The Death of James Lee Byars

If you were to design your own memorial, what would it be?

It is not clear if James Lee Byars (1932-1997) meant The Death of James Lee Byars as a memorial, but it now functions as one, the way the Ana Mendieta silhoueta of lit candles placed at the end point of her Whitney exhibition earlier this year did. The Death and a few other Byars works are now at the Whitney (945 Madison Ave. at 75th St., to March 5). For those interested in the Dada/Fluxus wing of art or the spiritual in art, this almost willfully diffident exhibition is essential.

The Death is the residue of a performance. What we see is deemed “a traveling copy” of the artwork now in a private collection. It came about because of a 1994 performance in which Byars reclined in a gold-covered room, clad in gold lamé and wearing his signature black hat. He referred to the performance as “practicing death.”

The sculpture now on view is a boxlike room with the fourth wall removed: in other words, a stage set. All three walls, the floor and the ceiling are covered with something called composition gold in a slightly peeling grid. If you’ve every tried leafing something, with real or ersatz gold, you will recognize those clinging, super-thin squares and the way they flutter and refuse to stay put. Mere breath will interfere with wrinkle-free placement. And you had better wear a mask (not a gold one!), because the little particles can get in your lungs and they stay there forever, no doubt doing golden but deadly damage. A lung of gold is not the same as a heart of gold.

At the center of the tomblike, womblike room is a rectangular casket or bier also covered with gold leaf. On it have been placed five nearly invisible crystals. The Death of James Lee Byars may be a self-made memorial, but it is also anyone’s, since death, absence, disappearance, and departure is our lot.

The room you dare not enter is golden and gleaming, both sunset and sunrise. I like the fact that the current incarnation is dated right there on the wall label as 1994-2004. Is Byars, who supposedly died of cancer in Cairo in 1997, still alive? Or are some mysterious death-bed instructions being followed? Is someone channeling him? You thought art was about life. Wrong. In a sense, every artist’s every artwork is a memorial.

Are my feeling about The Death in any way determined by the fact that I met up with Byars once or twice? I saw his strange talking performance at TheArchitectural League in New York. He just sat there days on end answering any question that was asked. He was wearing, I think, his black hat and some kind of red garment.

And then the next year for the Fashion Show Poetry Event in 1969 (which I co-organized), he was our climax. His wedding dress was worn by 20 people. Even with this jolly work, Byars demonstrated his fondness for questions rather than answers.

John Brockman, author of The Late John Brockman (1969), dedicates his World Question Center to Byars on his Edge website. Originally the World Question Center was one of the Byars’ rare “failed” artworks. Byars wanted to lock 100 of the world’s most brilliant minds in a room and have them ask each other the questions they had been asking themselves. But when Byars attempted contact by telephone, Brockman reports “70 people hung up on him.”

Byars was one of those artists who kept on disappearing, getting on and off my radar. A legend. A nomad who allowed himself to own only four books at a time. Too strange to be a friend; missing in action, as it were. I remember that he had, while teaching English in Japan for 10 years, studied papermaking, Noh theater, Zen; his roots were in fiber art, the fact of which has been conveniently buried, probably with his own help. He embraced the role of a Zen mystic, but crossed it with that of the dandy. His block-long Soluble Man, done for the American Craft Museum’s 1967 “Made on Paper” exhibition, was made of water-soluble paper and was, after its brief existence, dissolved by two street-cleaning trucks.

In spite of his “participation clothes,” such as the already mentioned group wedding dress and the two-person, silk wearable on display at the Whitney — Two in a Hat (Breath), 1969 — Byars was a loner. Some might say he was hypnotized by his own self-regard. Crazy, but crazy like a fox. A lot of his work, once you remove his presence, his posturing, and his performativeness seems to be about emptying out. If you remove all the energy from a form or a material, what new energy comes in to fill that vacuum?

The first piece you see in the Whitney sampling of Byars’ work is The Little Red Angel of Marseilles, 333 red glass spheres arranged on the floor like a voodoo insignia or a medieval angel symbol, straight out of practical alchemy. This angel sign relates cleverly to Paul Viola’s Five Angels for the Millennium that is projected in the room next door.

Then we come to three drawings Byars made on large sheets of Japanese paper when he was in Japan: Myron Stout writ large. The next room offers eight relatively small marble sculptures, from 1986 to 1994, displayed in vitrines. Although all severely geometrical, three of the sculptures purport to be books: The Star Book, The Cube Book, and The Triangle Book. These are, of course, books without pages, books you can’t open. The smoothly rendered surfaces make the marble look like sugar or Ivory soap or Styrofoam. What do they mean?

And then you arrive at The Death of James Lee Byars.

If you were to make a memorial for yourself, would you have a statue carved of your naked body and then use it on your grave? What age would you choose for that representation? Perfect youth? Diseased senescence?

Would you buy some threatened forest and name it after yourself? Would you endow a chair of art criticism? Would you have your body burned to ashes on a barge in the middle of the Hudson River and then have photos and films sent to family members? Ex-lovers? Enemies? Would you…

Would you finance a perpetually available edition of your collected poems; in print and in cyberspace. Your art criticism too. And then a special museum just for your art.

Or barely nothing at all: an anonymous footprint, a scent of roses in the air.

“James Lee Byars: The Perfect Silence” does not include his The Rose Table of Perfect made up of 3,333 red roses left to wilt, or his 100 unanswered letters to Joseph Beuys, but is, in its own way, perfect.

If only there were some way we could add the following reminiscence by Stephan Köhler (full text is included in thecatalogue for the 1999 Byars exhibition at the Toyota Municipal Museum in Japan):

“For months on my way to work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I observed a tall man dressed in a black velvet suit with a black hat and his eyes covered with a scarf of black silk crossing the Grand Canale in a ferry boat, a black Gondola. He never sat down, but always stood in the middle of the shaky boat like a sculpture. He was conscious of every move he made, aware of every detail of his posture as well at the energy he emanated into the surrounding space.”

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