The Short, Exhilarating Life of Gallery 669 - Part 1
by Catherine Wagley
Those who attended Gallery 669’s festive, celebrity-filled inaugural opening likely left with a misguided idea of what the fledgling space would become. The actress Zsa-Zsa Gabor was there in her finery, as was playwright Arthur Miller. One guest wore an elegant kimono, and Channel 4 News brought cameras. Watercolors by Henry Miller, the well-known novelist, could barely be seen behind the bustling bodies. In the few photos of the event, Miller's fiancé, the pianist and vocalist Hoki Tokuda, then 29, looks like the youngest in attendance. Nothing about the affair suggested that Gallery 669’s founder, Riko Mizuno, would go on to nurture risk-taking conceptualists and performance artists—just months later, the Fluxus-associated Japanese artist Ay-O would exhibit tactile sculptures that baffled L.A.’s few active critics, and, in a few more years, Chris Burden would play dead as part of a performance on the street outside the gallery. But if the Henry Miller exhibition was not at all a harbinger of things to come, neither conceptually nor aesthetically, the exhibition did reflect Mizuno’s rich, idiosyncratic network and the fact that her work as gallerist would always be about relationships.
Gallery 669 existed for just over one year, its story now mostly recorded in fleeting asides in oral histories that mention its two proprietors: Riko Mizuno started the space in 1967 and Eugenia Butler joined forces with her at the start of 1968. By 1969, they had parted ways. This yearlong partnership proved as tumultuous as it was generative, yet it laid groundwork for what both women would later go on to do in their own eponymous galleries. It also encapsulates the shifting, dynamic energy that led to some of the most exciting and unconventional art of the period.
Gallery 669 opened at a time when the Los Angeles art world itself was diversifying. The four-year-old art magazine Artforum and Irving Blum Gallery, as the iconic Ferus had been rechristened after Blum found himself alone at the helm, had just left Los Angeles for New York. So had Virginia Dwan’s gallery, these departures leading, in the words of Los Angeles Times critic William Wilson, “the supersensitive denizens of the art world” to worry that L.A.’s scene had already collapsed. In fact, the scene was morphing. After years of exclusion, artists of color began founding their own contemporary galleries—the Brockman Gallery opened in 1967; Suzanne Jackson’s Gallery 32 in 1968—and a diverse array of conceptual artists, who treated ideas as material and embraced more ephemeral, precarious and political strategies, began to find footholds, in part thanks to Mizuno and Butler.
The story of Gallery 669 more or less began in spring 1967 with Mizuno’s first visit to 669 N. La Cienega, a small storefront off of an alley. Other galleries had occupied this very space before (and both Larry Gagosian and Rosamund Felsen would occupy it after Mizuno left). Dealer and patron Esther Robles, who exhibited hard-edge abstraction and elegant assemblage in the adjacent storefront, used 669 N. La Cienega for storage and guest quarters until 1964, when Rolf Nelson, who moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco to start a short-lived local satellite of the gutsy Dilexi Gallery, took over. Nelson stayed through 1966, when he moved to a bigger space up the street to exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe’s transcendent, 24-foot-wide 1965 painting Sky Above the Clouds, inspired by the artist’s first airplane trips (according to collector Elyse Grinstein, Nelson would stand outside and “beg people” to come look at the painting). Soon after Nelson moved out, Mizuno’s friend, the persistent Marlene Williams, called her up and pushed her to start a gallery of her own. Williams ran I Gallery, then among the only experimental galleries in San Diego, and saw in the now-vacant space an opportunity.
The day she went to visit the gallery, Mizuno found a chalice and a pair of chic, well-made shoes on the floor. Gallerist Nick Wilder had left them there to stake out the space, which he too wanted. Wilder, a native of Rochester, New York known for his good eye and dapper demeanor, had opened his eponymous gallery just across the street in 1965. He exhibited pop alongside minimalism and color field painting and endeared himself to his artists with a charm and generosity that didn’t necessarily translate into fastidiousness—according to artist Ed Moses, he’d sometimes lean paintings against the wall for the duration of a show if an artist didn’t demand he hang them. “The tenor for Los Angeles at that point wasn't based on the aesthetic,” Wilder later recalled of this period, adding that its participants did, however, have a long game: “The agenda was to make an art scene, to be important.” Mizuno, who would never fully share this agenda, was not as sure as Wilder that she wanted 669; still, she applied for the lease. She never knew why the landlord chose her, but she lived and worked there for the next nine years.
Mizuno moved to Los Angeles from Tokyo in the early 1950s, to study ceramics at Chouinard Art Institute. She did not graduate. “I did not care about that,” she told me with admirable conviction. She did care about the friends she made while studying, some of whom would later show with her, and also about her friendships with like-minded fellow Japanese transplants. One of her closest friends, Tokuda, also from Tokyo, was striking and full of charming irreverence. According to Mizuno, she could have been a been a commercial sensation had she stayed in Japan: “But she didn’t care about that either.” Tokuda came to the rescue, arriving with mops and brooms after her friend moved into 669 N. La Cienega with no idea how to go about opening.
Tokuda had met Henry Miller just one year earlier, in 1966, when she still performed regularly at Imperial Gardens, a Japanese restaurant and bar on the Sunset Strip. She often accompanied the Hollywood personalities she met there to parties, and at one such party, she played ping pong with an older man named Henry. “He was a dirty player — a cheater,” she recalled decades later, describing him leaning over the net. “I thought he was an old fool...” Miller, 46 years her senior, took her information, and kept sending letters, to her apartment, to Imperial Gardens and even to her parents’ home in Tokyo. She found his persistence grating at first, but then she began going out with him, sometimes bringing Mizuno along. In 1967, her visa soon to expire, she agreed to marry Miller, though she has always maintained they only kissed once and that she never finished any of his books (“I couldn’t read him, even in Japanese,” she told a journalist). Mizuno, on the other hand, did read Miller’s work. She wrote him a letter in 1966: “Very often when I’m painting, I think of you (The Henry Miller in the book …).” Near the bottom of the letter’s second page, Mizuno delicately drew an asshole between two thighs, next to the note, “See how terrible translate my letter [sic]?”
Henry Miller the exhibition opened on May 28, 1967 to fanfare. Miller’s paintings tended toward a sunny, childlike alacrity, as if Matisse were doing line drawings with finger paint, and had a devil-may-care looseness that perhaps stemmed from his confidence in having already made his lasting mark in another medium.
Gallery 669 would rarely show figurative, or expressionistic, painting again. In fact, Mizuno shied away from it during all her years as a gallerist and dealer, with the rare exception: Vija Celmins, whom Mizuno first met during a poker game, would become her artist and lifetime friend, but Celmins’ precise, methodical, and almost minimalist realism was antithetical to Miller’s looseness. Yet in Miller, Mizuno had found an unlikely champion, and even he knew that he was not her future.
Miller’s collected letters suggest his show at Gallery 669 received tabloid attention in Japan, where his relationship with Tokuda had already caused some stir in the press. On July 3, 1967, Miller wrote to a writer named Kawabata Atsu to correct allegations that, among other things, the novelist had purchased Mizuno’s gallery for her, a rumor that effectively turned the already-famous man into the protagonist of her still-young story:
"I tried to understand what you explained about my 'presenting Riko with the gallery' which I did not do, of course. To begin with, Riko would never have accepted such a gift of me."
Though he would never show with her again, the novelist had high hopes for Mizuno’s program, and told her so in an undated note he wrote to her on the back of one of his show cards. “Some people like to launch dreadnoughts, rockets and such like,” he said. “I prefer to launch a staunch friend in a good endeavor. …Riko Mizuno will give us, I trust, something different. A place not for the old masters such as Dali, Picasso & Co. but for the new and perhaps unheard of masters of our absurd, grotesque and unbelievable present day reality.” His predictions proved strikingly apt.
It would take her six more months to open her second exhibition, the show by Ay-O that introduced the kind of playful, material experimentation for which her gallery would become known. She would shop for fabric with Ay-O, so that he could make the highly-saturated, almost neon, rainbow objects for which he has since become best known. For the opening reception, Mizuno made “rainbow punch,” cocktails, dyed with food coloring. But nobody came--“because he was a Japanese artist,” Mizuno surmised--so they closed the gallery and went to the movies. Soon after, Mizuno would be introduced to Eugenia Butler, the unexpected, and ultimately unwanted, partner who would help give shape to the singular, though fleeting, venture that Gallery 669 was.
Part 2 of this feature will be published on January 7th, 2021
Catherine G. Wagley writes about art in Los Angeles. She is a contributing editor at Momus and Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles (Carla), and she has written criticism and journalism for the LA Times, X-TRA and LA Weekly, among other publications. She is working on a book about a group of female gallerists who embraced and encouraged risk-taking in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles.