“Sun, Moon, and Stars; A. B. C.; 1, 2, 3; I, you, we.
These images form a cosmos, a trilogy, a tryptich. We gaze at them. They are separate but interdependent. They call each other and interlock; they fade, shine, dazzle, and glow as the imagination takes over. They are images of the working of a system, of a poetic. ….How can we turn life into a story?”
-Kevin Power, from “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars”, 1993
The three-part installation “The Sun, the Moon, and The Stars” (1990) is one of James Lee Byars's most ambitious sculptural works.
The work was first exhibited at Kunstverein Stuttgart in 1993. Byars was particularly drawn to the museum, as its large gallery space could accommodate a work of this magnitude. Due to their size (“The Sun” alone has a diameter of 86 feet / 26 meters), the three parts were shown individually and changed over the course of the exhibition. The exhibition ran from 27 June to 1 August. Since then, some elements have been exhibited separately: “The Star Man” is currently on view at Michael Werner Gallery, London.
Throughout his oeuvre, Byars sought spiritual and physical perfection. He regarded the sphere to be one of the purest forms and this affinity was manifested in a large body of work related to celestial bodies. Moons, the planet Venus (or “Eros” in the Greek), and stars appear in numerous sculptures and works on paper by the artist, searching for a connection between the physical world and the heavens. As art historian Kevin Power explains: “The cosmos is in itself an image of the evolution of life-forms. The planets are influences. We have only to think of how interdependent these orbits and gravities are with our own terrestrial order in the solar system.” While many artists use form to bring forward an idea, Byars does the opposite, taking an idea and giving it form. Together, “The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars” serves as a framework for the viewer’s imagination: the idea of a more perfect cosmos.
Above: viewers observe "The Star Man" at an opening reception for the installation. Kunstverein Stuttgart, 1993.
Every element in “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars” is made from marble from the Greek island Thassos; Byars would visit Thassos in person to source the stones for his sculptures. While the artist was interested in both the perfections and imperfections of various marbles, marble from Thassos became a favorite material because of its near-perfect whiteness and simultaneously dense and ethereal presence.
“The Sun” is composed of 360 triangular parts, arranged to form a complete circle; every stone of the sculpture’s circumference radiates outward. With a diameter of 86 feet (26.2 meters), this is the artist’s largest work. “The Moon” is a single marble figure: a flattened disc spanning a diameter of nearly five feet (150 cm).
“The Star Man” is composed of 100 star-shaped marble sculptures, aligned in five rays expanding from a center point. This arrangement is central to the artist’s concept of Five Points Make a Man, which is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, a drawing that outlines the perfect proportions of the human body. As da Vinci looked to Vitrvius’s writing, Byars looked to da Vinci to develop this conceptual motif. Five Points Make a Man is rooted in the idea that any human figure could be reduced to five points, such as the points in the shape of a star: one for the head, two for the arms, and two for the legs. This concept is explored throughout the artist’s oeuvre in performance, drawing and sculpture.
James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died in Cairo in 1997. He has been the subject of numerous 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); The Palace of Perfect, Fundaçao de Serralves, Porto (1997); Life Love and Death, Schirn Kunsthalle and Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg (2004); The Perfect Silence, Whitney Museum of American Art (2005); ½ an Autobiography, MoMA PS1, New York and Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2013-2014); The Golden Tower, Campo San Vio, Venice (2017); and The Perfect Kiss, Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (2018). The Perfect Moment, the artist’s first museum retrospective in Asia, closed this month at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing.
Archival imagery by Reinhard Truckenmüller, courtesy Kunstverein Stuttgart.