Recently, Renee Marcus Butler learned that the key to the universe is B-flat. “It’s also an important blues note,” says the 72-year-old installation artist by way of explaining the title of Movement in B Flat, the work she’s currently showing in an unfinished storefront on 14th Street NW.
You’ll have to pardon Butler if the gentrifying corridor’s burgeoning gallery scene doesn’t quite get her vibrating in harmony with the cosmos. “I was here when the Color School was gaining recognition,” she says. Asked whether D.C. has retained any of the vitality it had when painters like Morris Louis and Gene Davis first put the city on the map, Butler’s answer is flat: “No.”
The Adams Morgan resident has called this area home since the age of 4: She grew up in Arlington, spent her married years in Potomac, and (excepting the winters she now spends in Miami) has never lived more than a suburb away from the District. She’s the co-founder of the Washington Arts Museum—a project that’s never materialized as a physical space but has provided local artists such as Manon Cleary and Tom Downing with career-making exhibitions. And even though Butler only discovered art late in life, her career is older than many of her peers are.
Butler was in her 40s when she took art history courses at the University of Maryland, leaving behind a marriage and a career as a homemaker to become an artist. She never learned the draftsmanship skills that younger artists today consider to be the cost of entry into the art world. “When I started doing art, I went to a lot of art colonies,” she says. “I really had to face myself and what I wanted to say. I started out with a roll of cheesecloth and string, light and shadow, no color whatsoever.” Music helped Butler find that focus. She made stage sets for new music composers such as Virgil Thompson and John Cage, hanging scrim and other materials from the ceiling in geometrical arrays, onto which she then projected slides. Eventually, she collaborated with many of them.
Indeed, many of Butler’s works have featured music as a prominent element. Movement in B Flat calls for two film projections and an audio track. Installed in the 14th Street storefront, it can only be seen from the street at night, and audiences aren’t able to hear the long recording of B-flat on a piano played ad nauseam by Fred Coughman that accompanies the work. “Without the music, viewers aren’t seeing it the right way,” Butler grouses.
Butler is preparing to open another edition of the piece at Deluxe Arts in Miami, and this one will be audible. It’ll be up as the annual Miami art fairs draw international collectors and work from the brightest New York galleries.
“I think there’s something special about Washington that makes it different from New York,” Butler says. “A lot of the art is a little bit behind, but it has a spiritual quality. Something about our light, the open sky with no skyline, our horizontal city. Maybe acknowledging that gets us closer to the zeitgeist in D.C.”