Fearless Vision

The Legacy of Eugenia Butler

Eugenia Butler / photo by Malcolm Lubliner

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.

Detail of Dieter Roth’s Staple Cheese (A Race) at Eugenia Butler Gallery

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. 

James Lee Byars 1932–1997

James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died halfway around the world in Egypt in 1997. It was not his first death, three years prior Byars staged The Death of James Lee Byars, a performance in which the artist practiced his own death when clad in a gold suit, he laid down quietly in a room entirely covered in gold leaf and seem to vanish into the background. This magical, transcendental quality permeated his impressive body of work and solidified him as one of the great conceptual artists of our time.

Before his deaths, Byars studied philosophy at Wayne State University and traveled to Japan on invitation from the artist Morris Graves. While overseas, he studied Noh theater, Zen meditations, Shinto ritual and taught English to Japanese monks. Upon returning to the Untied States in 1958, he hitchhiked to New York City in the hopes of meeting artist Mark Rothko and ended up at the reception desk at the Museum of Modern Art. There he met Dorothy Miller, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, who arranged for his New York debut—an exhibition of his paper works in an empty stairwell at the museum that lasted only a few hours.

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