“As gold and bread for Byars, like with fat and felt for Beuys, stuff is site of transformation, where vital energy, divine presence, animate stuff are openly encountered.” Glenn Peers, 2018.
Physical materials provide a path into the work of James Lee Byars. His undergraduate thesis exhibition at Detroit’s Wayne State University, from which he graduated in 1955, consisted of a large number of spherical stones set in his family’s home. It was a one-day exhibition that was said to capture “a reduction towards essence and absence, and an acute sense of the ephemeral.” (Power, 1997). In a sense, this was a foundational work, one that anticipated his entire career, which combined the characteristics of a shaman and showman.
The vocabulary used to describe the work and life (or vice versa) of Byars invariably includes terms like alchemist and magician, visionary and phenomenologist. Other descriptors include “the universal and the personal, the luxurious and the minimal, the relic and the live event, the spectacular and the invisible.” (The Museum of Modern Art, 2014).
Byars’ approach and identity would help him to defy specific classification as an artist of one type or another. Perhaps the best, most concise and least redundant way to describe Byars’ work is to recognize his orientation to perfection. Yet, as he said in an interview, “I do not think I have ever done anything that does not have some spot or something on it that can be seen with a critical look. I mean imperfection seems to be the state of affairs of my life . . . it is always easy to find things imperfect in what I do.” (In Byars, 2004). In his exacting obituary, Kevin Power suggested that Byars “sought to contain rather than retain the ephemeral, the onward drive that is, at its most grandiose level, the meaning of life . . . [that] reveals an underlying cosmology.” (Power, 1997).
The gallery’s press release for this intimate, atmospheric exhibition consists only of the following quote by Anton Mengs, an 18th century German painter whose work was a precursor to the Neoclassical movement, that Byars had selected for the 1986 catalog for his exhibition, James Lee Byars: The Philosophical Palace, at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. In total, it reads:
Works of the highest grade have beauty in all parts, from the essential to the superfluous, and are therefore perfectly beautiful. Beauty in itself is nothing other than the perfection of every concept, for which reason the most perfect things, invisible as well as visible, are called beautiful. This should guide us in looking at the works of the ancients: their beauty does not always consist of the same part, but lies in the fact that that part which the idea has chosen has been represented most beautifully.
This may be description enough for the artist’s entire career.
Byars had a vocabulary of colors, forms and materials that he relied on and reused. His colors were often the most intense, uncompromised red, black, white, gold and blue. His preferred Pythagorean geometric shapes—spheres, cylinders and cubes—that “symbolize perfection and the timeless metaphysical building blocks of the universe.” Perhaps these were part of the artist’s shorthand for pure beauty.
The exhibition is perfection with a cool, serene ambiance particulière. In the gallery’s reception is a three-part work titled, “Portrait of the Artist” (1993). Three elongated and rounded rectangles face the entry, like ancient polished, but worn, Egyptian mirrors. The two galleries—both painted in a vague blue-gray and softly lit—have a small selection of objects housed—with one exception—in exquisitely fabricated museum vitrines.
The South Gallery has “Self-Portrait” (1992), a rough-hewn stone with a near-invisible 24-karat gold sphere on its surface. On the diagonal is a companion vitrine that contains a carved Blue African granite object, “The Sphere with Stairs” (1989). On the wall is a drawing, “The Golden Sphere” (1991), executed in Byars’ loopy cursive writing on crumpled black paper. The exhibition’s sole example of a drawing, it visually connects to his extensive correspondence with others on papers that he had folded, wrinkled and wadded. Viola Michely, a German art historian, described the process of handling and “reading” Byars’ letters:
One must carefully unfold and uncrumple in order to read the writing, which mostly has the same tone as the paper, often shimmering golden through the stars on all of the corners and edges of the letters. The script pours out in strange jumps of lines, without period or comma, running on and on, never-ending, beyond the paper's ground. (Byars, 2000)
The North Gallery has one piece in four parts, “The Path of Luck” (1988). Its components—a discus, a square door, and two un-inscribed steles (an archaeological term for monument)—are precision-rendered in Blue African granite. These are simple, pure forms, each presented in an individual vitrine.
Ken Johnson, The New York Times critic, wrote in 2014 that “there’s an overdetermined, gently overbearing quality to Byars’s art . . . overridden by the sense of grandiose self-importance.” This critique was unfair. Critics cannot second-guess, let alone remake, an artist’s intent. In its simplicity, Byars’ work idealizes timelessness and simplifies eternity.
James Lee Byars At Michael Werner Gallery through the summer. The gallery is concurrently showing four works by Byars at its London location.
Byars, James Lee. James Lee Byars: Letters to Joseph Beuys = Briefe an Joseph Beuys. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2000.
Byars, James Lee, Friedhelm Mennekes, Heinrich Heil, and Wolf Günter Thiel. James Lee Byars: The White Mass. Köln: König, 2004.
Peers, Glenn, “Descending Transcendence,” Religion and the Arts, 22: Issue 5 (November 2018): 639-660.
Pepi, Mike, “I Can’t Stand to Look at the Earth,” Medium.com, December 7, 2013.
Power, Kevin. “James Lee Byars,” Third Text, 11: no. 39 (1997/2018): 108-110.