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

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


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