One of the most influential and celebrated artists of the 20th Century, James Lee Byars was a trailblazer. He pushed the boundaries of aesthetics and philosophy in art through his lifelong pursuit of giving tangible form to the ethereal concepts of beauty and perfection. While many artists use form to bring forth an idea, Byars does the opposite by taking an idea or concept and giving it form. This online viewing room coincides with two major exhibitions across the globe. The first is The Milky Way, Byars’s most ambitious two-dimensional work, composed of 100 black silk paper stars enveloping the Michael Werner Gallery in New York. On view through 24 April, this exhibition marks the first time "The Milky Way" has ever been exhibited. The second is an important retrospective titled James Lee Byars: The Perfect Moment , at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing. On view through 9 May, this exhibition is the artist’s first retrospective in Asia, which is significant as the artist was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophies. With over 50 works of sculpture, video, works on paper, ephemera and performances on view, the exhibition presents an overview of the artist’s four-decade career.
James Lee Byars was a visionary and pioneer, looking towards the future while mining the past. Byars was deeply interested in technology and its ability to change mankind’s view of the world through widespread transmission of ideas. In the 1960s, he worked with scientific institutes, creating international projects that sought to connect people and ideas around the world. In his legendary performance "The World Question Center", broadcast live on Belgian television in 1969, Byars telephoned many of the world's most renowned scientists, philosophers, activists and artists to determine what questions they believed were of essential importance at that moment. His endless desire to give value to an "idea" resulted in the sale of his performance "The Perfect Smile", which was acquired by the Ludwig Museum in Cologne in 1994. This was the first time in history that a performance was purchased by a major museum. In the following years, "The Perfect Kiss" was purchased by the Museo Jumex in Mexico City.
Wings for Writing, ca. 1972
James Lee Byars’s oeuvre is entrenched in poetry, an undercurrent that runs throughout his sculpture and performative work, as well as in his many letters and works on paper. Here, in “Wings for Writing”, poetry becomes an inherent part of the work itself. We imagine these wings to carry us into the heavens and bestow divine powers of imagination upon us. This ascension into unexplored philosophical spheres references the mythological parable of Dedalus’s son Icarus, as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Icarus did not heed his father’s warning to “neither ascend too high nor too low” on their flight from the labyrinth. These wings stand for the departure from the known towards the unknown. The linearity of the two wings recalls the shape of a book or scroll, while the red feathers and golden silk cloth allude to the purity of the pursuit of writing and the divinity of philosophical enlightenment.
Explorer of forms, creator of life, and tireless traveller, James Lee Byars did not cease to develop a voluminous and subtle body of work, associating the quest for simplicity in Eastern cultures with the unrelenting experimentation of Western cultures in terms of the singular intuitions of each.
-Fabrice Hergott, Director of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
The Diamond Floor, 1995
“The Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most recognizable and important works of art in the world: created around 1490 and based on the writings of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, da Vinci created an image of two super-imposed male figures with outstretched arms and legs. The drawing, inscribed in both a circle and square, mathematically explores the perfect proportions of the human body.
Byars was fascinated by the idea of beauty and the perfect form and explored this concept throughout his entire oeuvre. Like how da Vinci looked to Vitrvius’s writing, Byars looked to da Vinci and ideas from Chinese calligraphy to develop a signature motif he called “Five Points Make a Man.” “Five Points Make a Man” is rooted in the idea any human figure could be reduced to five points: the points signify a head, two arms, and two legs. These points can be presented in any arrangement – in a line, a star formation, and so on – and the viewer can take those five points and create a human figure in their imagination.
“The Diamond Floor”, currently on view at the Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, is the most astonishing and magical version of Byars’s “Five Points Make a Man” idea. Originally created for Fondation Cartier in Paris, the Diamond Floor features five large diamond crystals, refracting light. The essence of man permeates the entire space with an intangible beauty.
Byars was interested in exploring how “abbreviated” an idea or figure could become: just as a human figure could be reduced to five dots, he often reduced his words into acronyms and other cryptic abbreviations. The letters “5PMAM” appear in a number of works on paper, which is another abbreviated transmission of this idea. The concept also appears in numerous performances and sculptures by the artist: one features a performer creating the five points of man’s figure with water droplets in a ceremonial performance. Byars’s use of water in his works provides a contemplative counterpoint to his weighty sculptures made from sandstone and marble.
I think I look fundamentally like my work. I'm a momenteer. I've always been a monochromatic dresser. Beauty is my motive. I create atmosphere by adding a question mark to a statement, I fill this statement with life and carry it into the area of art of poetry solving the essential questions with questions. I believe perfection is important. A glimpse is enough.
-James Lee Byars
The Chair for the Philosophy of Question, 1996
“The Red Tent” is a red silk structure with the dimensions of a perfect 8 x 8 x 8 meters, modulating the enigmatic symbol of the number eight. The tent symbolizes the passage from the profane to the sacred, a fluid and ephemeral threshold. The space is not accessible, but it is conceived and staged primarily for the appreciation of an object and for its silent contemplation.
Inside the tent is an empty throne, a gilded antique Tibetan chair (“The Chair for the Philosophy of Question”), waiting perhaps for the artist to appear in one of his many theatrical performances, or for the viewer to imagine themselves sitting in contemplation. In a similar fashion, the ancient Greeks would place empty thrones in palaces and temples so that the Gods could be seated when they wished to be. Through this gesture, the artist restores the throne to its elementary and ancestral potency. Gold becomes the tangible sign of the transcendent, a material analogy between light and spirit, untouched by time and corruption.
Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died in Cairo in 1997. He has been the subject of numerous gallery and museum exhibitions worldwide, including The Palace of Good Luck, Castello di Rivoli / Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin (1989); The Perfect Moment, IVAM Centre del Carme, Valencia (1994); Life Love and Death, Schirn Kunsthalle and Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg (2004); The Perfect Silence, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2005); 1/2 an Autobiography, Museo Jumex, Mexico City and MoMA PS1, New York (2013-2014); The Golden Tower, Campo San Vio, Venice (2017); and The Perfect Kiss, Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (2018).