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As the story goes, there are a million different ways to say I Love You. For 20th Century conceptual-performance artist James Lee Byars, it was never about saying the words. “James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography” at MoMA PS1 chronicles this artist’s lifelong career as an artist who transformed his life into an artful series of eventful acts. He played the role of artist-as-shaman throughout his life as he sought to expound on philosophical concepts of perfection, truth, beauty, and love. He intertwined his art into his life and at moments the difference is immutable—which is exactly the point. As Byars dressed daily in monochrome suits of black, white, pink or gold, the world was his stage as he theatrically transformed the mundane into the extraordinary through his visual and performance art.
Born and raised in Detroit, he studied art and philosophy, later moving to Kyoto, Japan in 1958 after graduating college. The meditative qualities of Shinto rituals would continually peek through his work through his use of monochrome colors, simple shapes and delicate materials. Stacks of white paper, crushed black tissue filling an acrylic star-relief, and long scrolls of paper interspersed with cut-out geometric shapes define the artist’s championship of manipulating the everyday world into new-found objects with a heightened sense of contemplation.
Byars fascination with the everyday is even more apparent into the 1960s as he threw his life completely into his art. After leaving Kyoto his work became a performance of life over the static object on display—despite the physical beauty of his work, the object acts as a reliquary trace to document the artist’s ritualistic performances. Living and working between New York, Venice, San Francisco, Kyoto, Bern, the Swiss Alps, Los Angeles and the American Southwest, the “correspondence letter” became a ritual and an art form in his daily routine. More than a letter to catch up with old friends, his thoughts were recorded so the act of writing became the sentiment over the written words. His notes were crafted on elaborate cut-paper pieces with striking calligraphy that filled letters with decorative stars at every end, making it near impossible to read the words themselves. A letter not meant to be read is a joke. However perverse, an ephemeral note fetishized into an action of beauty becomes more about Byars’s sentimental action than the letter itself regardless of their decorative qualities.
Byars life so intertwined with his art that by 1969 at the age of 37 he wrote his “1/2 autobiography.” Sitting in a gallery, he jotted down thoughts and questions every time a visitor approached him, and published them afterwards in a book he titled The Big Sample of Byars. The “books” he wrote are more satirical than functional as most have no words at all, script so small or such decorative calligraphy it is impossible to read anyway. Byars preferred the perfection of form over the utilitarian function of things as he continually negated objects use-value for the act of creating something visually interesting.
His conquest for perfection through performance actualized in his late career as he created installations meant to be experienced first-hand by the viewer. In “Portrait of the Artist” (1993), three gilded gold rectangles with soft edges pasted to the wall act as a reflective surface as the viewer stares blankly at themselves rather than Byars himself. “The Chair for the Philosophy of Question” (1990) is a theatrical stage completely covered in lush red velvet. Peering into the room, a gold-leafed antique Tibetan chair bathed in the gleaming red light sits unaccompanied by any human presence.
In “The Ghost of James Lee Byars,” viewers walk through a pitch black corridor devoid of light and objects turning the simple act of walking into an absurd game similar to peering through the hallways of a Haunted House. Exiting the darkened corridors one enters a bright room full of windows, with Byar’s sculpture “Rose Table of Perfect” (1989) perched in the center. This ephemeral piece is made of 3,333 roses sculpted over a perfect sphere. Its perfection slowly fades as the roses wilt through time, but the symbolism of the piece mimics his earlier correspondence art as the act of love reaches its full realization as a momentary phenomenon replete with everlasting beauty.
In a documented performance piece “The Perfect Love Letter is to Write “I Love You” Backwards in the Air” (1974), Byars does just that. What remains of this act are 4 photographic black and white prints of Byars in his signature black hat waving his arms about in the air in such a way his action is uncertain without the title. Byars life was an artful act of beauty as he sought individual experiences of universal truths in ways that were against the grain and full of satire. He was obsessed with the idea of perfection as a way to seek truth and beauty—an absolute portal to personify love. What better way to find truth than to initiate a desire for something more. By transforming the everyday into a satirical—yet sincere—action of life, Byars made a joke of the world, and a piece of art out of his life by expanding universal norms into individual moments.
James Lee Byars: 1/2 and Autobiography runs through September 7, 2014 at MoMA PS1