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An American Adam in the Big Eden

Sullivan Goss Opens a Contemporary Gallery Space


 It’s Tuesday morning, and Frank Goss has invited a thousand people to the Saturday night opening of his big new contemporary-art exhibition space on East Anapamu Street. That’s just five days away, and the cavernous former home of the Odd Fellows and the Book Den is still literally roaring with the sounds of multiple power tools and teams of men at work. As we enter, stepping over goss.jpgorange extension cords snaking this way and that, scores of electricians, carpenters, and painters swarm around us, and a fragrant polish shimmers on the expansive, raw stone floors. Goss could be concerned about his impending deadline, but you would never know it from his manner.

In fact, for the moment at least, he gives off the uncanny feeling of being an American Adam in an under-construction, urban Garden of Eden. Turning aside from the commotion with pleasure in his eyes and voice, he asks a series of simple questions punctuated with remarks. “Do you smell that? There’s organic beeswax in the floor polish. The polish is all organic. Look at those original stone floors. Aren’t they beautiful?” The moment is pure Frank Goss. At the center of a storm, he finds the weather fascinating, even delicious. It’s as it reads on the shop just two doors down toward Anacapa Street: “Paradise Found.”

Being around Frank Goss, you soon get used to his habit of urging that you perceive things. Whether he wants you to take a closer look at how an artist has caught the afternoon light with a brush, understand the digital solution to a translation problem faced by representational painters working in tapestry, enjoy a favorite dish at the courtyard café inside his gallery, or just stop and smell the organic beeswax, Goss has a way of encouraging the people around him to raise their levels of attention.

art_space.jpgFor 23 years Goss and his wife, Patricia Sullivan, have been pursuing their unique and powerful vision of all the things an American art gallery can be. The opening of this new space in the Odd Fellows building is the latest and most ambitious phase of what has already been an exemplary career as art dealers. Best known in early years for championing 19th-century California artists and contemporary plein air painters, Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery has continually become more adventurous and national in its scope without losing its focus or reputation for meticulous connoisseurship.

Looking at Tapestries, the show that opens the new gallery space, one sees not only great images, but also evidence of certain tendencies that characterize the Sullivan Goss approach. One such tendency is toward working in a community of friends. The tapestry project started among the friends of Frank, a core group of prominent contemporary artists who live in the Santa Barbara area and regularly show at the gallery. In this instance, the key friend was John Nava, the artist who created the monumental tapestry of the saints in José Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

Another tendency of the Sullivan Goss approach one sees in Tapestries is the embrace of beautiful technology. At the time of the Cathedral commission, John Nava was an accomplished painter, but he had no previous experience in this medium of fabric, which was a church requirement. Along with his partner in Magnolia Editions, Donald Farnsworth, Nava proceeded to invent a digital process for translating paintings into tapestry. Now, eight years later, the solution that he developed for the Cathedral commission has caught on with some of the most important living American artists. The upcoming show includes work by Mel Ramos, Leon Golub, Chuck Close, Ed Moses, Hung Liu, Bruce Conner, Lia Cook, and Hank Pitcher, among others.

Sex Wax

sex_wax.jpgInside the original Sullivan Goss gallery next door to the new space, the tapestries have arrived, and Hank Pitcher is getting his first look at what has happened to one of his most famous paintings. “Mr. Zog’s Surfboard” is a large vertical image of a surfboard bearing the logo Sex Wax, which refers to the invention of Zog, the man who helped create (in Goleta) and still manufactures (in Carpinteria) the world’s most famous brand of surfboard wax. You don’t have to know that Pitcher designed the original Sex Wax logo back in the early 1970s to appreciate how iconic and cool this image is, especially now that it has been transformed by digital magic and Belgian looms into what looks like the most amazing, intensely detailed, and vibrant beach towel ever created.

Pitcher, who wears a bright yellow striped shirt today and is beaming at the newly unveiled work of art in front of us, is the “dad scientist” of Santa Barbara painters, the man with the single most recognizable (and frequently copied) style in town, a brilliantly appealing mixture of sharp-focus American impressionism and surf pop. Upon closer examination, the tapestry created from “Mr. Zog’s Surfboard” reveals incredible intricacy in the way it has been woven, with each individual thread corresponding to a pixel in the digital representation of the original painting. Goss, a former engineer, immediately gets into the technical aspects, pointing out the three different heights of thread-punch involved, and the way that the digital program compensates for the distortions that would ordinarily be introduced by the weaving process.

Then Hank Pitcher’s phone goes off. Pitcher has the voice of his son saying “Ring!” in place of a ring tone, and the sudden interruption of the young man’s digitally recorded voice makes everyone laugh. “I didn’t like the real ones, so I just had him record his voice saying ‘Ring!’ and that’s what I use,” says Pitcher, clearly still every bit the mischief maker who recommended the name Sex Wax to Fred Herzog back in 1972. So, in honor of Hank’s rad ring tone, and to go along with the two mentioned above, let’s recognize a third tendency here — toward a playful Santa Barbara sense of humor. After all, without it, where would we denizens of the American Eden be?

crema.jpgThese references to the Garden of Eden are not, however, just one more California cliché, or a gag. In 2002, Frank Goss curated a show for the Wildling Art Museum called The Final Eden: Early Images of the Santa Barbara Region. In his introductory essay, Goss calls attention to the unique degree to which 19th-century settlers in California felt themselves to be blessed by opportunity. He writes that “newcomers were not required to have familial pedigrees, existing fortunes, or specific backgrounds. The men and women of California were only known by what they accomplished here. In short, California became a contemporary Eden — a bountiful land without limitation.”

In the 20th century, the California dream — our statewide sense of having found paradise — began to recede before the forces of urban industrialization and suburban sprawl. Yet here in Santa Barbara, the dream survives, because, according to Goss, “one region of the State has maintained its rural pristine and fertile nature — the Central Coast. Clean air, clean water, fertile land, open ranges, a Mediterranean climate, varied landscapes, and, of course, the wide Pacific. We live in the final Eden.” Goss’s introduction to the Final Eden exhibit is an extraordinary document, as it offers a Romantic philosophy of art that is as rooted in this area as it is in the aesthetic. And that Romanticism makes sense, especially if you know something about where Frank Goss has come from, and how he got here.

Origins & Aims

In the beginning, there were families, big Catholic ones, hers Irish and his Italian. Patricia’s was from Long Island, New York; Frank’s was from Chicago. Her father worked for the Bell Telephone Company, while his was a peripatetic rocket scientist with NASA in its early days. Both of them moved with their families to Southern California when they were still young, part of that great wave of Americans who came here in the ’50s and ’60s to fall in love with the place — and one another. (Ironically, the two met in London’s Gatwick Airport, and bonded there over the coincidence that both their parents were settled in Altadena, California.)

perfect.jpgSullivan and Goss arrived at a great moment for California public education, and they both got plenty of it. Frank has a master’s degree in English from Cal State Los Angeles, and Patricia has a bachelor of arts degree in art history from UCLA. Goss taught for eight years at San Gabriel High School to repay his student loans before finding his second calling, which was engineering. Diagnostic Engineering, Inc., the environmental engineering firm that Goss directed in the 1980s, was one of the first companies in the country to understand and serve such clients as the Nature Conservancy, along with many corporations anxious to comply with new environmental laws and regulations. It was then that he began to visit Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands regularly. Goss remembers encountering the Oak Group for the first time on Santa Cruz Island, while he was still an engineer, and wondering at people who would come all that way to paint. Soon they would be much more than curiosities to him. Later, as a dealer, Goss would become one of the champions of the Oak Group’s work.

The first Sullivan Goss gallery opened in 1984 on the corner of Sierra Madre and Baldwin in Sierra Madre, California. The couple by now had a daughter, Tyler, and the gallery was at that time mostly run by Tricia (the name she most frequently goes by), as Frank continued to work as an engineer. The very first show was an exhibit of lithographs by Honoré Daumier, indicative of the seriousness and high quality with which the gallery would remain associated. Another child, Cosmo, came in 1987, followed by an impressive earthquake (5.8 magnitude in Sierra Madre) in 1991.

In the aftermath of the Sierra Madre quake, Goss left Diagnostic, and he and Sullivan acquired the building at 7 East Anapamu Street in Santa Barbara that they continue to operate out of today. It was the sale of his interest in the engineering firm that enabled the move to Santa Barbara, and allowed Frank to join Patricia as a full-time partner in the gallery. Together they set out to find, document, and eventually represent the great artists, both known and undiscovered, of 19th- and 20th-century California. A second location on Coast Village Road in Montecito followed in 1999, along with an expansion of interest in the work and estates of undiscovered 20th-century artists, many of them associated with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Since then the Sullivan Goss gallery has blossomed and branched into a multifaceted living organism, employing several dealers and a team of scholars to research, catalog, and educate the public about its ever-increasing roster of American artists.

Today Goss explains the mission of the new, expanded gallery as threefold. Education comes, as it did in his earlier life, first. He wants the doors to his kingdom wide open, and insists that “you can walk in with an ice cream cone in your hand and see contemporary American art, some of it of modest value, other things of high value, but all of it the very best we can find.” Moving contrary to traditional practice in places like New York and Los Angeles, Goss prizes the notion of democratic access, and shuns the reputation for elitism and cliquishness frequently coveted by other art dealers and galleries.

story_painting.jpgThe second aspect of his mission involves the development of relationships with collectors, or, as Goss prefers to call them, patrons. In this he is drawn to the model of the museum, which, as ours is just across the street, provides a handy point of reference. Nodding toward the SBMA building, he tells me, “We share the same basic patronage that supports the art museums of America. Many of the most valuable pieces I sell are destined to be placed in them immediately. The agreements have been made before the pieces are purchased, so that the patron is in effect acquiring the piece so that it can be seen by the public.” This clearly makes him proud, and leads to the final part of the mission equation.

The Artists & Their Stories

Now we are in the back of the new space, having exited and entered again through a discreet doorway that allows direct access from the adjacent Granada Garage. Goss gestures toward a large area where he plans to create what he jokingly refers to as “a sweatshop for art historians.” He says that here is where the 12 seniors and graduate students from UCSB and Westmont who comprise his research team will have their library and their computer work stations. “They will be able to come in on their own time and research and write monographs on all the great American artists we find who have never been adequately documented or appreciated,” he says. “Right now they are already producing these monographs at the rate of two a quarter, but when this room is up and running they will be able to do even more, and put it right on the Web site themselves.”

Talking about the scholarly aspect of his enterprise animates Goss with enthusiasm and pride for the men and women whose art he has rediscovered. He tells the story of an estate the gallery has acquired of a WPA artist, Frederick Remahl, who lived most of his life in Chicago. “His son was so excited when he heard that we wanted to do this that he couldn’t get the work to us fast enough,” Goss says. “Many of his father’s paintings had been taken off their stretchers so that they could be stored more compactly, and when we received them and started to work with them it was incredible to see what was there. I contacted the Smithsonian, and they were interested in Remahl’s archives because he had done some important murals in Chicago, but then when they got wind of how good the rest of his output was, they wanted some of that too. So, Remahl’s [art is] in the Smithsonian now, and I couldn’t be happier about it. His work is just great.”

The acquisition of the estates of previously under-recognized artists isn’t just a good thing for the artists and their families. This strategy has proven to be one of the gallery’s most lucrative pursuits. Goss has an uncanny knack for choosing the right artists, and for staging their rediscovery over a period of years so as to maximize their market value. In an era when bona fide works by acknowledged American masters have skyrocketed in price, the establishment of new reputations for worthy older artists has enormous potential for profit. But how many dealers are in a position to pull this off? Goss has the best track record at this particular maneuver of any dealer on the West Coast, and it continues to underpin his thinking about how to make the business side of his gallery work.

No wonder then that he relishes the idea of storing more than 1,000 works on site, and having the space and resources to employ a dozen people in the creation of the elegant monographs that populate the galleries extensive Web site. Serious collectors will have their own special lounge in the new space, with a pedestal (that’s how they do it in New York) for the artworks they are considering, and a giant flatscreen on the wall opposite the sofa, where they may view digital slide-shows run off an iPod.

The Tapestries show reveals another aspect of what makes the gallery successful financially. Take the Chuck Close portrait of Philip Glass, for example. It’s a new version of Close’s most famous picture, the 1969 “Phil,” a hugely influential and important artwork that Goss conjectures “may be the world’s most recognizable contemporary fine-art portrait.” The original “Phil” was included in Close’s first black-and-white series of “heads,” which is what the artist calls his monumental passport-style portraits, which are painstakingly composed on a large grid in reference to photographs. “Phil” has since been reprised by the artist with watercolors in 1977, stamp pads and fingerprints in 1978, and gray handmade paper in 1982.

A lot has changed for Chuck Close since 1982. In 1988 a spinal artery collapse left him a quadriplegic. Close relearned to paint on tiny grids by holding a brush between his teeth. Now, having regained some movement, he uses a contraption that straps a paintbrush to his hand. The tiny grids he paints mean that a typical portrait now takes him four months. These are the conditions under which the 2005 tapestry “Phil” that is on view at Sullivan Goss was created.

The most recent auction price for a Close “head” from the original series (1969-1972) was $4,832,000, which was paid by the Eli Broad Foundation in May of 2005 at Sotheby’s spring sale of contemporary art in New York. This broke the previous record for a Close painting by more than $2 million. The tapestry “Phil” that will be on exhibit in this show is one of only 10 in the edition. With almost all of the large paintings from the original series now permanently off the market, and auction prices for Close’s work rising so rapidly, it is far from inconceivable that each of these 10 tapestries might fetch over a million dollars. There are two Chuck Close tapestries in this show. And Chuck Close is not even the most valuable artist in the Sullivan Goss collection, because important works by 19th-century artists are even harder to come by. An Albert Bierstadt currently in the Montecito gallery is reportedly worth $3 million.

The Big Eden

Hank Pitcher is now ready to leave, satisfied that “Mr. Zog’s Surfboard” has survived the transition to tapestry with its Sex Wax appeal intact. We stand together on the street outside the gallery and he looks as pleased as a kid with a new tree house, or a surfer who has seen a great-looking big wave. He says, “I am so excited about this gallery. Finally there’s a place to hang some really big paintings!” The eagerness with which Pitcher anticipates his upcoming solo show is palpable, and Goss shares his enthusiasm, proudly pointing out the size of his new doors. He says that Bergamot Station (an art gallery district in West Los Angeles) has “the walls, but not the doors. I can fit a 10, or even a 10-and-a-half-foot painting in through these big double doors. West of Santa Fe there is no dedicated American gallery dealing in vintage and contemporary that has this capacity. And I can hang that Close ‘Phil’ tapestry, which is 13 feet high.” He adds the last fact with a tone of amazement at his own good fortune.

The history of California is not over yet, and the designation of Santa Barbara as the “final” Eden may well be premature. Eden is by definition a place of beginning, not ending, and Sullivan Goss’s new space promises to open up more than just three big rooms full of spectacular art. With people like John Nava and Hank Pitcher animated by the prospect of showing there, and with the ongoing scholarly activities of the gallery ready to expand, it promises to be a catalyst in the establishment of a new map in the art world. The rise of digital communication and nomadic lifestyles among the patrons of art is surely and steadily breaking down old taboos against spending big money outside of New York, London, and Paris. Los Angeles collectors like Eli Broad and David Geffen have already eclipsed their East Coast counterparts with more aggressive and comprehensive patterns of acquisition. A new era would appear to be dawning, one in which a democratic approach to fine art forms the basis of a bigger Eden, at once more inclusive artistically and more far-reaching geographically and socially. We are lucky to be present at its creation.

4•1•1 Tapestries shows at the new Sullivan Goss gallery at 11 East Anapamu Street, through August 30. Call 730-1460 or visit sullivangoss.com.



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