James Lee Byars was an artist possessed of certain elegance. He dressed impeccably in silk or linen suits, velvet or gold lamé, often custom-made by a tailor who called himself Mr. North South. He wore an oversized hat, its tall top and wide brim cutting a distinct silhouette. He was gracious in correspondence, saying please when making requests on behalf of himself and his artworks. He sent thank you notes, writing in a loose, loopy script with stars inked at the angles of each letter. He seemed to understand that manners, like suits, were a kind of costume, providing useful cover for what lies beneath. (Too much presence — or perhaps too little absence — and one risks becoming a stale artifact of an ordinary world). He was an enigmatic showman for whom perfection — or “perf,” as he abbreviated it — was an obsession, though he was genteel enough not to define too boldly what the standards of its achievement might be. (In “perf,” hear also: perforation, performance, perfume). For Byars, truth wasn’t to be found in an answer; rather, it was the essence of a question asked.
He was dedicated to developing, in his own words, “the first totally interrogative philosophy,” creating works on paper, installations, ink drawings, films, sculptures, costumes, and performances that incited and materialized ideas of beauty, of belief. Although Byars’s art bore a spare grace, his was a sumptuous conceptualism charged with theatrical flourishes: lacquered stone, gold leaf, bronzed wood, gilded marble. He performed appearing acts and disappearing acts, invoking both bodies and ghosts, embracing impermanence, at times even practicing his own death (because practice makes “perf,” one supposes). In 1969, at the age of 37, he wrote a “autobiography” to mark the halfway point of his life were he to live the average life span. In 1997, he died in Cairo at less than twice that age.
James Lee Byars: An Autobiography, a survey of the artist’s work, is on view through Sept. 7 at MoMA PS1, and stands as one of the highlights of New York City’s summer art offerings. Curated by PS1’s Peter Eleey in collaboration with Magalí Arriola of Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, where it debuted this past winter, this exquisite exhibition gives Byars’s many productions the space, light, and shadow needed to cast their auras and work their discrete magic. Showcasing the diversity of his work, including his 1950s-era minimalist ink drawings on Japanese paper and his opulent mid-1990s installations, the show also weaves together correspondence, ephemera, performable paper pieces and Byars’s many books, tracing his profuse output, beautifully balancing the transience he sought to foreground with a presence we can know better, if never completely.
A video of the live broadcast of the artist’s 1968 masterwork performance, The World Question Center, documents Byars collecting questions by telephone from 100 artists and thinkers, including John Cage, Arthur C. Clarke, Jerzy Kosinski, and Marcel Broodthaers. It’s an opportunity to witness him in full regalia, holding court in search of truth. In the next room, facsimiles of telegrams he sent in 1972 to the Queen of England, Mao Zedong, and Richard Nixon inviting them to attend “Documenta 5,” which are pointedly quixotic, very funny, and bring a bit of lightness into the assumed seriousness of his pursuits. There are also romantic gestures, such as The Perfect Love Letter Is to Write “I Love You” Backwards In the Air (1974), a series of photographs that captures Byars blindfolded, in a white suit and black top hat, writing “I love you” with his finger slyly pointing at the viewer.
Other resonant highlights from the show include his one-minute film loop, Autobiography (1970), solely composed of black leader, save for a single frame in which his image appears. It’s interesting to note the scratches the film has acquired, marks more present than Byars’s flashing, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t appearance. Another poignant anti-monument to the artist’s absence is The Ghost of James Lee Byars (1969), a blacked-out room of the museum. No light, nothing to see as you pass through a set of curtains, and walk through the designated void. Finding your way through to the next gallery, you’ll see, in a flood of blinding sunlight, The Rose Table of Perfect (1989), a polystyrene sphere one meter in diameter, inset with 3,333 red roses — a romantic gesture, a blooming reward of sorts, for getting to the other side. As a curatorial performance, moving viewers from darkness to light in order to enact a metaphor for Byars’s vocations (philosophical inquiry, art making, etc.) is dramatic to be sure. However, having to adjust and readjust your eyes — to be blinded and blinded again while looking at (and for) his work — absolutely activates the point in an affecting way.
The exhibition certainly never shies away from underscoring the theatricality of Byars’s work. One of its great strengths is that it plays to the artist’s particular flamboyance. In what might be the most spectacular room of the show, six artworks — each gilded or gold leaf or gold lamé — are installed together in a darkened room, and dramatically lit to produce reverence and, perhaps, a reveal. The Table of Perfect (1989), as well as The Chair for the Philosophy of Question (1990), and The Red Tent (1989) (sharing space with The Chair) are given their own rooms. The gold leaf on white marble cube and gilded teak Tibetan chair (respectively), are both enclosed in red silk fabric and lit from behind, giving them a regal air. Is, a gilded wood sphere from 1987, sits in the middle of the room, while Portrait of the Artist (1993), a work of gold leaf on paper, and Byars’s infamous gold lamé suit hang on the walls on either side. Look more closely, however, and every gesture seems perhaps too simple for all the fanfare, too direct to receive such holy treatment. Such is the slippery wonder of his work.
Did he — or his audiences — ever believe he had found truth, or achieved perfection? If so, what are the marks of these accomplishments? Where does the proof reside? Are these works of transcendence or sleight-of-hand tricks? Like any good showman, Byars appeared to have understood well that art sometimes delivers its greatest promises on the back of our belief that it will. Whether or not you agree, I encourage you to believe in Byars, even if only for a few hours. If no conversion happens, no matter. The show provides enough dazzle and delight to help you momentarily forget your doubts.