Central to James Lee Byars’ work is creating situations in which he involves a diverse audience in temporary actions or large-scale interventions within urban, institutional or sacred settings. Many of the works were conceived by the artist to be performatively activated by himself.
An emblematic example is the performance “The Holy Ghost” held in Piazza San Marco in Venice in 1975. About seven hundred people hold up above their head a piece of cloth, a hundred meters long, that resembles a human figure.
For his performances, Byars made iconic silk "collective dresses" that could be worn by several people at once. For instance, in 1967 he orchestrated a public performance in which one hundred people walked through New York wearing one giant red silk scarf, in a nearly 1.5-kilometer-long procession accompanied by Bach music.
He had a strong relation to Japan
James Lee Byars. Nov 4, 1993. Ueno, Tokyo. Photo: Shigeo Anzai
Byars was always fascinated by Japanese culture, which exerted a deep influence on his practice. Indeed, he combined motifs and symbols from Eastern traditions and civilizations with a deep knowledge of Western art and philosophy, offering a unique personal view on reality and its physical and spiritual entities.
From the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s the artist lived between Japan and the United States. During these stays, he came into contact with the major figures of the culture of the time, engaging with numerous traditional forms of expression, from ceramics to painting on paper, that allowed him to expand his artistic vocabulary. Byars was also fascinated by the ceremonial aspects of ancient Japanese religions such as Zen Buddhism and Shintoism, characterized by minimalist rituals full of meaning and the use of votive objects often made of folded paper or stones. Another important influence was Noh theater, whose formal and aesthetic characteristics he admired, like the abstract stage composition based on simplicity, the creation of vivid and sensual atmospheres, and the use of masks as an enigmatic communication device.
Writing was part of his artistic practice
James Lee Byars’ plans for the exhibition The Palace of Perfect (Porto: Fundação de Serralves, 1997). Fax from James Lee Byars to Vicente Todolí, sent from Three-M Hotel, Nara, Japan, to Fundação de Serralves, Porto
These letters highlight Byars’s long-researched concept of beauty which lies in their physicality, as the choice of paper, color, and ink, and the nearly indecipherable decorative handwriting used for transcribing practical information, poetic epigrams, and personal messages.
More precisely, this is a correspondence between James Lee Byars and Vicente Todolí, who at the time was curating the artist’s exhibition at Museu Serralves in Porto in 1997, sent by fax from the Three-M Hotel in Nara, Japan.
He also realized clothes
1) James Lee Byars wearing his fundoshi in 1/2 an Autobiography. In “Days in Japan”, Shinobu Sagakami, 2017 2) James Lee Byars: untitled photograph. 1987. Color photograph; 9 7/8 x 8 in. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Bequest of James Elliott
James Lee Byars was described as a shaman, a dandy or a magician in his performances on many occasions. The artist dressed according to a refined and entirely personal aesthetic code: a suit (gold, white, black or pink, depending on the occasion), a hat, gloves, and sometimes a blindfold. His clothing had visual and symbolic connections with his works. Throughout his career, Byars frequently collaborated with other artists, fashion houses such as Balenciaga.
The human figure was central to his work
James Lee Byars. The Thinking Field, 1989. Installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023. Museum Ludwig, Cologne/permanent loan from the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst am Museum Ludwig Köln e.V. 1995, Wolfgang-Hahn-Preis 1994. Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, The Estate of James Lee Byars and Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London and Berlin. Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri
Byars developed a mystical-aesthetic reflection on the representation and dematerialization of the human figure.
He even entitled one of his works “The Human Figure” (1992). Laid out horizontally along the floor of Pirelli HangarBicocca’s Navate, the installation consists of 100 white marble spheres of the same size arranged in the shape of an elongated oval. In this work, the artist further develops his exploration of the human form and its ultimate simplification. The material prevails, with a tactile quality typical of the language of sculpture.
Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” (circa 1490), Byars also reduces the human figure to a collection of points. As the artist himself said, «I discovered that five points make a figure. They can be waterdrops, for example. If you put down one waterdrop for the head and you make a pentagon or a star figure, you have actually made a man». In particular, “The Diamond Floor” installation is composed of five crystals arranged to form a pentagon on a black floor.
Materials and colors were highly symbolic in Byars’ practice
James Lee Byars. Exhibition view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2023. Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, The Estate of James Lee Byars and Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London and Berlin. Photo: Agostino Osio
James Lee Byars’ path was greatly influenced by his study of the pre-Socratic philosophers (considered the pioneers of modern physics), magic, and alchemy, leading him to develop a way of thinking aimed at the pursuit of perfection.
This relentless research manifests in his practice which again and again returns to the same colors (red, black, gold, white); forms (sphere, circle, cube, rectangle, column); durable precious materials (marble, lapis, bronze, gold, sandstone); numbers (7, 1, 3, 100, 1.000); lexicon (book, angel, perfect, question, death). He reveals the subtle difference between repetition and insistence.
Colors become layered with symbols as noted by art historians Peter J. Schneemann and Nicola Müllerschön, “Byars reduced the iconography of his materials to a trinity: red for the color of life and blood, black with its allusions to death, and finally gold, which signifies immortality and desire.”
James Lee Byars was on TV with his “The World Question Center”
Byars adopts “question” and doubt as an instrument of knowledge in his practice, believing that the question mark can breathe new life into any statement, transferring it from the realm of the assertion of reality to that of art and poetry.
One evening, in November, 1969, the performance “The World Question Center” was broadcasted live on Belgian television. Byars, in pink suit, with 50 students from the University of Brussels acting as ‘operators’, telephoned people in Europe and in the United States, such as John Cage. They had been forewarned of the event without being told that they would be asked for questions, rather than answers. So overwhelming was the dominance of the notion of answer that the request for questions caused confusion and anxiety. Ninety minutes of confused pauses followed, as the impenetrability of pure question held sway, and the event itself became a crowning question mark.
During the same period, he undertook numerous collaborations with scientific institutes, pursuing his research through inquiries based on philosophical doubt, according to which the question is more important than the answer. In 1972, he was invited to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, as the first artist-in-residence.
His relationship with Venice: the Murano glass craftmanship
James Lee Byars, Red Angel of Marseille (detail), 1993. Installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2023 FNAC 99316, Centre national des arts plastiques. On deposit at Centre Pompidou, Paris. Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, The Estate of James Lee Byars and Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London and Berlin. Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri.
Throughout his life, James Lee Byars developed a close connection with the city of Venice, where he had lived and worked for several periods from 1982 onwards.
During his time in Venice, Byars studied glass, a fragile and translucent material that the artist regarded as an ideal medium with which to convey the transcendence of beauty. In particular, he experiments with the qualities of this material by collaborating with the artisans of Murano. With their contribution, he created “The Angel in 1989, composed of over a hundred transparent spheres arranged on the floor to recreate the celestial figure of the angel. Later on, he conceived a more complex version of the work, “The Red Angel of Marseille” which is on view at Pirelli HangarBicocca’s exhibition.