James Lee Byars: Mary Boone, Perry Rubenstein, Michael Werner
Carly Berwick
September 2006

This sprawling three-gallery, six-venue show set out to resurrect the memory and stature of James Lee Byars, an enigmatic product of 1960s America, who dies in 1997 in Cairo. The show succeeded at introducing a new generation of gallery-goers to Byars’s gilded plinths and marble spheres, suspiciously luxurious Minimalist sculptures inspired by Zen philosophy and the arts of Japan. But Byars’s staying power and influence remain undetermined. 

Byars began his career as a performance artist, and even his mute objects seem exhibitionistic. At one of Perry Rubenstein’s three Chelsea branches, a giant American flag, the number of starts and stripes reduced, rolled off the wall and onto the floor. The untitled 1974 work effectively summoned the ghost of the artist as a bemused observer of the urge toward gigantism in American politics. At Mary Boone’s uptown gallery, a 1989 huge gilded-marble table with a series of waxing and waning moons affixed to the top looked like a ceremonial site for the sort of shamans and witches who employ couture and caviar in their rituals. 

To Byars’s credit, the opulent materials and extreme technical finish of certain objects did make them more totemic, like loot from a secret altar built by trust-fund hippies. On display at Michael Werner, but roped off like a masterpiece in a museum, The Angel (1989), a looping, stamenlike configuration of 125 empty Muran glass spheres, was at once fragile and powerful. At Mary Boone uptown, The Soft Sphere (1989), a simple Thassos marble orb, was fit for a temple. Byars seized on ritual and ceremony as ordering principles in an increasingly secular world. But in his yearning for both luxury and simplicity he seems in line with today’s baby boomers; eager to embrace the virtues of plainness gleaned from an earlier time but firmly attached to the finery afforded by modernization.