On Good Friday in 1974, L.A. gallerist Eugenia Butler Sr. called artist Charles Garabedian to say she was dying. "Will you come to my funeral Sunday?" she asked. Sunday was Easter, and Garabedian arrived to see two burly men rolling Butler into the yard on a gurney. Halfway to the waiting hearse, she threw off her covers, stood up entirely nude and said, "I'm resurrected."
"She was in love with the idea that art is something really crazy," says Garabedian, who showed at Eugenia Butler Gallery during its 1968-71 run. "She wanted to behave like an artist in a far-out, spectacular way."
A new exhibition, "Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler," revisits, for the first time, the gallery's short, singular life. Organized by Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) and Butler's granddaughter, Corazon del Sol, it opened in a half-vacant West Hollywood strip mall a mile from Butler's original La Cienega location.
It's a historical exhibition, but it feels somehow ahistorical, even contemporary. Maybe this is because Butler, a woman in the early L.A. art scene, defies gender narratives about that time. Her gallery coincided with the peak of the notoriously masculine Ferus Gallery, where, according to art historian Shirley Nielson, who was married to Ferus dealer Walter Hopps and helped bankroll the venture, "The women serviced the men — it was as simple as that." It also coincided with the start of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, which more or less invented the term feminist art.
But in Eugenia Butler's gallery, spectacle, uncertainty and risk proliferated in a way that made conventional gender dynamics seem blurred and peripheral.
"In a strange sort of hodgepodge way, it captures some of the original anarchy," says Tom Jimmerson, co-owner of Culver City's Cardwell Jimmerson Gallery, of "Perpetual Conceptual." Though he visited Butler's space as a college student, he more clearly remembers opening art magazines and reading about her latest run-in with the law. "Eugenia trafficked in scandal," he recalls.
There was the Dieter Roth cheese show, where the Icelandic artist planned to open one suitcase of unwrapped cheddar or brie each day for five weeks, then leave its contents exposed. L.A.'s Public Health Department ordered an end to that.
Tax officials investigated Ed Kienholz's "The Barter Show," in which the artist spelled out across his watercolor paintings what he wanted in exchange for each (a Timex watch, for instance).
"There was no dream of perfection in Butler's gallery," Jimmerson says. Risk interested her far more than the polished professionalism achieved by some of her peers, such as gallerist Virginia Dwan or Butler's onetime partner, Riko Mizuno.
While offhand, mythic anecdotes about Butler have floated through L.A. art history, the work she showed stayed more or less undocumented. Her records were burned after her marriage to lawyer James Butler ended, and though she lived until 2001, mental illness and other distractions kept her from documenting own story — not that it's clear she would have cared to do so.
The current exhibition's genesis was del Sol's discovery, about two years ago, of a shoebox full of slides of work her grandmother had exhibited. She says, "I was taking [slides] around to everyone, saying, who is this?"
Del Sol's mother and the gallerist's daughter, artist Eugenia P. Butler, had, according to some accounts, been the only Eugenia in the family for the first 16 years of her life, before her mother, formerly called Jeannie, decided to go as Eugenia as well. Leila Hamidi, now the project assistant for Pacific Standard Time, was once a studio assistant to the younger Eugenia, and she introduced del Sol to Shamim Momin, director of LAND.
When you enter "Perpetual Conceptual," you see George Miller's One Cubic Foot of Water, a foot-high stack of hundreds of foot-wide, weathered images of water drops. Near the desk, a framed, gold pentagon says in red letters, "This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling." Byars, an itinerant artist who often lived with the Butlers, made this when he hired a woman in a red silk suit to sit in the gallery corner on his 37th birthday and answer written questions others had posed about him.
Next is William T. Wiley's Movement to Black Ball Violence (1968-69), a ball of black tape Wiley created because he'd been wadding up adhesive tape while listening to news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. He decided to keep "black balling" and invited others to add to what now looks like an amorphous head and wears a golden halo.
In the back of the space hangs People's Prick, by Paul Cotton (who now calls himself "Adam II, the late Paul Cotton"). If you pull the winged metal penis that hangs from a furry, phallic thing with a vaginal slit down its middle, the song "The Impossible Dream" begins to play.
The art in the show feels like it's trying to butt up against and rupture what's most baffling about the real world. Can you summon a spirit with a question, it asks, or blur gender lines with fur and a song? "This work is a lot more human than it's often presented as," del Sol says.
"We wanted this show to be less about personal history and more about this extraordinary period at the gallery," adds LAND director Momin. She and others I've spoken with tiptoe around the Eugenia mythology. Craziness doesn't have much clout these days, especially since the art world has just recovered from an era obsessed with identity politics, where the autobiographies and idiosyncracies of creative people (especially women and others from underrepresented groups) often garnered more attention than their work. Focusing on the Butler mythos threatens to pigeonhole her, to turn her legacy into the short-lived, haphazard achievements of an eccentric.
Still, it's unlikely Butler will ever not be an enigma. "I never got a sense that I got even remotely close to understanding what Eugenia really wanted to accomplish with her gallery or how it functioned for the artists," says curator Kristina Newhouse, who featured Butler in her exhibition "She Accepts the Proposition," which focused on women gallerists in 1960s and '70s L.A., and closed in November. In fact, Newhouse found all the gallerists she contacted — Claire Copley, Riko Mizuno, Constance Lewallen, Morgan Thomas — resistant to "making any pronouncements about what it all meant." They saw themselves as enablers, not arbiters.
"Artists appreciate it when their history's not being told back to them," del Sol says. This, she thinks, is part of why her grandmother's sensibility feels important now. In the midst of the Pacific Standard Time–fueled celebration of SoCal art's past, it suggests there are priorities beyond defining history. "A lot of the artists in Eugenia's gallery were just happy to push boundaries," a feeling compelling to a younger generation that's trying to do the same thing.
"Voices [like Butler's] are the ones I want to be hearing more of," says writer Danielle Sommer, who learned of Butler just before the show opened. "She's not a feminist from the 1960s, who decided to show only women artists. She didn't embody that zeitgeist. Her project gets away from that very rigid idea of what it means to be a woman practitioner."
In 1971, Butler, wearing a white cocktail dress, accompanied Cotton, in a bunny suit and declaring himself a living sculpture, to an invitation-only reception at LACMA. Cotton carried a tray of what the L.A. Free Press, too discreet to say marijuana, called "rolled paper tubes containing an illegal vegetable," which he "planned to distribute ... to the elite of the Los Angeles art world."
Guards ejected him, carrying his stiff body out as if it were a sculpture. The photos look like fantasy; it's hard to believe it could have happened. "This art," says del Sol, "it's all art of the possible. It changes you."
PERPETUAL CONCEPTUAL: ECHOES OF EUGENIA BUTLER | 8126-8132 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Through April 21