Visions of the West
A collector of contemporary Southwestern art shares his favorites pieces.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Paul Markow
“I was into the Southwest art scene back in the ’80s,” recalls Martin Sullivan. “I knew gallery owner Suzanne Brown and the gang, including Fritz Scholder and R.C. Gorman; I even met Allan Houser, who was just the nicest gentleman.”
Sullivan, who splits his time between Arizona and England’s Lake District, has long been a consummate collector. As a younger man in the U.K., he ran a small booth/gallery in an antiques market, where he peddled everything from 16th-century Italian paintings to works from the Ashcan School.
Now that his main residence is in Scottsdale, Sullivan’s focus has turned toward contemporary art that spotlights the local region, its topography and its culture. “‘Contemporary’ does not necessarily mean that the artist is still alive,” he says. “For me, it’s more of an expression, a joie de vivre that comes from the subject.”
Step into his unassuming midcentury patio home, and you’re immediately greeted by a museum-worthy arrangement of works by Ed Mell, Tony Abeyta, Logan Maxwell Hagege and David Grossmann. A small oil by John Moyers rests on a console table below. On the opposite wall, a quartet of Mell landscapes is punctuated by a large, hauntingly beautiful scene of a weathered adobe church by Brett Allen Johnson. Sculptures by Mell, Fritz White and Houser mingle with pottery by Jennie Trammel and Jennifer Tafoya. And that’s just in the living room.
Every wall offers a feast for the eyes. There are paintings and sketches by Mark Maggiori, oils by Billy Schenck and photography by Zoe Urness. A watercolor by Teal Blake, a decorative clay tile by Jason Garcia and a lithograph by Francisco Zúñiga are complemented by works by Glenn Dean, Tim Solliday and Roseta Santiago, among others. “And a Howard Post is, of course, mandatory,” says Sullivan. “He’s more of the old guard.”
Works by Mell make up the lion’s share of the collection, ranging from early ’80s pastels to a study that inspired the stage scenery in Arizona Opera’s “Riders of the Purple Sage.” Notes Sullivan, “I like to follow an artist’s progress. Ed’s abstract style can have great color and power, but then he can be very gentle, as well.”
A large rendering of the Vermilion Cliffs by G. Russell Case hangs above the sofa. A smaller image by the same artist hangs next to it. Their true beauty is best appreciated from across the room. “Russell’s vision doesn’t really come alive until you move away from the painting and can see the depth that he creates,” says Sullivan. “His art epitomizes the West—the openness, the space. If you asked me, ‘What is the West?,’ I would say this is it.”
Works are displayed not only by size but also by the strength of the image. “You can’t put a Tony Abeyta in the center of the room, because it’s going to distract from the other pieces,” explains Sullivan. “The same with an Ed Mell. Ed’s a very nice guy, but his paintings don’t play well with others. You need to have some serenity next to the power.”
If a painting no longer excites, it is sold to finance something new or stored until it once again feels fresh. Artworks are often rotated from room to room, adding to their sense of newness.
“I just enjoy bringing together pieces that I think represent contemporary Western art,” Sullivan remarks. “Hopefully in the future, they’ll be available for the next generation to appreciate.”
One to Watch
Gallery owners are frequently asked, “Who are the artists I should collect?” While some names, such as Maynard Dixon, Ed Mell and Fritz Scholder, are obvious to lovers of contemporary Southwest art, their works are often priced out of reach.
But building an enviable collection stretches beyond the superstars of the genre. One of the most exciting aspects for many enthusiasts is discovering emerging artists.
“Ben Steele is one of our hottest new artists,” says Audrey Parish, director of Scottsdale gallery Altamira. The Utah-based painter imbues his work with tongue-in-cheek references to masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Vermeer and Jeff Koons; pop culture icons, including Marilyn Monroe and Elvis; and Western legends, such as Clint Eastwood, Georgia O’Keeffe and John Wayne.
Trompe l’oeil works of colored pencils and candy share space with buildings, landscapes and re-creations of famous artworks. Western images make up a big part of Steele’s source material. From a box of “Old West”-brand crayons juxtaposed against the landscape of a Wild West town to a trio of bandits taking aim at the red logo of a modern-day Target store, the paintings recall the region’s cowboy history while commenting on contemporary concerns, such as commercialism and religion.
“His work is thought-provoking, humorous and technically amazing,” says Parish. “He evokes the spirit of the West in new and unexpected ways.” (altamiraart.com)
Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) is one of the most lauded artists of the West. His paintings of the land and its inhabitants—“honest art of the West,” as he called it—have captivated collectors for more than a century.
“Calling him a contemporary artist would be a correct assumption,” says Mark Sublette, founder of the Maynard Dixon Museum in Tucson. “Contemporary art generally edits, and Dixon was good at editing. You get the basis of what you’re looking at, but it doesn’t have to be a literal representation.”
To celebrate the work of this groundbreaking master, Sublette has teamed with Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West to present “Maynard Dixon’s American West,” the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the artist’s life and career. More than 300 artworks will be on display, as well as ephemera, photographs and personal objects.
To accompany the exhibit, Sublette recently published “Maynard Dixon’s American West: Along the Distant Mesa” (Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery Inc.). The 524-page opus features 640 illustrations of works by Dixon and contemporary Western artists who “took up his mantle and followed in his footsteps,” according to the author.