James Lee Byars. Perfect Is the Question

May 10 – September 1, 2024 / Retiro Park, Palacio de Velázquez

View of the exhibition James Lee Byars. Perfect Is the Question, 2024
View of the exhibition James Lee Byars. Perfect Is the Question, 2024

Regarded as one of the most enigmatic and unclassifiable figures of the last century, James Lee Byars (Detroit, 1932 – Cairo, 1997) built up an original poetics based on a fertile questioning of everything that surpasses the limits of logic and on a search for perfection and beauty through the use of the simplest forms. Straddling mysticism, spirituality and corporality, and encompassing visual and performative language, Byars’s excentric practice is indistinguishable from his figure and physical presence, always tied to an unfathomable solitude and darkness. His oeuvre embraces sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, the word, and the montage of his own exhibitions, which the artist envisaged as installations in their own right.

Japanese culture very soon permeated Byars’s aesthetic thought and was a constant source of inspiration for his life and work. The weight of Zen tradition in his practice was framed within a broader current of American avant-garde language that had evidenced the influence of philosophies originating in Asia since the early 1950s. The search for a new definition of being and consciousness denoted a rejection of the West and of modernism in general that was shared by artists, writers, and musicians like Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, John Cage, the Beat Generation, Fluxus, and others.

According to Byars, art manages to transcend everything and requires a transition through concepts and contexts. The aesthetic experience is not the result of the mere conjunction of works with the viewer but comes from the ways in which the spectator notes the objects’ sense of belonging to a specific setting, which activates the precise mechanism for living a perfect moment where beauty surges up and fades away. Byars had an innate instinct for ceremonial rituals, and the experience of art as a momentary encounter with beauty guided his path as an artist.

His attention was drawn early on to Cage’s legendary composition 4’33’’ (1952), which helped him to realize the extraordinary potential of silence as a performative gesture. His fascination with Zen Buddhist aesthetics, haiku poetry, Shinto rituals, Noh theatre, calligraphy, and origami led him to assimilate concepts like the mu (void), an expression of perfection and beauty that results from the mental state called satori.

Between 1958 and 1967, he lived long terms in Japan. There he made his first hybrid objects in paper. These are physically performative works that operate at the intersection between drawing, sculpture, and performance. The concentration on the detail and the ephemeral, the freedom to choose the time and place for clandestine actions, and the recurrent use of gold and simple geometric forms are constants running through all his work, offering broad and abstract interpretations of space and time. The circle, the triangle, and the square symbolize the opening of the mind and the senses towards the infinite expansion of the cosmos. For Byars, the Kinkaku-ji Temple or Golden Pavilion in Kyoto represented the sublimity that was to be the aspiration of his own objects, which he did not consider interesting in themselves but as a trigger for the transmission of sense to the viewer.

He returned in 1967 to the United States, and specifically to New York, whose art scene was then dominated by minimal and conceptual art and Fluxus. However, Byars defined his practice as ‘minimalist baroque’, distancing himself from the trends in vogue. That year, he produced The Film Strip and The Giant Soluble Man, performances in which the artist assigned particular roles to the public. Byars used the name of ‘plays’ for the performative actions he carried out in 1968 and 1969. Examples of that intense activity include 1,000,000 minutes of human attention, Life’s Six Likes, and Dress for 500, performed with items of clothing and student participation, and The World Question Center, produced with the support of the Hudson Institute. The project, central to Byars’s interrogative practice, consisted of telephoning professionals in various fields to ask them to frame the question which in their opinion would encapsulate the urgent issues of the moment.

His first exhibition in Europe took place in 1969 at the Wide White Space in Antwerp. He met Marcel Broodthaers, with whom he shared a profound admiration for Stéphane Mallarmé. Both of them considered the poet a referent for their own exploration of the possibilities of the void and the blank page in the architecture of space. Also in 1969, he presented the installation This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, where the spectral presence of the artist occupied the entire room. The linguistic evocation of the ghost itself has to do with his obsession with death and absence as an expression of void.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Byars started to build sceneries for his objects, painting walls red to represent acts of disappearance. These sets, which recall the décors of Broodthaers, try to involve the spectator in a contextual experience which in Byars’s case is generally laden with magical and mystic associations. Like the Belgian artist, Byars used display cabinets, pedestals, and classical furnishings to create atmospheres that would inspire states of mind. This appropriation of the exhibition paraphernalia habitually found in museums was not motivated by an interest in institutional critique, as was the case of Broodthaers, to whom he is nevertheless linked by a fascination with the book-object. According to the curator Jordan Carter, like the perfect question, the perfect book would in Byars’s lexis be a book without an end. In the absence of words, the book is always a singular item of inexpressible content and imperishable form.

In 1972, Harald Szeemann invited him to participate in documenta 5 in Kassel, where he presented Introduction to documenta 5 and Calling German Names, preformances that marked a watershed in his career. In 1974, he produced The Philosopher Stones, making use for the first time of a durable material, sandstone, to fashion his spheres. The same year, he exhibited The Hole for Speech at the Galerie René Block in Berlin, and he opened the show The Golden Tower at the Galerie Rudolph Springer in the same city. Szeemann proposed the artist’s participation in the 1975 Venice Biennale, where he presented James Lee Byars Does the Holy Ghost, a human figure of cotton that was extended by the crowd in St Mark’s Square. From then on, Byars maintained close ties with Italy and especially with Venice, where he lived and worked for most of the 1980s.

From 1979 onwards, he had a succession of several major solo exhibitions. The one at the Kunsthalle in Berne was dedicated almost exclusively to his sculptural work, while the Appel Center in Amsterdam (1981) programmed performances by Byars throughout the year. He exhibited at documenta 7 in Kassel, curated by Rudi Fochs, and had a retrospective at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (1983) that showed largeformat textile installations like The Devil and his Gifts. At the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf (1986), he presented a series of marble sculptures in rooms that were painted completely red, while the show at the Castello di Rivoli (1987) predominantly featured his works with golden coatings. The first retrospective on the artist in Spain was held in 1994 at the Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, and was curated by Kevin Power and programmed by Vicente Todolí, curator of his last lifetime exhibition at the Fundación Serralves in 1997, who is also in charge of the current exhibition at the Palacio de Velázquez.

Organized by the Museo Reina Sofía and Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, this show traces a survey of Byars’s career from the 1980s onwards. In selecting the works, consideration has been taken of the artist’s methodological approach to the montage of his own exhibitions. Emphasis is therefore laid on the centrality of the space of the Palacio de Velázquez, whose marked symmetry highlights the monumentality and geometric simplicity of the pieces located on its different axes. Large-format works fashioned in precious and refined materials like marble, silk, gold leaf, and crystal combine harmoniously with minimal and archetypal geometries like prisms, spheres, and pillars, creating plays of cross-references between form and content.

Especially prominent among the works displayed are the sculptures The Golden Tower with Changing Tops (1982), a gilded totem with a height of nearly four meters that resumes the artist’s investigations of the immutable; The Door of Innocence (1986-1989), a gilt marble sculpture in the form of a ring symbolizing transition and transformation; and The Tomb of James Lee Byars (1986), where the artist uses a sandstone sphere as a metaphorical encapsulation of spirituality and purity, intangible concepts that contrast with this porous and stratified material. Also of special interest is the installation in the central area of the Palacio de Velázquez, Red Angel of Marseille (1993), made up of a thousand red glass spheres arranged on the ground to form an anthropomorphic figure reduced to its essence. The angelic connotation of the title invites us to reflect on the bonds between the material and the divine.

The exhibition at the Palacio de Velázquez is completed by some early works like Self-Portrait (1959), which allow us to appreciate the artist’s sense of humor, as well as by extensive documentation on his performance practice. In this respect, another featured piece is the no longer extant La esfera de oro [The Golden Sphere], an installation which was presented by the artist in Granada in 1992, and for whose inauguration he organized a performance in collaboration with the artist and poet Miguel Benlloch (Granada, 1954 – Seville, 2018). On the basis of the later vicissitudes of this work, Benlloch produced his own installation O donde habite el olvido [Or Where Neglect Has Its Dwelling] (2000), also included in the exhibition. The documentary material on display includes numerous books and letters, which Byars regarded as an extension of his artistic practice, taking great care over the choice of the type, form, and color of the paper as well as the contents. Byars’s cryptic syntax, his use of capitalized abbreviations, and his ornamental calligraphy constitute a complete aesthetic program.

With regard to the many allegorical and formal significances of material that were explored by the artist, the exhibition focuses on the principal themes running through his oeuvre, such as the search for perfection, the plural question as artistic material, doubt as an existential stance, and the finitude of the human being. It is an invitation to reflect on art’s potential for unleashing aesthetic experiences that are especially attentive to physical and spiritual entities. Byars often sought the implication of the public through temporary actions or large-scale interventions in which he raised various questions directly or indirectly, and on many other occasions he activated these questions himself. Since his death in 1997, this last aspect has given rise to speculation on the visual and symbolic connections of an oeuvre in which the presence of the ever-charismatic Byars, his gestures, his rituals, and his costumes, remains essential.