James Lee Byars

Born in Detroit (1932-1997), James Lee Byars was an American artist whose practice was devoted to the infusion of conceptual art, minimalism, happening, fluxus and body performances.

Often characterized as idiosyncratic, Byars often dressed up as in a way that put him at the center of the attention becoming a spectacle. Throughout his career as an artist, Byars travelled frequently to Kyoto, Japan in search of the mediation between beauty and truth. His frequent travels permitted him to combine the traditional practices of Japanese Noh theatre, Shinto and Zen Buddhism with Western art and philosophies in the means of performance, installation and sculptures. With these sources as philosophical foundation, Byars’s œuvres become a driving force for questioning his enigmatic presence and the expression of the “eternal perfection and self-transcendence”.

He was an artist shrouded in notoriety and apocryphal anecdotes. Legend has it that in 1958, Byars travelled to New York from his home state as a young, unknown artist allegedly with the sole intention of meeting Mark Rothko. He presented himself at the front-desk of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and charmed the then curator Dorothy Miller so much so that within a year Miller allowed him his have his first New York exhibition of large works on paper in the emergency exit stairwell of the museum. An unimaginable feat today, and it marked the beginning of a career filled with travel, innovation and eccentricities, which all became his enlightenment to explore the otherworldly state of mind.

Byars's notoriety within the art world came from his reputation as an "artists artist". One of his most notable performances and installations, The Death of James Lee Byars (1994) was first conceived at the Marie-Puck Broodthaers Gallery in Brussels, Belgium as a prelude to the artist’s own departure from the world. Byars was revered within the tight circles of the international art world, known to captivate both his contemporaries and audiences alike with his unique likable charm and forthrightness, but he never fully became immersed within the commercial art world until after his death in Cairo, Egypt in 1997.

In the last decade or so, several institutions have organized solo exhibitions for James Lee Byars: Life, Love and Death, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Musée d'Art modern et contemporain, Strasbourg, France (2004); The Perfect Silence, curated by Chrissie Iles, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA (2005); The Rest Is Silence, curated by Klaus Ottmann, Michael Werner, New York, USA (2006); James Lee Byars: The Art of Writing, MoMA, New York, USA (2007); Orindary Madness, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, USA (2011); 1/2 An Autobiography Museo Jumex, Mexico City, Mexico (2013); Carlos Becerra elaborates on The Death of James Lee Byars – (Brussels 1994 – Cairo 1997), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands (2016); James Lee Byars, Mendes Wood DM, Sao Paulo, Brazil (2016); James Lee Byars: Sphere is a Sphere is a Sphere is a Sphere, Peter Lund, Oslo, Norway (2016); James Lee Byars: James Lee Byars: The Figure of Question is in the Room, André Viana, New York, USA (2016). Byars’s works were undertaken in several of the most comprehensive survey in recent years: Worlds: James Lee Byars, Jörg Immendorff, Thomas Lehmerer, Hermann Nitsch, Reiner Ruthenbeck and others, Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany (2006); That Was Then, This is Now, PS1/MoMA, New, York, USA (2008); NeoHooDoo: Art of a Forgotten Faith, PS1/MoMA, New York, Miami Art Museum, Miami, USA (2008); The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia at the Guggenheim Museum, New York; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA (2009); James Lee Byars: From Life to Art and Back Again, Argos Centre for Art & Media, Brussels, Belgium (2010); Glam! The Performance of Style, Tate, Liverpool, United Kingdom (2013); The Encyclopedic Palace, Fifty-fifth Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2013); Goshka Macuga; To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy (2016); Take me I’m Yours, Kunsthalle Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark; The Jewish Museum, New York, USA (2016).