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"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.
8033 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
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"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