James Lee Byars poses the question
About the retrospective exhibition devoted to James Lee Byars at the Pirelli HangarBicocca Foundation in Milan (Italy) until 18 February 2023.
It's hard not to be curious about this whimsical "magician of golds and days". Influenced by Marcel Duchamp, minimal art and Fluxus, but also by Eastern culture, the work of James Lee Byars draws on writing, performance, film, sculpture and drawing in hybrid forms designed to create an awe-inspiring effect, somewhere between derision and solemnity. Between materiality and immateriality, the artist, born American in Detroit in 1932, became Japanese in Kyoto, then a resident of Venice, before dying in Cairo on a full moon night in 1997, developed an enigmatic body of work, imbued with spirituality and mysticism. The private contemporary art foundation Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan will be hosting a retrospective of his works of art from 12 October 2023 to 18 February 2024, whose monumental scale is perfectly at home in the vast nave.
The exhibition will then be shown at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, in the Palacio Velazquez in the Buen Retiro Park, from 25 April to 1 September 2024. In the meantime, it was not I, but the art critic and psychoanalyst Annabelle Gugnon, who went to see the Italian version of this retrospective exhibition for the contemporary art magazine Artpress: you can read her article in the December issue, and I'll be happy to share a few extracts with you.
A little biography in the meantime. James Lee Byars began studying psychology and aesthetics and then, between 1958 and 1967, made frequent visits to Japan, during which he worked on the relationship between Western rationalism and Eastern mysticism. He then became a nomad, and from the 1970s onwards he gave numerous performances in public and institutional spaces in Europe and America. His first solo exhibition was held in the fire escape at MoMA in New York in 1958!
This was followed by exhibitions of works of art for sale at the Willard Gallery in 1961 and in Japan from 1962, while others took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1970, then at MoMA in 1976. He gave performances at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland, the starting point for other exhibitions throughout Europe: Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, London, Paris, Cologne, Venice, Brussels, Marseille, etc. His favourite colours - gold, red, black and white - lend a poetic and mystical dimension to his creations and performances, which combine art and life in a quest for the sublime and perfection. The themes of the ephemeral, fragility, the invisible and death are present, often combined with that of perfection, for example in The Rose Table of Perfect - a spherical sculpture from 1989 made up of 3,333 red roses that fade over the course of the exhibition, The Angel (1989), made up of 125 Murano glass spheres mounted on a transparent spherical support. Splendid.
Suivent des expositions d'œuvres d'art à vendre à la Willard Gallery en 1961 et au Japon à partir de 1962, tandis que d'autres ont lieu au Metropolitan Museum of Art en 1970, puis au MoMA en 1976. Il donne des représentations au Musée des Beaux-Arts de Berne, en Suisse, point de départ d'autres expositions à travers l'Europe : Amsterdam, Berlin, Genève, Londres, Paris, Cologne, Venise, Bruxelles, Marseille, etc. Ses couleurs de prédilection - l'or, le rouge, le noir et le blanc - confèrent une dimension poétique et mystique à ses créations et performances, qui allient l'art et la vie dans une quête du sublime et de la perfection. Les thèmes de l'éphémère, de la fragilité, de l'invisible et de la mort sont présents, souvent associés à celui de la perfection, comme dans La table de roses de Perfect - sculpture sphérique de 1989 composée de 3 333 roses rouges qui se fanent au fil de l'exposition, L'ange (1989), composé de 125 sphères en verre de Murano montées sur un support sphérique transparent. Splendide.
"James Lee Byars is a conceptual artist, a great hybridiser of Minimalism and Shintoism, a magician of quintessence, an epigon of the Pythia of Delphi, a dandy of perfection, and a master of performance art, in the neighbourhood of Yvonne Rainer, the Judson Theater in New York, John Cage and the Japanese Gutai movement", writes the art critic. "Several of James Lee Byars' performances are revived in the course of the exhibition at Pirelli, including his communal garments: Four in a Dress (1967), Ten in a Hat (1968). There was also the performance at the 1993 Venice Biennale, in which he handed out gold leaflets to the public, stamped with the aphorism "Your presence is the best work", and so on. But it's hard to remember one of his most memorable performances. It was at Documenta V, directed by Harald Szeemann, in Kassel in 1972. James Lee Byars, dressed all in red silk, perched on the roof of the Friedericianum, an 18th-century museum, like an angel floating between the great neo-classical sculptures, called out names loudly through a megaphone. "Everyone thought they were going to be called," recalls artist Annette Messager. To be called... for what? For whom?
That's James Lee Byars: a producer of questions. "I think that by adding a question mark to a sentence, I move it into the realm of art or poetry", says the man who in 1969 conceived the World Question Centre, where he wanted to bring together a hundred of the most brilliant minds to ask each other questions. For him, the question is the instrument of knowledge. "In the exhibition," says Annabelle Gugnon, "a gilded marble pillar, symbolising the human figure, is engraved with the letters Q and R and bears the title The Figure of the Question Is in the Room (1986-89). In an adjacent room, Byars's voice can be heard intermittently chanting "What? Further on, the question remains. A black silk tent houses a chair set against a gold damask and, according to the initials of its title, is home to the first totally interrogative philosophy (Hear TH FI TO IN PH Around This Chair and It Knocks You Down, 1977). One year after his death, this work was dedicated to Marcel Broodthaers, the Belgian conceptual artist with whom James Lee Byars collaborated for several years.