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

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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.

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Deborah Laake