Santa Fe gallery owner Elaine Horwitch was a firecracker wrapped in mountains of Navajo jewelry crowned in a cowboy hat.
The progenitor of Santa Fe style with her long skirts, cowboy hats and boots, and the pearl-handled pistol cradled in her purse, she launched the careers of hundreds of artists. She also helped establish the Southwest as a nexus of contemporary art.
Open at Santa Fe’s New Mexico Museum of Art, “Southwest Rising: Contemporary Art and the Legacy of Elaine Horwitch” explores that heritage through works by Billy Schenck, Fritz Scholder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, Bob Wade and more.
Horwitch first opened a gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1973, followed by Santa Fe in 1976.
“She made most of these people’s careers,” said Christian Waguespack, curator of 20th century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
“She was a spitfire,” Waguespack continued. “They either loved her or hated her. She had a very cultivated sense of her persona.”
While O’Keeffe affected the image of the black-draped recluse, Horwitch embraced the opposite.
“She did it in a bombastic way,” Waguespack said. “She was loud, she was dominating.”
Eventually opening galleries in Sedona, Arizona, in 1986, followed by Palm Springs, California, in 1987, Horwitch drew from regions steeped in historic and Western art traditions.
“All of these artists were developing artists of the time,” Waguespack said. “They were all doing something new.”
Horwitch and the painter David Bradley likely bonded over their shared sense of humor. His painting “El Farol: Canyon Road Cantina,” 2000, shows a drunken Vincent van Gogh collapsed on the bar while he writes a letter to his brother Theo. O’Keeffe hides in the corner shadows.
“He was laughing at the people who were there, but you’re part of the environment; you see your friends,” Waguespack said.
Horwitch was largely responsible for Scholder’s career. But the pair butted heads over price points.
“At one point, he parked a truck in back of the gallery and undersold his paintings,” Waguespack said. “To get him back, she undersold his paintings in the gallery.”
Throughout her career, Horwitch sold paintings to Vincent Price, Linda Lavin and Robert Redford.
The mother of five, Horwitch came to Scottsdale from Chicago in 1955. She was a housewife then, not a gallerist. She reportedly decided she needed a career after reading Betty Friedan’s classic feminist book “The Feminine Mystique.” She said she wanted to launch a career modeled on Tupperware.
“She started very humbly,” Waguespack said. “She and a friend started a ‘gallery’ that drove around. She built her gallery up from there. It takes a lot of chutzpah.”
The pair loaded their station wagons with prints they either borrowed or bought from other galleries, then sold them to women’s and school groups.
Eventually, Horwitch would place full-page color ads in local and national magazines. She thought she had every right to compete with New York and Los Angeles galleries. She hired well-known acts such as Queen Ida’s zydeco band to perform at openings, as well as the conductor (then pianist) Michael Tilson Thomas.
Horwitch moved to Santa Fe after falling in love with the city at the Santa Fe Opera. She went to the flea market every weekend and bought out whole booths, then sold all of it marked up 1,000% the next day.
She showed what she wanted to show without apology.
Horwitch also sold tchotchkes, low-end items that sometimes rankled artists who did not want their work seen alongside hanging mobiles and tables full of cowboy boots.
When Horwitch went out to dinner with clients, if the subject of gun control arose, she would reportedly pull out her gun, slam it on the table and say, “Well, I always pack heat.”
She made it possible for her stable of artists to make a living. She helped develop Southwest Pop.
“Southwest Rising” was originally organized by Julie Sasse, chief curator at the Tucson Museum of Art. Sasse worked for Horwitch for 15 years. Waguespack was initially interested in borrowing the exhibition as a traveling show until he realized he could draw art reflecting Horwitch’s legacy from the New Mexico Museum of Art collection. This re-formed version features artwork centered around Horwitch’s impact on Santa Fe.
Horwitch died at 58 in 1991.