It’s been said that over the course of four short years – from 1968 to 1972 – the Eugenia Butler Gallery set the bar for conceptual art in Southern California. Butler, whose own mother fled home to work as a Harvey Girl, left Bakersfield, CA, to serve in the United States Marines, eventually becoming a Master Sergeant. After the war, Butler married James Butler, a lawyer and military pilot who made a small fortune by conducting the first lawsuit against Thalidomide, a drug with known negative side effects, on pregnant women. Perhaps due to the fact that she did not need the gallery to turn a profit, or (more likely) due to her innovative tastes, Butler took chances on work that others couldn’t, and her roster of artists grew to include Allen Ruppersberg, William Leavitt, Eric Orr, John Baldessari, James Lee Byars, Ed Keinholz, Dieter Roth, and her own daughter, Eugenia P. Butler. Yet somehow Butler’s story has remained largely unwritten, with nary a Wikipedia entry to speed things along.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), the Getty Center, and Pacific Standard Time, for the next three months, Butler’s influence will be on display in three West Hollywood exhibition spaces, at 8126 – 8132 Santa Monica Boulevard, just about a mile from the Eugenia Butler Gallery’s original location, 615 La Cienaga. Titled Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler, the show is both a primer — with works from Paul Cotton, Lawrence Weiner, Ed Keinholz, et al — and an homage, with curatorial stylings that recall many of the makeshift exhibition spaces of EBG’s era. In short, LAND, “a public art initiative committed to curating site- and situation-specific contemporary art projects,” chooses exhibition locations based on specific projects rather than maintaining a single venue. Perpetual Conceptual‘s three venues are located one right after another on the edge of WeHo, in a small, unassuming strip mall, right next to a donut shop.
The bulk of the exhibition comes from Butler’s personal collection, now in the hands of her granddaughter. Joseph Kosuth’s photostat Nothing, 1967, is perhaps the most immediately familiar work: a deep-black square, in the center of which is written the definition of “nothing” in cream-colored font. There are also several pieces of typewritten and hand-drawn ephemera by Lawrence Weiner containing instructions for creating specific artworks, such as “One standard air force dye marker thrown into the sea.” There’s quite a bit of work on display, including both primary and secondary artifacts. William Wiley’s Movement to Black Ball Violence, 1968, a ball of black friction tape made in response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, remains poignant forty-four years later, even more so due to the letter of instruction Wiley typed to go along with the piece, which asks that anyone who wishes to blackball violence add 150 feet of tape to the ball.
Though this particular piece is “closed” (Wiley called an end to it in 1969), the genius of LAND’s exhibition strategy is that many pieces and artists will be reactivated or looked at in depth using the two other exhibition rooms that adjoin the group space. Currently, Eugenia P. Butler’s work is on display in the concept space, and there will be restagings of Dieter Roth’s Steeple Cheese, 1970 — Roth’s first exhibition in the United States in which he packed 37 suitcases full of cheese to rot, with one to be opened each day — and Ed Keinholz’s Watercolors, 1968, a bartering project. Keinholz painted a group of watercolor paper with “prices” (such as “Timex Electric Watch”) and invited people to trade him the object for the watercolor. This past weekend also saw the restaging of Eric Orr’s Wall Shadow, 1970, in the back parking lot, a performance piece in which Orr took a palette of cinderblock, built a wall, traced and painted its shadow with gray paint, and then dissassembled everything so that only the painted shadow was left. Like Wall Shadow and the Eugenia Butler Gallery itself, my bet is that Perpetual Conceptual will be brief in its physical existence but long in influence.