Throughout his long career, the great American mythmaker and Conceptualist James Lee Byars produced performances, sculptures, and installations that contained irreverent allusions to his own demise, from the performance This Is a Call from the Ghost of James Lee Byars, 1969, which involved a paper triangle printed with the request PLEASE LIMIT ALL TALKING TO THE SOUND OF O, to The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994, for which the artist rendered himself “invisible” by donning a gilt lamé suit inside a gold-leaf covered room. Byars’s vanishing acts toyed with notions of spectacle and publicity—ploys that became highly influential. Consider, for instance, such artists as Maurizio Cattelan, whose recent retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York served as the conclusion of his artistic life (and included All, a Byarsesque work of nine cloth-draped corpses carved from marble), and Matthew Barney, whose extravagant 2010 performance Khucontained multiple references to the older artist.
Oftentimes, Byars would display his sculptures as if they were on stage, introducing a sense of ephemerality (the hint of theater) that counted the works’ implicit permanence (their allusion to tombstones). A case in point isThe Monument to Cleopatra, 1988, the sole work on view in this exhibition. The gilded rectangular wood and marble block with rounded edges debuted at Rome’s Cleto Polcina Artemoderna in 1989, and here as in Italy, the fifty-nine-inch-long sarcophagus-like object sat in the center of a large room, with several overhead spotlights aimed at it. Resting on a low gilded pedestal and placed inside a glass case, the slab never really evokes Cleopatra, but rather brings to mind what Byars saw as monumental – himself. The work is branded with Byars’s hallmarks: monochrome gold motif (essentially a surrogate for the artist) and the theme of disappearance. The sculpture, like the vast majority of Byars’s output, derives from his own identity while abjuring personal details. This latter issue is complicated by Byars’s long-term project of self-mythologization—a tactic also employed by his good friend Joseph Beuys.
Like Andy Warhol – another artist prone to self-mythologizing—Byars made many cryptic and somewhat superficial statements about his own work, as if to challenge the necessity or viability of artmaking in general. In a brochure accompanying the 1987 performance The Perfect Death at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, he is concise, almost to a fault: “Just the sentence is enough. I mean we activated it physically, but just to say, ‘The Perfect Death’ for me, already, there’s a contemplative quality.” Yet it was not enough. Byars produced numerous luxurious objects—in gold, silk, stone, and marble—and most of them, including The Monument of Cleopatra, are accompanied with precise installation instructions. Production and presentation were key, and his output always walked a fine line between flamboyance and simplicity.
When Byars passed away from cancer in 1997, he was living in a Cairo hotel room, where, as Thomas McEvilley notes, the artist had made “perhaps one-hundred artworks… he had contracted with several local workshops—specialists in glass, leather, gold, and papyrus.” Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Byars labored so fervently right up to this finale. He already died perfectly, so monumentally, so many times before.