The Legacy of Eugenia Butler
During her relatively brief career, Eugenia Butler exhibited some of the most cutting-edge and important conceptual artists of the time. Born in Bakersfield in 1922, Eugenia Jefferson would later meet her husband James G. Butler while serving as a master sergeant in the Marines during World War II. James went on to become a successful lawyer and Eugenia was appointed the American representative of Galleria Del Deposito. In the late 1960s, Butler partnered with gallerist Riko Mizuno as co-director of the Los Angeles Gallery 669. The two women shared a similar interest in showing art that was not confined to physical objects and launched a number of important exhibitions including Nothing, the groundbreaking 1968 show of work by Joseph Kosuth.
Later that year, Butler ventured out on her own and opened the Eugenia Butler Gallery on La Cinega Boulevard. She was one of the first dealers to show work by John Baldessari, who described Butler as having, “incredible energy, incredible enthusiasm, I can’t remember her ever sitting still”. A fearless champion of non-object oriented art, she gave lesser-known conceptual artists like James Lee Byars, Douglas Huebler, Ed Keinholz and Allen Rupperberg a platform to present their unconventional work. In 1970, she hosted her most controversial exhibition, Dieter Roth’s Staple Cheese (A Race). For his US debut, the Swiss artist filled thirty-seven suitcases with cheese and left them to rot in the gallery. It was a hot summer in Los Angeles, and the health department made several attempts to shut the exhibition down.
Butler’s vision and commitment to the arts extended beyond the scope of her gallery and permeated all aspects of her life. The family home on Rimpau Boulevard was a gathering spot for the artistic community and the pair often hosted visiting artists including Byars who stayed with the family during his frequent stops in Los Angeles. In 1971 things began to unravel for Butler, and after a period of personal turmoil and a breast cancer diagnosis, she closed her eponymous gallery. She would never open another gallery, but her lasting influence forever changed the Los Angeles art scene and propelled the careers of some of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.