James Lee Byars: The Mile-Long Paper Walk
The Wall Street Journal
Robert Greskovik
20 August 2014

The Woman in White
The Performance Imparts a Plain but Dreamlike Impact

To complement the James Lee Byars retrospective now on display at the Museum of Modern Art's PS1 outpost in Long Island City, Queens, MoMA is presenting five of the American-born artist's performance works at its main New York venue. "The Mile-Long Paper Walk," arguably the most formal of these, was given on Sunday. The other four works will join a repeat performance of "Walk" on Sept. 7.

Byars (1932-1997), a conceptual and installation artist, created sui generis works that were almost impossible to characterize. Peter Plagens, reviewing the PS1 show in the Journal, described it as "an amalgam of Minimalism, Conceptual art, Zen, decorative elegance and dandyism." MoMA's presentation marks the first time "Walk" has been seen since it was "activated"—as MoMA puts it—in 1965 by Lucinda Childs, then at the beginning of her career as a postmodern dancer and choreographer.

As exhibited in the PS1 retrospective, "Walk" amounts to a stack of the original Japanese white-flax paper used in Byars's "performable paper piece," piled neatly in the shape and scale of snowboards and pristinely encased in a clear box. For the 1965 performance, given at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Ms. Childs was costumed in a soft-yet-bulky hooded suit of white ostrich feathers, which gave her the air of both a runway model in an André Courrèges creation and an abominable snowman. An archival film clip at PS1 shows Ms. Childs during her performance: Her stately paces, in accordance with Byars's intentions and alongside his paper pieces, seemingly arranged on this occasion in a central straight line, have a hallucinatory dimension as she walks along and occasionally adjusts some sheets of paper, which together suggest a white-line painting on a highway.

At MoMA on Sunday, Lucinda Childs Dance Company member Katie Dorn, under the instruction of Ms. Childs, performed the work dressed simply in a white top and slacks, with an exhibition copy of Byars's paper pieces laid out in a spiral pattern snaking over the floor of MoMA's second-floor atrium. (On Sept. 7, "Walk" will performed by Jimmy Robert.) Whereas Ms. Childs once appeared as a fleecy figure on an open roadway, Ms. Dorn seemed more a determined sleepwalker making her way along the spiral path of a maze. At the midpoint of her walk, Ms. Dorn slowly and incrementally extended, section by section, certain lengths of the paper units, creating a tighter tail on the spiral's end before backing out to exit as steadily as she entered.