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Visual art review: James Lee Byars
The Independent
Marcus Field
20 January 2013

[…] 

Not far from David Zwirner is another new gallery, this one owned by Michael Werner, the German dealer who befriended many of the artists of the post-war period who followed the shamanistic teachings of Joseph Beuys. Among these artists was the Detroit-born James Lee Byars (Michael Werner Gallery, London), an eccentric figure who persuaded the renowned MoMA curator Dorothy Miller to let him stage his first show on a fire escape at the museum in 1958. 

Around this time, Byers moved to Japan for nine years and his subsequent works and performance pieces – one of which was the 100mph drive past the Guggenheim – were often inspired by its culture, in particular the dramatised unfolding of lengthy pieces of hand-made paper. After Byars' death in 1997, in the suitably exotic setting of the Anglo-American hospital, Cairo, obituaries noted his penchant for dressing in gold suits, accompanied by a top hat and veil or, occasionally, a blindfold. 

The show at Michael Werner – surely a precursor to a retrospective – displays early sculptures and remnants from his performances on a plinth, like relics in a museum. The meticulously preserved folded paper sheets from his performances – one of them over 100ft long – are shown in glass boxes like sacred objects. Alongside these are his roughly carved stone sculptures, together with an elongated wooden Self Portrait (1959), delicately laid out like a skeleton in an excavated tomb, all of which represent man in his most primitive form. 

A second and larger room has been devoted to the display of a later piece called The Angel (1989). Over one year in Venice, Byars devised this sculpture made of 125 glass globes, each blown in a single breath by a Murano craftsman. The globes are laid out on the floor in a looping shape which refers to the Japanese kanji character for "man". So as we look into the room – it is arranged according to Byars's instructions as if the entire space were a vitrine – we see the essence of human life brilliantly distilled into these fragile and transparent little reliquaries.