Buried deep within the labyrinthine halls of PS1 is a dark, silent void. Walk in, and the blackness hovers menacingly, amplifying every rustle of fabric into a supernatural roar. No matter how big the room may be (you don’t really know) or how many people are in it (no way to tell that either), or how close you could be to some invisible precipice, the space feels queasily claustrophobic. This assertive emptiness is “The Ghost of James Lee Byars”, made in 1969, a living artist’s impalpable monument to himself. He died in 1997, but his buoyant spirit haunts PS1’s enthralling retrospective.
Byars took perverse pride in being what he called “the world’s most famous unknown artist”, bopping between Japan, Berlin, Venice, Brussels, Santa Fe, Amsterdam and New York, and finally choosing to die in Cairo, where he wanted to rest beside the pyramids. He was cheerfully obsessed with mortality – just one of his cultivated contradictions. He abhorred materialism in its cruder forms, but savoured silk, gold and fine tailoring. He elevated simple classic forms such as cubes and spheres, yet his art erupts into baroque flamboyance. He was a perfectionist of the fleeting moment and the elusive star of the perpetual performance that was his life. He rarely showed his face, but sauntered through the world’s capitals like a dandy in his gold suit and top hat. He was all costume, pose and razzle-dazzle, yet his work was also profound. This gorgeous show, curated by Peter Eleey and Magalí Arriola, salutes those incongruities without attempting to beat them into rational sense.
Byars was born in Detroit in 1932, but he beat it out of Michigan right after college and made for Kyoto, Japan. Even then, he was a quirky outsider with a hankering for international celebrity. He immersed himself in Shinto rituals and Noh theatre, but didn’t neglect the centre of all art-world reputations: New York. In 1958 he met Dorothy Miller, the hugely influential curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and won her over immediately. Miller arranged a one-night-only display of paper works on MoMA’s fire escape and became his great champion, organising his first commercial gallery show with the dealer Marion Willard in 1961.
Back in Japan, where he spent the better part of a decade, Byars kept in constant touch with Miller and many others, and his missives are crucial to the retrospective. He would have loathed email, that vaporous conduit of skeletal prose. His eccentric correspondence consisted of elaborately folded slips of paper inscribed with ideas for projects or performances. One suggested that Miller “put a minute of attention on this page” and forward it to a fictional Museum of Attention, which he intended to establish. He inscribed scrolls and cut out shapes; he folded paper hats and collars, and sent them with firm instructions to wear them. His compulsive need to communicate was undercut by an equally powerful wish to conceal. Byars’ handwriting wasn’t just hard to read; he repudiated legibility outright, deliberately distorting his script and embellishing it with stars, curlicues and exploding inkblots. He issued books in print so small it insulted the eye.
This epistolary flood was both baffling and marvellous. Byars sent more than 100 letters to Joseph Beuys, an artist he admired with ardour bordering on fanaticism. “Genius Beuys” or “Great Beuys” – Byars addressed him by both honorifics – never answered these tributes, but he kept them all, and they fill a huge glass case at PS1.
Byars’ contradictory desires to mystify and to be understood flow like cross-currents through his work. He often hid his face with big hats, veils and masks, using kooky outfits to deflect the eye from his features. In 1975, his rapacious need for attention led him to don a gold suit and black top hat and roll a red lava sphere through the streets of Amsterdam. That performance, “Perfect Epitaph”, exists only on film, but the ball remains as an artefact, and Byars’ career pivoted around it. From that point on, the momentary flash of a body through space was no longer enough to hold his interest. He wanted each fleeting event to leave behind a splendid object.
The museum contains a number of these quasi-memorials, executed in deluxe materials or made to look precious and rare. There’s “The Figure of Interrogative Philosophy”, a human-sized gilded marble obelisk, spotlit in a dim room; “Is”, a small wooden sphere painted gold; and “The Table of Perfect”, a marble cube with rounded edges, coated in gold leaf, holding court in a red chamber. Each is like a tombstone designed by some 18th-century visionary of the sublime. They recall Claude Ledoux’s globular “House of the Gardener in an Ideal Town” or Etienne-Louis Boullée’s grandiose Cenotaph for Isaac Newton, a giant, spherical funerary monument celebrating the great physicist.
Byars was comfortable mixing science and mysticism. In 1969, he collaborated with the cold war theorist Herman Kahn, one of the masterminds of nuclear deterrence. Byars seems to have felt that if art and science joined forces, they could solve all the universe’s spiritual and material mysteries.
Even posthumously, Byars remains a puckish spirit, gently blowing minds. The show culminates in a dark gallery speckled with glowing remnants. The artist’s lamé suit hangs limply against a black wall, looking deflated and spectral. But when I took a (flashless) snapshot with my phone, the suit in the image had acquired not only a brilliant glow, but also a head-shaped halo of light above the collar, as if Byars’ ghost had slipped into the exhibition for one last magnificent stunt.