On the cusp of a big James Lee Byars show, the artist Anish Kapoor remembers the lamentably unsung American sculptor.
“James Lee Byars has been sadly ignored, especially in America. He’s an artist who came out of the ’70s post-minimal tradition, and yet the exhibition at MoMA PS1 is the first major retrospective of his work in the United States, which I think is appalling. It’s partly because the work is confounding. What you think you’re looking at is not what you’re looking at.
“I became aware of his work fairly early on. We both had an interest in similar questions to do with the mysterious object, the sense that in perfection there is an eternal moment that is ever-invisible and fleeting. He was incredibly obtuse — very much an artist. Always on show. Often, artists are artists when they’re in their studio and then, later, they’re like anyone else. James Lee was different. I never saw him casually having a drink. He dressed in a particular way. The whole of his life was a performance. There’s a myth about how he died in a room in Cairo, overlooking the pyramids. It’s hard to tell how true it is. I don’t think there is a room in Cairo overlooking the pyramids. But that’s a James Lee story. He was just a strangely present being who was always about to do something that was an act, a work. What energy! How exhausting.”