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AN ERA PASSESWITH THE DEATH OF ELAINE HORWITCH, SOUTHWESTERN ART WILL NEVER BE THE SAME

Elaine Sweet Horwitch always threw a great party, but her final blowout was unusual, partly because it was so dignified and certainly because it took place without much notice.

Stunned by the sudden death of the gallery owner whose name has long been synonymous with Scottsdale, about 1,000 people last week filed into Scottsdale Center for the Arts for a funeral service more solemn than any previous gathering at which Horwitch was the center.

A lot of the bereaved were artists and would have worn black anyway, even if they hadn't been headed for a wake. They stared sadly at the casket on the auditorium stage, the one swathed in a bright, folk-art quilt that was Horwitch's last flea-market find. They stood around in the lobby afterward, the men in pleated pants and ponytails. Stood around on the cusp of a new age of art in Arizona, one that had begun before Horwitch died but is far more noticeable because she's gone. Stood around talking about "the end of an era."

They may have suspected the era was ending last year, when Marilyn Butler, who opened her gallery in 1978, closed her doors, a victim of the art recession and a venture in Santa Monica that failed. They knew for sure now that Horwitch, who brought together a stable of artists that included Merrill Mahaffey, Anne Coe, Bill Schenck and others who became identified with the "Southwestern style," was also out of the picture.

Over the past year, they had seen Horwitch revamping her gallery's focus and had known something was up.

"Even if Elaine hadn't passed away, there were definitely big changes coming in the Scottsdale art scene," says Julie Sasse, administrative director for Horwitch's galleries. "What used to be in the area is now completely changed."

The "area" she refers to is Marshall Way, the short stretch of pavement lying just north of Indian School Road that, on Thursday nights during the season, is the heart of the opening-night soirees known to their stylish devotees as Art Walks. Marshall Way is probably the center of contemporary art in Scottsdale, where Horwitch and galleries like Lisa Sette and The Hand and the Spirit share the block with Udinotti, C.G. Rein and newcomer Bentley Tomlinson.

Of these, Horwitch, Sette and The Hand and the Spirit have been the most progressive and well-regarded--although there are also numerous art aficionados who have never considered "progressive" Horwitch's fondness for primary-color cacti on canvas, contemporary takes on Native American jewelry and painted wooden coyotes that howl at the sky. These experts have called Horwitch's approach to art "kitsch." "She was not about serious art dealing with overall important issues," says gallery owner Sette, who since the mid-Eighties has mounted elegantly spare shows of cutting-edge art across the street from Horwitch. "She showed things that were funky and colorful and fun."

But if Horwitch was viewed askance by the experts, her influence over the development of Valley art at its best, as it is today, cannot be overestimated. Together with Suzanne Brown, she upgraded Valley tastes and made "contemporary" a palatable word among local collectors whose previous tastes in art had run to realistic paintings of horses. "She probably paved the way for me to be here," says Sette.

She also became a wildly colorful Valley fixture, a respectable grandmother who packed a gun, collected motorcycles and staged celebrations at unlikely moments. (Julie Sasse remembers climbing onto the roof of Horwitch's house with her boss on a night when it was publicized that escaped convicts were loose in the neighborhood. Horwitch brought with her a supply of fried chicken, cherry pie, binoculars and weapons. She devotedly scanned the environs and waved gaily to police helicopters strobing above her. She transformed a prison break into a party.)

She was the woman of enthusiasm and savvy who was at the heart of the most prosperous period of art the state has ever experienced, a period when the work of "Southwestern style" artists--and even unknowns--was sold almost as soon as it was mounted on the walls. "It was like a check-out at K mart," says Sasse.

That period is dead now, and Horwitch, too, and some onlookers have only noticed the one because of the other. Julie Sasse recounts another quintessential Elaine Horwitch story:

"A drunken guy had staggered in the front door of the Santa Fe gallery and was standing in the window, among some carved bear fetishes. He picked up one and put it inside of his shirt. Someone in the gallery yelled, `Stop that man, he's stealing something!'

Elaine said, `Who's stealing? I'll stop him!' And she goes up to him with her gun drawn. She says, `You're under arrest.' And the guy peed in his pants. She wasn't afraid of anything."

When Horwitch was a young housewife and mother, she and the similarly situated Suzanne Brown hit upon an idea that treated art like Tupperware.

It was the early Sixties, and very little that was aesthetic was going on in the Valley. There were only two galleries selling art in Scottsdale: O'Brien's Art Emporium, which primarily hawked realistic paintings, and a contemporary gallery that turned out to be short-lived. Horwitch and Brown asked a friend who was traveling to Europe to buy them about $1,000 worth of good prints and etchings, and they began selling these to their friends at art parties. They called their traveling enterprise the Art Wagon.

After a while, they opened a tiny print gallery in Scottsdale, next door to what was then the Kiva Theatre, and closed it during the summers because there was no air conditioning. They moved eventually to larger quarters on Scottsdale's Main Street, where for the first time they undertook the real business of representing artists--R.C. Gorman, Fritz Scholder, Merrill Mahaffey, Ben Goo, Woody Payne and others whose imagery drew heavily upon the mystique of the Southwest. "It wasn't premeditated and we didn't have a grand idea," says Brown. "It grew like Topsy." The women separated their businesses in 1973, but continued to promote local artists and the contemporary "Southwestern style." Horwitch became known across the country for putting together the "look" of modern Southwestern icons--such as brightly colored wooden animal carvings--that by now are available even in flea markets. She became so well known for that look that it became a problem. Says Sette, "People assumed that all the art being shown in the area was kitsch-oriented, and would often give me a hard time [about representing them] because they didn't take Scottsdale seriously."

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Horwitch's efforts reached a feverish peak. As a trend, the Southwest was becoming popular everywhere, and the national economy was strong. Art was selling at hugely inflated prices. Michael Tomlinson, former gallery director for Marilyn Butler, remembers that art had become the ultimate status symbol: One client refused to buy a painting from him for $40,000 because he thought he could purchase the same artist at auction for $80,000, and that the $80,000 price tag would better impress his friends. The frenzied atmosphere suited Horwitch as much as anything would again. She developed a coterie of Hollywood friends and clients--Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, Vincent Price--some of whom flew into the Valley in their private jets. In 1976, she opened her gallery in Santa Fe, a town that was soon to become Celebrity City.

"Nobody could sell art like Elaine," remembers Tomlinson. "One of the reasons she was so successful was that she was always talking to people. She was always trying to figure out what they wanted."

There was so much energy empowering the Scottsdale art scene, the majority of it Horwitch's, that many hangers-on (and some professionals) mistook all the money and cheek-kissing for a bona fide art movement. They began referring to Scottsdale as a major art center.

In fact, it never was. It benefited for a while from an art economy gone wild and the faddish popularity of the Southwest, but there was no stability beneath all the buying. While the buying lasted, however, Horwitch was its undisputed empress.

"She was so aggressive," says Sette. "She was the queen. I can picture her hiking up that denim skirt, straddling a motorcycle, while screaming at her staff to get her an ashtray."

Sometimes she drew with such bold strokes that people wanted to scream back at her. In one of her rasher moves, she held a "fire sale" during the Eighties and sold the works of artist John Dawson at radically slashed prices. Other gallery owners considered the sale highly unethical, since it devalued the work already purchased at market prices by Dawson's collectors.

But if she didn't please all of the people all of the time, most of her artists loved her. She embraced them with a generosity that was almost fierce and that inspired equally fierce loyalty. Mahaffey has been represented by Horwitch since '79, and newcomers like Kevin Irvin, a young and gifted sculptor, have experienced her belief in them in the form of personal stipends. She threw elaborate parties for her artists on opening nights--flew in famous chefs to do the food, or arranged for Texas-style barbecue to roast all day in pits dug in the backyard. She made the careers of many artists who might have gone nowhere without her.

Horwitch drew in so many artists that the Scottsdale gallery began to play like a department store, where the work of 20 could be found hanging at any one time and a separate building housed the works she was stockpiling.

At one point, she represented more than 200 artists out of four galleries--she had added spaces in Sedona and Palm Springs--while most galleries handle only 10 to 20.

Even before the crash, she and her staff had begun to realize that they were vastly overgrown. Sasse recalls, "I could not get one person to sit and list the number of artists we had, and that is when we said, `Stop.'" Lisa Sette recounts another quintessential Elaine Horwitch story:

"She came to one of my openings in the spring, and she took my [small] kids by the hand and said, `We are going to see some real art.' She put them in a Rolls-Royce and whisked them up the street to her gallery.

And later I asked them, `Which gallery do you like best?'
They said, `We don't want to hurt your feelings, Mom, but we like hers.'
And of course they would. She had all those polka-dotted dogs."

When the international art market crashed in 1990, collapsing beneath a faltering economy and prices that had soared beyond reason, Marshall Way was not immune. Not only had the bottom fallen out of art dealing across the world, but there were many signs that the "Southwestern style" had run its course. "It was dead in the street," says Sasse. That was when the "era" really ended, when it became necessary for Horwitch to change her style. Some radical decisions were made, according to Sasse. The Sedona and Palm Springs galleries were closed and the artist list winnowed to 75. Horwitch determined to sign on more painters, rather than craftspeople, and to require from them a more serious, museum-oriented background than during the heyday, when she'd buy any painting she took a hankering to, from any artist who came in off the street.

She began phasing out the wooden folk art and concentrating more on respected national painters, some of whom she had long represented anyway, but whose work was now considered a safe investment by the careful art patrons of the Nineties. Her last Scottsdale art opening, held September 14, was for Larry Rivers, the gifted, venerable wild man from New York City.

If the choice of artist was measured, however, the party boogied with Horwitch's usual flair. She flew in Rivers and the entire jazz band he performs with, and the wine and music flowed. "It was a statement of optimism," says Sasse. "It said that even though the market was really hard and it was looking bleak on the street, we were still planning to have gallery exhibitions. We could have said, `No, we can't afford this.' But we said, `No, this town needs this.'" You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought that Elaine Horwitch, art lover and marketer extraordinaire, would not have figured out the new realities and made the transition, if she'd had the chance.

Another quintessential story about Elaine Horwitch, from Scott Jacobson, former chairman of the Phoenix Arts Commission and an art-event organizer:

"Years ago I brought Robert Redford to the Valley to a Hopi event. At the dinner, I was at the front table and Elaine was assigned to a table at the rear of the room. That did not deter her from just moving her chair up and sitting with me, much to the amazement of the New Yorkers at our table.

"It is sort of funny that her middle name was `Sweet.'
"I have always admired that kind of balls."

Because she died in her sleep of unheralded heart failure September 21, at age 58, and her family hasn't yet decided whether the gallery will continue, observers of the local art scene are looking around them with new eyes. They know that, even if the Horwitch Gallery remains open, it will lack Horwitch's indefatigable spirit. They are wondering how to fill the hole she's left. In particular, they are wondering who will represent her many local artists.

Sette has picked up artist Roy DeForrest, but does not anticipate anything more. Tomlinson says he may sign up a few artists, but he won't supply a home for Horwitch's many orphans.

"I don't think there are galleries to take up the slack," says Sette. "I think there is not another gallery that has her taste or style. Joanne Rapp [The Hand and the Spirit] is mostly high-quality crafts, and Riva Yares represents dead or dying males. C.G. Rein is too commercial and not even as chance-taking as Elaine was. And who else is there?"

Other onlookers are taking the opportunity to point out that there is a new art center developing in the Valley, one that has never looked to Horwitch for sole support but that was always a little eclipsed by her light.

In downtown Phoenix, a diverse group of serious artists toils away in the Jackson Street studios, Faux Cafe and other warehouse hubs. They are both emerging artists and established ones, such as sculptor Otto Rigan, whose sensuous works in glass and stone sell well but have never been represented locally. They are artists unfettered by any concern with the "Southwestern style," who often work day jobs, who have hung on in Phoenix despite a dearth of galleries and a community that doesn't support them.

"When a scene grows around a financially unsupportive environment, that is actually a much stronger signal," says Rigan. "It really does seem like something is beginning to happen." That "something," although ill-defined, is tangible enough that Rigan and his wife Mayme, also an artist, have noticed recently that they've settled into Phoenix, where before they were always casting around in their minds for a more inspiring art community to move to.

In a strange way, Rigan thinks that Horwitch's death, and the "end of the era" of Southwestern art it represents, may allow a new visibility for downtown Phoenix artists. "I really don't think Scottsdale is the center of art in the Valley anymore," says Rigan. "I would hate to see Elaine's passing as any kind of opportunity, but I do think it's a pivotal point. That is not to say, `Thank God she's out of the way.' It's just to say that a cornerstone is missing, and that cornerstone was pretty effective in terms of defining how things looked.

"Now the new players are beginning to fall into place. That doesn't mean the party is going to be a good one."

It seems a good time to mention, again, that Elaine Horwitch's parties always were good ones.

"Even if Elaine hadn't passed away, there were definitely big changes coming in the Scottsdale art scene."

Elaine Horwitch made "contemporary" a palatable word among collectors whose previous tastes in art had run to paintings of horses.

"Elaine said, `Who's stealing? I'll stop him!' And she goes up to him with her gun drawn. She says, `You're under arrest.'"

"People assumed that all the art being shown in the area was kitsch-oriented, and didn't take Scottsdale seriously."

One client refused to buy a painting for $40,000 because he thought he could purchase the same artist at auction for $80,000.

"I don't think there are galleries to take up the slack. I think there is not another gallery that has her taste or style.

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Deborah Laake