Reassessing an Artist ‘Too Preposterous for New York’


Back in the 1980s—not the East Village ’80s but the West Broadway ’80s—when Mudman stood sentry on Saturdays, James Lee Byars occasionally materialized too, resplendent in gold-lamé suit and top hat. If his persona was too florid, his minimalist art was unacceptably baroque and over-the-top theatrical. And his fetish for perfection—the perfect moment, the perfect sphere—was just too preposterous for New York, which never quite took him seriously. I once heard him described as the Liberace of the art world. Yet while Mudman stayed outside Mary Boone’s gallery, Byars—whose ceremonial aesthetic of incorruptible preciosity was taken more seriously elsewhere—showed his splendidly pretentious installations within. Born in Detroit, Byars the late artist came by his affectations honestly: He had spent much of the ’60s in Japan studying calligraphy, Noh drama, and Shinto ritual.

“A lot of people didn’t get their due,” remarked an old-timer, glancing at a symmetrical curlicue of 333 blood-red glass spheres. They still don’t. Paltry and far from perfect, this show limits itself to three early ink drawings, six glistening white marble forms in narrow vitrines (reflecting infinitely), and The Death of James Lee Byars, which reconstitutes the flaky gold-leaf room in which he lay nearly invisible in his golden suit a decade ago in Brussels, “practicing death.” Did anyone ever wonder how his performance work connected to that of Yoko Ono, or his gilded chamber to Paul Thek’s Death of a Hippie? Has anyone yet realized that he was the anti-Beuys? And is half a floor of the Whitney better than none? It may whet your curiosity. But for the expansive retrospective Byars deserves, you’ve got to go to Europe. That exhibition, organized by the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, is in Strasbourg, France, until March.