The Ghost of James Lee Byars: A Retrospective
February 2 - March 10, 2013
Saturday, February 2, 2013, 8-11PM
For five weeks, Will Brown restages The Ghost of James Lee Byars, the artist’s seminal 1969 work; a completely lightless environment. Inside The Ghost of James Lee Byars, Will Brown hosts a comprehensive collection of the artist’s work.
Sample contents include:
1964. Hat, original envelope, notes. Byars wore this hat to MoMA on October 10 (10/10), and at 10 A.M. announced himself at the reception desk, smashed the hat, and then had it sent up to curator Dorothy Miller. The hat exists as evidence of this performance.
1969. Live broadcast on Belgian National Television of the World Question Center, consisting of students from the University of Brussels dressed in a plural garment, telephoning celebrated intellectuals and asking them what questions they are asking themselves.
1978. The Perfect Kiss, MATRIX/BERKELEY 4, University Art Museum. “The piece consists of Byars, dressed in black, entering the Museum lobby and stationing himself in a spot-lit corner of the room. He faces the lobby entrance and forms a kiss with a subtle gesture of his lips, after which he leaves the room.”
1982/94. The Death of James Lee Byars.
Date Unknown. Mercedes Exit.
1997. Artist dies in Cairo.
One of the most compelling and under-recognized artists of the 20th century, James Lee Byars lived at the center of his countless creations. Far removed from the notion of the artwork as a collectible or reproducible object, Byars was instead interested in creating an alternate and romantic form of living, one that was both of this world and beyond it. He valued questions over answers, absence over presence, and ambiguity over clarity. His obsession with perfection, paradox, and death—specifically his own—took him around the world many times over, moving regularly between his birthplace of Detroit (1932), Kyoto, Bern, Los Angeles, New York, and Cairo, his final resting place (1997).
Always dressed in full black, gold, or red costume, his performances, objects, "performable objects," actions, questions, proposals, letters, books, and epitaphs have taken on mythological status. He kept no calendar and often wore a straight jacket; he owned only four books at a time, replacing them as he read them. He once climbed the Furka Pass in Switzerland to place a drop of black perfume on a rock. His works, many without title or documentation, are momentary parts of an impossible whole—one which has never before been collectively shown.
The Ghost of James Lee Byars, one of the artist’s most seminal and difficult works, was first installed in Düsseldorf in 1969. An empty, pitch-black room, the work has since been recreated in several group exhibitions, each providing the darkness with a different reading based on the context in which it’s displayed—the supernatural, the artist as shaman or medium, the monochrome, the void, minimalism, or the connection between the paranormal and conceptualism. Given the artist’s reluctance to make absolute statements in favor of open interpretation, these readings could be all accurate, or at least applicable. “Make me up as you wish,” he once proclaimed during an interview.
The Ghost of James Lee Byars: A Retrospective presents a complete collection of the works of the enigmatic and prolific artist inside the darkness of The Ghost of James Lee Byars. Like a crypt, the exhibition contains the remains of every proposal, every unphotographed action, every “perfect” sculpture, every speeding taxi, and, given the title, perhaps even the artist himself. The exhibition takes a series of questions as inspiration: How can we appropriately construct a retrospective for an artist whose work is inseparable from his physical presence? How can we contend with an artist who so presciently declared all of his works “canceled” upon his death? Can a gallery be a container for ideas rather than objects?
A reading room is installed in the backroom of the gallery with a growing collection of books, articles, and photographs related to the artist’s life and work. We invite you to pass through the The Ghost of James Lee Byars en route to the reading room and to contribute any Byars-related material to its collection for the run of the exhibition.
Related programming will explore the tension between what we know and what we don't; between sight and knowledge, this side and the other. A calendar of events will be made available shortly.