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.