The Short, Exhilarating Life of Gallery 669 - Part 2
by Catherine Wagley
The day she broke out in hives, Riko Mizuno decided her collaboration was over. She woke with a rash from her neck down, and rushed to her doctor. She was clearly under stress, he told her. She knew immediately where the stress came from: her partner Eugenia Butler, who had by this point co-run Mizuno’s fledgling art space, Gallery 669, with her for the past year and whose forceful energy contrasted Mizuno’s own more reserved personality. The two women partnered early in 1968, Butler coming in to co-run the space Mizuno had already started. And from the outside, their partnership seemed to be going remarkably well.
Gallery 669 was “a very hot place,” to quote then-young artist Tom Wudl, even though the evidence of this now mostly lurks in footnotes, oral histories, or Los Angeles Times and Artforum archives. At least one, and often both, of these publications reviewed every Gallery 669 exhibition, these reviews still the best available record of what each show contained, given the scarcity of photographs. Generally, reviewers approached the experiments undertaken by Gallery 669’s artists with skeptical though curious uncertainty, their grappling paralleling bigger growing pains in art of the moment. Critic-curator Jane Livingston first wrote about Gallery 669’s Ay-O show, the last exhibition before Butler joined, finding the artist’s touchable finger box sculptures uncomfortably ahead of their time. “[I]t will require more exposure than has been available to most of us thus far before our sensibilities are sufficiently inured to haptic art,” she wrote for Artforum, worrying that the “elements of curiosity and surprise in tactile art are not enough to qualify the experience as more than entertainment.” A few months later, reviewing the collaborative duo N.E. Thing Company’s show at the gallery, she concluded that their project, which involved a department for “concepts” and for “things,” had “already gone in too many directions ever to quite pull itself together.” William Wilson of the Los Angeles Times called the work in Gallery 669’s July exhibition—new plastic sculptures by Terry O’Shea, Doug Edge, and Paul Donin—“unripe” and the artists “young plastic hippies.” Fidel Danieli, writing for Artforum, reached similar conclusions, calling Donin’s plastic phalluses, equipped with their own carrying straps, “terribly vulnerable in their passionless and clinical utility.” He did not mean “vulnerable” as a compliment.
These artists were young, and arguably not yet as virtuosic as they would become, yet the work they showed at Gallery 669 is now considered some of their most formative. Notably, the critics repeatedly directed their discomfort toward the aspects that most set apart Gallery 669’s artists: their use of materials as conduits for ideas, their physical and psychological engagement of the viewer, and their contagious curiosity (sometimes perceived as naïve or untrained). Artists would later credit the gallery for supporting important conceptual work, which it did, though not exclusively, as Mizuno and Butler were interested in supporting artists who took risks regardless of methods used. Both had experimented with art making themselves, and as gallerists, their agenda was to be interesting and interested—an adaptable goal. “She wanted adventure,” Ed Moses once said of Mizuno.
LACMA’s first modern art curator Maurice Tuchman introduced Riko Mizuno to Eugenia Butler. Tuchman, hired in 1964 to bring contemporary art programming to the still-young museum, knew Butler because she belonged to the museum’s Contemporary Art Council. Butler lived in a stately house on South Rimpau in Hancock Park, a mid-city neighborhood defined by large Tudor and Italian Revival houses. She had met her husband, lawyer James Butler, when both served in the U.S. Marines during World War II — she as a master sergeant nurse and he as a fighter pilot. James Butler, the first vice president of the Compton NAACP, made his name as a lawyer through pharmaceutical cases. The couple hosted exhibitions, reception, fashion shows, and large parties, often with artists and activists in attendance, frustrating their affluent neighbors. In the mid-1960s, one neighbor circulated a petition requesting that the family sell their home. (Their eldest daughter, artist Eugenia P. Butler, later told the Los Angeles Times that she and her younger brother informed neighbors they would sell only to Black Panther Party members.) Stanley Grinstein, a collector and friend, recalled Butler frequently dressing in clothes of designer Rudi Gernreich, known for his topless women’s swimsuit. At first, he thought she looked like “a fancy hooker.” Later, he mused, “She was that far ahead.”
Since the Butlers were better off, Tuchman thought Eugenia could perhaps help Mizuno’s fledgling space financially, making it a win-win. Mizuno tentatively agreed to the proposition—still living upstairs, but now with Butler showing up at all hours. Their first exhibition as partners, an ambitious, sobering anti-war installation by Ed Kienholz, debuted in April 1968, in the midst of the Tet Offensive and 19 days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Kienholz titled the show Eleventh Hour Final, after the 11 p.m. nightly news. He used it to criticize the war in Vietnam and complacency. He turned the gallery into a wood-paneled, brown-carpeted living room complete with a ratty sofa, kitschy painting, fake flowers and red plastic ashtray on the wood laminate coffee table. On a transparent screen, embedded in a concrete tombstone shaped to resemble a television console, an illuminated screen read, in permanent text, “This Week’s Toll,” and listed the following: “American Dead 217, American Wounded 563, Enemy Dead 435, Enemy Wounded 1291.” The severed head of a youthful-looking mannequin lay in the hollow space behind the screen.
Kienholz, proudly controversial, fiery and already well-known, did not on the surface make sense at Gallery 669. He had co-founded Ferus Gallery with Walter Hopps, and believed the art scene in Los Angeles hardly predated his arrival from Idaho in the early 1950s. As he told writer Lawrence Weschler, when he first moved to the city, Los Angeles was “a virgin so far as art was concerned, as far as I could sense and feel it.” Yet Eleventh Hour Final strangely did suit Gallery 669. It felt more focused and immersive and less blatantly maximal than his other recent political work (e.g., Portable War Memorial, 1968).
Mizuno and Butler both tended to coax concision out of their artists, particularly impressive given that they green-lit so many complicated, and occasionally foolhardy, projects (Chris Burden’s Deadman or Dieter Roth’s Staple Cheese: A Race). The only problem with Gallery 669 was that its two proprietors, Mizuno and Butler, were as different in character and circumstances as they were compatible in their tastes. With this first exhibition together, their relationship began to strain. Mizuno felt she was gradually receding into the background, and, indeed, artists who showed at Gallery 669 disproportionately remember Butler. Canadian artist Iain Baxter&, who later added & to his surname to acknowledge his identity was always in flux, remembered that Butler was “just getting her gallery going” when she offered him and his wife, Ingrid, a show. “Then she was with a Chinese or Japanese lady,” he recalled. Artist James Melchert barely remembered interactions between Mizuno and Butler, perceiving that the two women “had separate roles.” “Eugenia was very aggressive,” Mizuno said years later.
Gallery 669’s June exhibition featured massive inflatable sculptures by N.E. Thing Company. The duo, comprised of Iain Baxter& and his wife, artist Ingrid Baxter, hailed from Vancouver, Canada and had adopted their “company name” in 1967, in part to combat the sexism of the era. This strategy that did not keep reviewers of the Gallery 669 exhibition from mentioning only Iain (“You can’t make reviewers get it right,” Ingrid told me.) N.E. Thing Co.’s approach to plastic diverged significantly from that of the L.A. artists then most associated with the material—artists like Craig Kaufman, Larry Bell, and Robert Irwin focused on questions of perception and spatial experience, while N.E. Thing Co. embraced a pop-informed levity. They also parodied their contemporaries (like when they made a carrying case for one of Andy Warhol’s pillow-like Silver Cloud sculptures). Their exhibition at Gallery 669 included five new “Inflatables,” as they called them, none of which had to be exhibited in any one fixed way. Inflated Dunescape spread out on the wooden floor, bulging up in the middle, looking like a body beneath a fluffy tarp.
The gallery’s summer group exhibition also highlighted playful approaches to plastics, by artists more committed to concept than medium—Doug Edge had turned to plastics because he heard plastic casts were much cheaper than bronze, and Terry O’Shea invited “accidents” into his work, like flies and dirt caught up in the resin. The humor was drier in October 1968, when Joseph Kosuth used Gallery 669 to debut Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), which included 10 of his “nothing” paintings. In white serif font across all-black canvases he stenciled the word “nothing” followed by one of its dictionary definitions, deliberately collapsing form and concept with a literalism that managed to be elegant and funny. Jim Melchert’s November exhibition, which opened the night Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, included a three-tiered plastic table with ceramic objects on each surface. Another work, the largest in the show, consisted of two three-by-six sheets of plywood with grids painted on them, ceramic replicas of familiar objects inside each square. In December, Richard Jackson showed six non-specifically shaped canvases, with unidentifiable, illusionistic objects spray-painted onto them (critic William Wilson thought each canvas resembled “a slice of huge, uncooked fish”). By the end of Jackson’s exhibition, Mizuno and Butler had parted ways. Butler opened her own eponymous gallery down the street, and the two women never stepped foot in one another’s spaces again. As dealer Tom Jimmerson, still a student during Gallery 669’s short run, put it, Mizuno’s approach was “pristine” while “Eugenia trafficked in scandal,” and once separated, they could lean into their methods—Butler burning bright and then fading out by the early 1970s, Mizuno hanging on much longer.
It was the reverent hyperbole in brief oral history mentions that first pulled me toward Gallery 669, Mizuno and Butler: “Riko was the goddess,” in the words of artist Hiro Kasaka; or in the words of dealer Patricia Faure, “She was truly the most innovative of all of them.” According to artist John Baldessari, “Eugenia had the best gallery.” It seems to me, the more I learn, that they liked artists, were hungry for experimental, unusual experiences and were interested in supporting speculative art for its own sake. In doing so, they started something.
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.