Obituary: James Lee Byars
Thursday 19 June 1997
Byars set up a "Death Lottery" in the Seventies to mark his own death in advance, in 1979 he invited Salvador Dali to Hollywood in order to film his death (Dali refused) and he used death, ghosts and spirits in the titles of his work. His other favoured term was "perfect" and in 1984 he performed The Perfect Death, walking a large circle whilst a Tibetan monk blew a traditional horn. Byars would have considered his real death to be perfect: he expired in the Anglo-American Hospital in Cairo, a venue conveying the exotic, old-fashioned, inherently romantic flavour of his existence. It also has a synchronistic frisson: in 1989 he went to Cairo to personify the pseudonym "Johnny" for "Egyptian Secrets, or Johnny Investigates the Afterlife" published as an article by the magazine Artforum in May of that year.
In Byars's art, the simplest objects contained metaphysical implications, which often depended upon the neutral, reverential space of the art world or their titles to reveal their hidden meaning. Byars used fragile "weak" materials, the ephemeral and transient, including thoughts, questions and kisses. However, like many such artists, as he grew older his concepts became embodied by increasingly solid forms until they looked suspiciously like traditional sculpture. This is a familiar trajectory, often subtly driven by market forces, but Byars was lucky enough to have sufficient patrons to hold out for a long time.
Patrons were a typically anachronistic element of his work, a chain of hosts rewarded with enigmatic traces, a folded paper, a word on a petal. This Byars style was apparent early - he traded toy guns for silk socks with classmates. His first patron was a Detroit Greek for whom he created a garden which existed for two weeks only and included tons of white sand and a goat with a golden chain - the neighbours were so impressed that they offered the 25-year-old Byars a one-year travel grant. As a result, from 1958 until 1967 Byars lived in Japan, studying traditional crafts and creating his first performances, which involved outsize folded papers. Some of these he installed in the emergency stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art in New York for a few hours, including the 1 x 200-Foot Paper which was later bought by the museum.
Zen and Noh were influences on Byars as much as the conceptual practices of the Sixties. His trademark gold or black suits (courtesy of his Asian tailor Mr North South) with top hat and veil or blindfold, were part hippy fantasia, part Oriental ceremony. His sense of theatre was paramount, whether having a Catholic nun in full habit unfold A 1,000-Foot Chinese Paper or being ferried by gondola across the Grand Canal in Venice in gold suit and blindfold.
Byars's actions were varied but always a blend of poetic and dramatic; closing a stretch of Fifth Avenue to be driven past the Guggenheim in a taxi at 100mph, telephoning Alain Robbe-Grillet to exchange a pre-arranged 30-second silence, getting members of the Metropolitan Museum to gild the kerb in front of the museum; or creating dresses for 500 people, with Shere Hite leading their procession.
Byars was always interested in philosophy, specifically questions, and travelled to Oxford in the Sixties to discover what "questions" existed in the Faculty of Philosophy. He set up the World Question Center, which was featured in a live broadcast on Belgian television in 1969, where students phoned famous intellectuals to discover what questions they were asking themselves. Byars was even granted residency by the Theory Department of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva.
Despite an attempt to become "Artist of the Pentagon", a move which led to accusations that his mysterious means of financial support came from the CIA, Byars moved to Europe in 1972. In Germany and Venice his aesthetic met its ideal visual context: he could stand on the Friedericianum pediment at Documenta 5; and display The Holy Ghost, a gigantic sheet, in the Piazza San Marco. Particularly notable was The Play of Death (1976) sponsored by Dr Reiner Speck, who reserved the 13 first-floor rooms of the Domhotel, Cologne, where at 12am on a particular date all the shutters were simultaneously thrown open by Byars and 12 doctors dressed in black. In 1982 he visited Furka Pass in Switzerland, open for only 100 days a year, and in gold suit and top hat placed a drop of black perfume on a boulder.
In 1978 he exhibited a huge marble slab engraved with a minuscule text: "I Am Imaginary". Whether he was or wasn't, James Lee Byars created a resonant, lifelong masterpiece from such ambiguity.
James Lee Byars, artist: born Detroit, Michigan 10 April 1932; married Gwendolyn F. Dunaway (two stepdaughters); died Cairo 23 May 1997.
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