James Lee Byars at MoMA PS1 and Michael Werner
Barbara A. MacAdam
September 2014

The extraordinary retrospective at PS1, titled “James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography,” barely goes halfway toward unraveling the enigma that was Byars. Present and absent, the artist traversed the realms of extreme beauty, spiritualism, East and West, and hocus-pocus. This and more helped define the Detroit-born artist who practiced his brand of shamanism around the globe.

At 37 years old, Byars, who was born in Detroit in 1932 and died in Cairo in 1997, wrote his “1/2 autobiography” filled with his thoughts and his exchanges with exhibition visitors. A figure very much of the ’70s, he was given to earnestness, spiritualism, and the put-on. At the same time, he was a documenter of absurdities, as listed in his notes: “The queen and her dog had the same hairdo (tiny spit-curls).”

PS1’s intriguingly installed retrospective was curated by Peter Eleey, associate director of exhibitions and programs; and Magalí Arriola, curator at Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo; with Jocelyn Miller, curatorial assistant at MoMA PS1; and Javier Rivero, curatorial assistant at Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo. The show is replete with surprises around every corner, from the glowing bright-red Chinese throne room to the gold streamers of The World Flag (1991) to vitrines filled with documents relating to installations and performances, manifestos, letters, and lists, as well as to travel postcards with curlicued writing that enlivens and obscures texts.

Stunningly minimalist Japanese-inspired roll-out scrolls, huge scrolls folded impossibly into a box, and more gold, mirrors, and alchemy  are in  evidence.  Byars pursued the art of everything—the microscopic and the universal, the performative and the crafted, the laconic and the loquacious.

At Werner, a show titled “Is Is and Other Works” included two golden pillars bearing the initials Q and R in one room and two basalt spheres in another gallery. These works challenged viewers simply to “question,” as Byars would say. Clearly, questioning was the easy part.