwitch Gallery labels. He said, ‘I think we should do an exhibition about it,’ and I said, I can put a show together in two days. I kept all these detailed lists over the years of every exhibition I had worked on or that had been done at the gallery. It helps to be a Type A Virgo.”

From Tupperware to Robert Redford and fried chicken

Horwitch and her husband, Arnold, moved to Scottsdale from Chicago in 1955. A housewife, who often accompanied her husband on buying trips to New York (he was in the apparel manufacturing business), she took to exploring the city’s prominent museums on her own. After one such excursion, she decided to embark on a new business venture.

“She came back to the hotel one night and said, ‘I found my career. I want to build a business that’s modeled off of Tupperware,’” Sasse told Pasatiempo in 2016. In place of plastic containers, though, her idea was to sell artwork door to door in Scottsdale. She partnered with her friend Suzanne Brown and started The Art Wagon, loading up her car with prints acquired from other galleries. In the mid-1960s, on the insistence of husbands tired of losing use of their cars, they opened up a small gallery space that wasn’t even large enough to host receptions.

Brown, whose husband was running for Congress at the time, had less and less time for the gallery and so, Horwitch started one of her own in 1973. The Santa Fe gallery opened three years later. The space, on Palace Avenue, is now occupied by Patina Gallery.

“When she came to town [in 1976], I think there were only two contemporary galleries,” says Fincher, who began showing with Horwitch in the late 1970s. “She started out here with Fritz Scholder and two or three other people of renown. Then she picked up Woody Gwyn and me and a couple of other local people. Over the years, her stable grew to a very awkward level of participants. In other words, there was just too much to see. She was very resistant to changing that. I think she just didn’t want to throw anyone out of the gallery.”

She was also not averse to showing more than just art or showing objects that wouldn’t normally be included in an art exhibition. She would buy out entire booths full of tchotchkes from the local flea market and sell them at the gallery at grossly inflated prices.

Horwitch was a savvy businesswoman. She believed in her artists and their talent, and doggedly promoted them. She took out full-color ads in ARTnews, Art Forum, and other national magazines. She was making millions, and her artists were gaining national recognition.

In the 1980s, Horwitch began throwing lavish, star-studded parties at her 8,000-square-foot home on Circle Drive. Sasse recalls one such party, which was attended by exercise guru Richard Simmons. He twirled her around, saying, “Aren’t you a pretty thing?” He was one of the gallery’s many high-profile clients, along with actors Vincent Price, Robert Redford, and Linda Lavin, to name a few. Horwitch even booked major musicians, such as pianist Michael Tilson Thomas, to play at gallery receptions.

“She was a force of nature,” says Palmore, whose work is included in the exhibition, along with works by Fincher, Schenck, Havard, Scholder, Rauschenberg, Nevelson, Rivers, Bob Wade, and Georgia O’Keeffe. “She was very attracted to famous people: everybody from Jack Palance to Goldie Hawn, just on and on. When you were invited to one of her parties, it was like a real event.”

Horwitch, however, didn’t extend her invitations to all of her represented artists. It was something of a brass ring.

“There was a hierarchy,” Palmore says. “It depended what your status was in the gallery. A lot of that depended on sales and personality. Everybody was trying to climb the ladder. If you were in the top five or six, or something like that, then you got to fly in her private plane with her.”

Horwitch was also tireless. She would have an opening on a Friday at her gallery in Scottsdale, show up in Santa Fe for another opening on Saturday, then fly to Palm Springs for an opening on Sunday.

“She loved to have fun, and she loved people,” Palmore says. “She had this kind of personality like a really good coach. A good coach gives you inspiration and has the kind of personality that makes you want to succeed and do the best you can.”

If her artists showed up in the gallery, her response was often along the lines of “How come you’re not home working in your studio?”

“It was all said in jest, but she also meant it,” says Palmore, who met Horwitch in the early 1980s, when his work was included in an art expo in Washington, D.C. He was living in Philadelphia at the time but was planning a move to Santa Fe and to join a local gallery here. “I knew she was going to be there, because I looked at the register.” He had sheets of 35-millimeter slides of his work ready to show her. “Most art dealers would put them on a light box and look at them very carefully before they accepted you in the gallery — if they did. She just held them up and looked at them and said, ‘When do you want to have a show?’ ”

For Palmore and other artists, representation with Horwitch meant exposure. If you had a show in Santa Fe, chances were that you’d eventually have one in Scottsdale and in Palm Springs. But, he says, despite her liberal spending when it came to promoting the gallery and marketing her artists, Horwitch didn’t always make it easy for them to collect on their percentages.

“It was a game you had to play,” Palmore says. “One time I was getting ready to go down to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. I was going to meet the woman I was living with and her brother, but I had to finish this commission first. I finished the commission, and I went to the gallery to get my percentage.”

He pleaded his case, knowing he already had a plane ticket but still needed spending cash.

“Then the game starts, and I’m getting more annoyed by the minute. I got pretty upset and said, Elaine, I know you got paid 50 percent of the commission. I want my 25 percent of that. I’ve got to get out of town.

“She’s hemming and hawing. I got angry and left. I’m walking down the street and said to myself, Wait a minute. I went in there to get a check. I got upset and left without the check. I went back in, knocked on her office door and she goes, ‘Come on in, Tom.” And she handed me the check. That was the game.”

Despite being known for her extravagant parties, an invitation to dinner could just as well mean a meal of fried chicken at Furr’s cafeteria, instead of one at a more trendy Santa Fe restaurant. That’s not because she was cheap. She had a genuine passion for fried chicken.

And hamburgers.

“Elaine loved hamburgers,” Fincher says. “She could tell you anywhere in the United States to get the best hamburger.”

An exhibition with legs

Whether it was dealer and gallerist Paula Cooper showing the works of minimalist pioneers such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre or Larry Gagosian promoting post-war and contemporary artists like Yayoi Kusama and Richard Serra, the names of some dealers are almost as well known as the artists. And no name carried instant recognition like that of Horwitch.

Her memorial service, held at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, was attended by more than 1,000 people: family members, artists, business owners, collectors, gallerists, and other art professionals, employees, and friends.

Sasse writes: “To honor the woman who had touched so many lives and sparked the careers of so many artists, her pilot, Steve Hochhaus, flew their plane over the gravesite and tipped his wing as he tossed sparkling aluminum confetti and a box of doughnuts, her favorite treat whenever she flew.”

It was the end of an era, one comparable, Sasse says, to Paris in the 1920s. At the center of it was Horwitch, a figure comparable, perhaps, to American expatriate, novelist, and art collector Gertrude Stein or, closer to home, to Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan.

The show in Tucson, which came down in September, provided a template for other museums to follow. And it proved to have legs.

“You know, the Horwitch Gallery was right next to the New Mexico Museum of Art, and Elaine’s work really helped start and stabilize the careers of so many artists that we have in our collection,” Waguespack says. “It was kind of a no-brainer that this would be a wonderful thing for us to have here, too. It speaks so much to a bit of the community that’s still here and still a part of the art scene.”

The Tucson exhibition was large enough that Santa Fe required all of the museum’s exhibit space to accommodate it. Waguespack decided to take a different tack. “We were looking for ways to take the core idea of the show and make it more specific to here and focus on New Mexico artists.”

Going through the checklist, he realized a lot of the same artists were already in the New Mexico Museum of Art’s collection.

“One of the things about this show is that there are things in the collection that have never been exhibited before.”

Santa Fe is actually the third iteration of Southwest Rising. From Tucson, the exhibition traveled to the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, and Sasse is in negotiations to bring it to the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio.

“If I had not worked for her for all those years and explained how important she was, I don’t know if it would have even happened,” Sasse says. “But being a part of that scene, and having kept in touch with so many artists, I knew how important the scene was to them. I was able to make that visual again.” ◀

(1) comment

Len Goodman

thank you for this wonderful article. Every summer Elaine threw an amazing Indian Market party at her home on Circle Drive. I enjoyed co-producing this event for many years which ultimately led to my becoming a SF resident. well done!

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