James Lee Byars “1/2 an Autobiography,” MoMA PS1- A Selective Response

by Eric Mavko

All photos courtesy the author for QuantumArtReview

It’s difficult to look directly at James Lee Byars, and no doubt he meant it that way.  During his career he presented himself in a number of different guises (even as a disembodied voice) and produced a diverse and at times confounding array of sculptures, works on paper, works on paper that “perform” as sculptures (sort of), performances, letters both typed and handwritten, telegrams, books, and, acting as the World Question Center, collected an unending list of questions from artists, scientists, philosophers – frankly anyone – from all over the world (notably as the first artist-in-residence at CERN), in the pursuit of what he termed “The First Totally Interrogative Philosophy.” Byars was the first to place a totally immaterial performance piece in the permanent collection of a museum.  He has been described variously as a conjurer, a shaman, a mystic, a minimalist, and an outrageous personality.

(left to right) Byars’ gold lamé suit; Is, 1987, gilded wood; Portrait of the Artist, 1993, gold leaf on paper

At age 37 he staged a performance that he titled his “1/2 Autobiography,” from which this exhibition takes its title.  It is also a reference, as the press release states, to the impossibility of truly giving a complete sense of an artist and his career, even via a museum retrospective.  This may be more true of Byars than most other artists, as so much of his work was ephemeral, and was for most of his life inextricable from his everyday existence.

A closely researched account of the artist’s formative years is badly needed.  Most of the accounts that I have read contradict one another in the details, but it is certain that after studying art and philosophy at Wayne State University in Michigan, (one article I found avers that he abandoned his studies…) Byars went to Kyoto, Japan, and stayed there for 10 years, visiting the US from time to time.  I’ve read alternately that Morris Graves introduced him to a network of patrons there to support his stay, and that he supported himself teaching English – perhaps both are true (he definitely taught English to some extent).  Regardless, it is clear that what he absorbed in Japan of Shinto ritual, Noh Theater, and Zen philosophy would inform his work for the rest of his life, as he brought aspects of them crashing into a western setting: enacting a giant cleansing ritual in midtown Manhattan, performing abbreviated theatrical pieces that filled a gallery or museum, for a moment, with a breath or a murmur, a gesture or the flash of a smile.  He rolled a sphere of red lava (cooled and solidified) through the streets of Amsterdam, and once spent a day, clad all over in billowing pink satin and platform heels, chasing tourists in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, trying to grant them invisibility.

The Figure of The Interrogative Philosophy, 1987/1995, gilded marble

Looking at all of this on the surface, it’s easy for a declarative like “What a loon” to bubble up in one’s mind, and the provocateur’s persona was something that he kept up for most of his career.  But looking carefully at certain of his sculptures and videos, we can find a sense of humility, a sensitivity, a delicately implied presence that hovers about his body of work. 

Byars’ performable paper works exist in a complicated state of potential.  Not quite sculptures, not fully performances, they exist as one and both only when they are physically activated.  Inert, they are beautiful in themselves and it’s tempting to view them as sculptural objects, nor are they mere props for performance.  They are the performance and the object, and since obviously they are not automatons, it is only possible for them to fully exist when being manipulated by a person.

A well-known example is the Performable Square, composed of 18 x 18” squares of Japanese flax paper hinged together that comprise a 600 x 600” square that folds up into a cube.  Another is the Mile-Long Walk, made again from flax paper, 75 sections are joined together by rivets so the piece can be opened or re-folded like a folding ruler.  Both works exist in a temporal dimension as well as the physical, and it is tempting – though perhaps a bit over-heated – to view the Performable Square as a tesseract, and the Mile-Long Paper Walk, when collapsed into a summation of itself and therefore traversable in a single step, as implying a sort of time dilation. When these pieces were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art Byars accepted no money, and stipulated that they be entered into the collection as received from anonymous donors. 

Two later works in the exhibition, The Play of Death and The Diamond Floor, derive from a concept that Byars called “5 points make a man.”  Formally this can be taken to mean the physical 5 points of the star, referencing the extremities of hands/feet/head in DaVinci’s universal man.  The Play of Death is an actual wall-mounted black star, and in the Diamond Floor the star has been reduced to the five points alone, marked out by crystals placed on the floor of a blackened room, picked out by a single light.  There is an elegant conceptual correlative in the five skandhas, or aggregates, of Buddhist phenomenology.  Our perception of existence is a result of our experience of the five aggregates; a fallacy of reification, where abstract experience leads us to believe that we are something concrete. This conjuring of the light of existence out of a void is emblematic of the artist’s ever-deepening meditations on death and the transience of worldly phenomena as his career progressed.   

Table of Perfect,1989

I’ve jumped from the very beginning of Byars’ career to the very end in the above discussion. The exhibition as well seemed divided into things that were relevant to the artist’s prolific writing and the World Question Center, and things that were not. It’s the nature of Byars’ oeuvre that any attempt at linearity is going to end up non-sensical.  What I was most concerned at pointing out was the deep empathy and humanism embedded in his work that is so easy to miss.  The implied necessity of human presence in the paper works, and the depiction of existence as but a dream of light in a void in the later works, displays a deep reverence for the time we are allotted as humans.

A video from 1970 illustrates this again: a one-minute film, completely dark save for a single frame in the middle where we glimpse a white silhouette, unmistakably the artist in his trademark suit and broad-brimmed hat, for just an instant.  The title Autobiography is a humble one.  At mid-career, his work having reached across the globe, Byars gives us a Zen meditation on death.  Our lives are but an instant in an all-consuming void. 

One of Byars’ final works, not included in the exhibition, is a monumental sculpture in marble, a final distillation of his “Five Points.”  5 Curved Forms is just that, columns set in a line rather than as points of a star, they gently curve in the same direction as though by a gentle breeze.  They exude calm, a gentleness, genuflecting as Byars, smiling, hands folded, his eyes covered by the brim of his hat and a hint of a smile on his face, steps back into the shadows.