Maybe I am collapsing Christmases into each other, or maybe 2012 was indeed the same icy year that my parents left the ’92 Camry with the broken defrost in the parking garage at Spokane International Airport. It was unlocked, key in the glove compartment. They couldn’t pick me up—they had some church event to be at—and this was their solution. Because L.A. living had already spoiled me, driving in ice and cold would have been bad enough in a car that didn’t require me to pull over occasionally and scrape frost off the windshield. I know for sure that Christmas 2012 was the year I sat in the second pew in the brown and orange sanctuary of the church building my dad had moved his congregation to years after I left town, and really took it all in. I watched Dad frenetically adjust transparencies on the overhead projector and pace as he preached, while the sound of children, most of whom belong to refugee families from Burma that the church has sponsored or helped in some way, squirming and talking drifted forward from the back pews.
Disorganization has been part of Dad’s performance for years, though I think I stopped paying attention at a certain point, because it became difficult to reconcile his love of unpredictability with his semi-fundamentalism (he has, at points, suggested his daughters forgo college and take more gender-appropriate jobs, such as secretarial ones). The incredibly simple language, which the number of non-native English speakers in the congregation necessitates, is something he has adopted more recently, though he still has a tendency to descend into density. One recent year, he did a sentence-level close read of the way the Bible treats Mary, Mother of Jesus, in comparison to the way it treats fallen women, like Mary Magdalene and Rahab, which meant digging into the strangeness of “virgin birth” as term and idea.
At one point during this particular Christmas Eve service, Dad asked a Burmese parishioner to pray in his native language, then asked the same of a Vietnamese parishioner, and it did not appear that he had briefed either “volunteer” in advance. My sister, who played the piano, had not been told which hymns would be sung in which order until she arrived that night. Everyone in the congregation, which shrinks yearly but still includes the loyal few, surrendered to the situation. At the end, like every year, “Silent Night” started softly, ushers passed out candles, Dad lit the first one and small flames spread from one person to the next.
It was before the “Silent Night” ritual that I sent a text message to a friend, Corazon del Sol, describing what the service felt like. I met Corazon as a result of Perpetual Conceptual, the show she co-organized with the non-profit Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) about the legacy of her grandmother, 1960s gallerist Eugenia Butler. Sitting in church that night, I was wondering if the reason I had visited that show so many times—five, which wasn’t enough—was not just because I liked it and believe more risk-taking women deserve historical attention. What if the show’s embrace of precariousness resonated with me for other, more personal, reasons?
I knew I would like Perpetual Conceptual well before it opened the last week of January 2012. Pacific Standard Time—that region-wide, Getty-funded, 60-plus institution celebration of post-war SoCal art, which is such an unwieldy effort to describe—had been underway for five months. Arts writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp had already interviewed Eve Babitz, the reckless essayist turned recluse, on the Hammer Museum stage, mostly asking Babitz about men in the 1960s art scene. What was it like knowing Walter Hopps, the eccentric curator who started Ferus, the iconic gallery that gave Warhol his first show? What was it like playing chess in the nude with Marcel Duchamp? This made it seem that Babitz was defined more by who she had known than by the fact that, as a writer, she made trenchant observations in a flip manner, like when she wrote, “[w]ork and love—the two best things—flourish in studios. It’s when you have to go outside and define everything that they disappear.”
Also, the tiny show organized by critic-curator Kristina Newhouse, She Accepts the Proposition, had already run its course at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. It featured the conceptualism that Claire Copley, Morgan Thomas, Constance Lewallen, Riko Mizuno, and Eugenia Butler had shown in their West Hollywood galleries in the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly I wish that, as a 15- or 16-year-old, I had gotten to walk by an early William Leavitt sound installation, where wind seems to be blown from one side of the room to the other, between classes. But what were five of an era’s smartest female gallerists doing sharing a high school’s exhibition space?
All the Perpetual Conceptual press release had to say to hook me was that a version of Eugenia Butler’s “seminal, but largely unknown” gallery would pop up near where it had initially been, a few doors down from Ferus, to “fully realize the historical and geographical relevance.” This sounded like a time traveling intervention, something that would, by reasserting itself in a certain location, exert influence on both the past and present and shake up the hold the Ferus crew—with their pop, plastics, and ambitiousness—had and has on L.A. art’s self-image. (Not that I don’t love work by Ferus greats, especially by Robert Irwin, who is perceptive and irreverent, and joked around with Judy Chicago during speeches at Pacific Standard Time’s grand opening; that gallery has just become so much of the story.)
As a home for Perpetual Conceptual, LAND had found a defunct West Hollywood storefront slated to become a Walgreens, with mirrors lining the upper fourths or halves of the walls, so you could be in the back of the space and look up to see a reflection of people or art in the front. This made the show’s wide-open feeling exceptionally tangible. The work, clearly not new, also didn’t really read as historical, perhaps because I had seen so little of it before and because even work by artists I knew relatively well—Lawrence Weiner, Josepth Kosuth, Dorothy Iannone, Dieter Roth—looked different. William T. Wiley’s “Monument to Blackball Violence,” (1968 – 69) a ball of black friction tape on a wooden stand and with a gold halo around it stood near the room’s center. Butler exhibited “Monument” in December 1969 along with a number of Wiley’s drawings, though the ball has grown since, because the idea had been for anyone who wanted to keep adding tape until the first anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, which arrived a few months after the show closed. George Miller’s “One Cubic Foot of Water” (c. 1969), an 80-pound stack of papers each with the same black-and-white photograph of water drops printed on it, was near the door. Paul Cotton’s “The Last Hang-Up,” an inverted canvas with a suit coat suspended from the stretcher bars, hung on a partition wall that didn’t reach all the way up to the ceiling, as did James Lee Byars’s soft pink “Untitled (Silk Shorts),” shorts so big about five people could fit into them.
When Butler comes up in L.A. Times articles or interviews in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, as I found in the week after the show opened while I began digging for more information, it is usually in proximity to something risky, risqué, or both. Rarely is an article actually about her—her husband, lawyer James Butler’s obituary even reveals more about her than her own does. But these in-passing references give a memorable picture. In his Smithsonian interview, gallerist Manny Silverman, who met Butler back when he worked as a preparator and a crate maker, remembers going to her home for a fashion show by Italian designer Rudi Gernreich where all the models “had their hair completely shaved and … walked down in the nude. It was just kind of like an asexual/sexual experience.” Charles Garabedian, who showed some of his quirky wood sculptures at Butler’s space, talks about getting a call from her one spring in the early 1970s. She said she was going to die on the following Friday, which happened to be Good Friday, and her funeral would be that Sunday. Could he please come? Garabedian remembers:
I go over to her house, and there is Jim Butler, her husband serving expensive wine and there are people sitting around—all the art crowd and people with video cameras and I’m still wondering what the hell’s going on. Then I hear this siren, and I thought, “Oh, well, gee, this is Easter Sunday and I missed the children’s Easter egg hunt.”
And sure enough, this hearse comes driving up and pulls into the driveway. The back door opens and these two big guys come out and wheel Eugenia out on this thing and she’s covered; then she stands up and throws off the covers and she’s totally nude and she says, “I’m resurrected.” That was Eugenia.
“She was in love with the idea that art is something really crazy,” says Garabedian, clarifying that it wasn’t craziness for craziness’ sake. “She did have a sense of responsibility about art.” Perpetual Conceptual, in the way it looked and felt, conveyed this. It gave the sense that Butler wanted artists to go somewhere they hadn’t gone, so that then something truly interesting could happen.
The last church I attended committedly was in West Adams, a somewhat run-down building with a steeple, where a third of the congregation belonged to the choir. The sanctuary would seem almost empty as the service started and then an unwieldy group would walk in, swaying to a gospel song, a few always shuffling to get back in step with the others. The pastor was elderly and there temporarily, just until they could find someone better fitted and permanent. He was white though most parishioners were black, and almost everyone had circumstances far more challenging than mine: children in prison, parents who needed full-time care. They gave me a Bible in a mini tote bag with a cross on it my first day there, and embraced me whole-heartedly, but after a while, I didn’t know what I was looking for there.
The precariousness that defined that congregation was accidental; it wasn’t the same as the energy I’d grown up with. My dad, who had nearly staged an insurrection in seminary when he and three classmates challenged their instructors’ theology, is something of an iconoclast (once, in the most literal way: I came home from college to find an old donated wooden sculpture of Jesus gone from the church entryway, and when I asked after it, I was told it had disappeared during a period in which my dad had been questioning the ethics of icons in churches). He is serious about the Bible being God’s direct word and belief in Jesus being the one way to live eternally, but he has always played with the form of “church.” Should a church service have just hymns on a piano, or drum sets and guitars too? Should it incorporate the confessions that the other Lutherans use or hybrid confessions handwritten on transparencies? At one point, he wore mostly colored ties; at another, he tried a clergyman’s collar. Occasionally, he wore Bible-time robes to impersonate apostles.
I remember being frustrated when other kids who had grown up, left Dad’s church and found other predictable, streamlined congregations to join, would come back for holidays and be a little condescending. Didn’t they realize that, despite its shortcomings, our childhood church had given us this gift of treating existing conventions as mutable? But they didn’t, because I don’t think they wanted the things that I had started to want.
It wasn’t exactly a cause-and-effect relationship, but I stopped attending the West Adams church around the same time I started seeing more performances and shows at alternative spaces or smaller galleries around Los Angeles. I had been writing about art in this city for two years by then, and felt the need to seek out a lot more of everything with almost religious resolve. I like the verb “seek” in this context, because Christians so often use it to describe people in need of salvation (“have you found Jesus?”). Seekers wander into tent meetings or go to Easter services with their grandmothers then leave having given themselves over to a Lord and Savior. Art seekers, in the way I understand it, wander in to whatever strange event hoping to leave with something they had not known to want when they arrived. It’s an exercise in casting a wide net, enduring a fair amount of mediocrity, and then, ideally, finding something that gives you a new sense of what’s possible.
This was “the art of the possible” Corazon, who hosted weekly picnics on the exhibition’s floor, said about her grandmother’s gallery the first time I walked through Perpetual Conceptual with her, preparing to write a piece for LA Weekly. Also present during that walk-through were LAND’s director, Shamim Momin; Leila Hamidi, who had worked for artist Eugenia P. Butler, the gallerist’s daughter and Corazon’s mother, and was now assistant program director for Pacific Standard Time; Samantha Frank, LAND’s curatorial manager; and Stephanie Bulger, a friend of mine who was working at the nearby gallery Regen Projects then and who would also become intoxicated by the show. I remember the conversation between all of us being somewhat unwieldy, in part because I kept asking questions about Butler’s life and her tendency toward extremes. Both Hamidi and Momin found this slightly worrisome. Butler, a mother of eight, probably did suffer from mental illness, her family did burn her records, and she did begin a love affair with one of her more eccentric artists—there was enough drama there to pull the focus away from the art, and her being female meant there was the danger of the “crazy woman” narrative taking over. But I was interested in Butler less as crazy, more as a galleriest who valued craziness and didn’t draw clear lines between what she showed and how she lived.
In 1971, the year Eugenia Butler Gallery closed, William Wilson of the L.A. Times wrote a mournful article called “California Art Scene: Cloudy, A Few Rays.” He opened by saying, “Conservatism is one natural reaction to insecurity,” and citing the end to Butler’s program as evidence that the “cultural atmosphere is not now tuned to the exhilaration of risk.” Instead, “it is tuned to caution.” The only recording of Butler’s voice that I have heard came from that same year, 1971. She appeared on a radio show with artist Paul Cotton, who now goes by Adam II, the Late Paul Cotton, the reference to the Biblical first man being intentional. Cotton had recently had a series of run-ins with authority figures, many of whom resented his being nude or spectacularly eccentric in public. He and Butler had attended a cocktail party for the Art & Technology show, a sprawling exhibition curated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Maurice Tuchman that resulted from three years of artist-corporation collaborations. Butler, who mostly lets Cotton talk, does interject to say the party was “elite” and “for the chosen few,” with some derision seeping into her usually calm, confident voice. Cotton wore his pink “people’s prick” suit, which exposed his genitalia, and carried a tray with Astroturf on the bottom and joints on top with the words “second coming” and “universe all joint” printed on them. Guards “forcibly ejected” them from the reception.
“They didn’t say anything about the joints,” says Cotton. “It was just because I was exposed, which was the greatest hypocrisy. It just points to a situation where people are not ready for responsibility or sensitivity.” Butler again joins in. “They’re afraid,” she says. “First and foremost in my mind, they’re afraid of their jobs.” She means that people with positions, like museum curator Tuchman, fear losing their professional respectability. She did not have that fear, which is probably why the art in Perpetual Conceptual read as adventurous over important, part of a shared moment of abandon.
Catherine Wagley writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles. She currently works as an art critic at L.A. Weekly and regularly contributes to a number of other publications