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James Lee Byars: Mary Boone, Perry Rubenstein, Michael Werner
Flash Art
Francesca Pietropaolo
July 2006

A year after the Whitney Museum’s show, a new survey of James Lee Byars (1932 – 1997) on view at Perry Rubenstein, Mary Boone and Michael Werner galleries includes a careful selection of sculptures, works on paper, large-scale installations and a performance. Titled “The Rest is Silence,” the show is a tour de force of enchantment, albeit dislocated among the numerous venues.

At Perry Rubenstein a scroll-like American Flag (1974) – with sixteen stars and four stripes – gently unfurls from the wall to the floor, as if brought to your feet. The long silk flag moves ever so lightly as air circulates behind it. This work achieves new resonance as we experience it in light of today’s political climate. 

Inspired by Eastern culture, in particular Zen Buddhism and Noh theater, Byars’ work reveals a penchant for the ephemeral and the ceremonial. He aims to pursue the fleeting quality of beauty; perfection is synonymous with perfect questioning, rather than a stable state of the mind and the senses. 

This spare, contemplative exhibition conveys both the whimsy and the grandeur of Byars’ work delivered with formal simplicity. Among the highlights of the show are The Sun (1990), a floor installation of 360 triangular elements of white marble forming a grand circle, and the witty Self-Portrait (c. 1959) in which the artist’s head is but a small ball of paper resting on a larger-than-life wooden torso with incredibly elongated legs (both works at Perry Rubenstein); the ethereal The Angel (1989) made of 125 spheres of thin clear Venetian glass delicately resting on the floor at Michael Werner; and at Mary Boone the five Concave Figures (1994), one of Byars’ final works. Made of white Thassos marble (whose large grain resembles rock salt and whose texture suggests a softness of touch), the abstract figures are the quintessential examples of Byars’ quest for the perfect while simultaneously exploring the inherent fragility of life. Geometric yet not purely so, they reveal a tenuous vulnerability as they reach for the absolute. At once sensuous and symbolic, simple and enigmatic, their body of marble tells us our most intimate story, one of impossible aspiration to perfection. Fusing the spiritual and the sensual, immaterial and material, his art invites peaceful meditation and an open interrogative look on the world around us.