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In Frankfurt, a series of documentary photographs attest to Byars' radical refusal to view art purely as object, as material manifestation. It is the puzzling precision that most stands out in his works: "The perfect love letter is write I love you backwards in the air" from 1974 consists of four photographs in which Byars, wearing a white suit and once again with his eyed covered, is standing in front of Brussels' Palais des Beaux Arts drawing imaginary signs with his finger: indecipherable writing in empty space. At the same time, Byars also inscribed concrete objects with the traces of the transient moment - whether in the 3,333 red roses that gradually wilt in the installation "The Rose Table of Perfect," originally made in 1989 and recently reconstructed; or in the sculpture "The Human Figure" from 1992, in which he arranged 100 white marble spheres, each of them 20 centimeters in diameter, into an elliptic shape.


James Lee Byars, The Rose Table of Perfect, 1989, 3333 rote Rosen, Styropor, IVAM, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderne, Generalitat Valenciana

Byars consistently used the unpredictability between silent testimony and the artist's momentary presence in the material to reconcile transcendence and a longing for eternity with the ineluctability of physical decay and death. This balance makes him into an exceptional advocate of an art of transition: from reality to imagination, from worldly experience to spiritual principles, but also from a modernism bent on progress to post-modernism's sense of possibility, in which all artistic forms of expression possess equal validity. Byars chose the magnetic pull of the moment the French essayist Paul Valéry described at the beginning of the last century, citing the example of fireworks. With Valéry, it is the "apparition," the appearance of something in the process of becoming extinguished that makes up the beauty of a contemporary work of art. Indeed, one had better hurry. But one has all the more time to reflect upon what one has seen in one's memory.

Byars' position of leaving the participation up to the individual necessarily made him into a loner. Born in 1932 in Detroit, he gave up his studies in art and philosophy in order to investigate Zen Buddhism and No Theater in Japan from 1957 on. At the time, he created simple tantric figures in granite and flat abstract ink drawings which he showed at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1958. He was discovered by MoMA's curator Dorothy Miller, who granted him permission to show his works for one day on a fire escape of the building - thus, the first presentation of his works were only visible to museum staff.



James Lee Byars: Selbstportrait, ca. 1959, painted wood, black paper ball (c) Estate of James Lee Byars, courtesy Galerie Michael Werner, Köln/New York

In the years that followed, Byars created many performances, designing roomy geometric clothing that several actors could wear together to parade through Manhattan's Central Park, as though in ritual ceremony. For Bert Stern's boutique, who became famous as the last Marilyn Monroe photographer following her death in the early sixties, Byars designed an entire collection, the sales of which secured his survival in the big city. Apart from Miller and artists such as Yvonne Rainer from the circle of the Judson Church Community, the art world took little notice of these exalted actions during the heyday of Pop Art. Who really registered that Byars had his model Linda Childs squat in a robe and a headdress of white ostrich feathers at the end of a mile-long stream of paper in his "Object Without Title (One Mile Paper Walk)"? And who was watching in 1970 when Byars staged himself as a "Public Thinker" in a red suit on a rocking chair in the middle of New York?

Today, the actions in which Byars carried the artist's role as market producer to the point of absurdity are legendary. He is often grouped together with Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and Marcel Broodthaers, all of whom worked counter to art's pure object character. Byars was always concerned with "solving the essential questions with questions," as he explained in a conversation with Joachim Sartorius, the former artistic director of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Thus, nearly every one of Byars' statements ends with a question mark: "I think that by adding a question mark to a statement, I fill this statement with life and carry it into the area of art or poetry." With this, Byars wanted to create a "symbol for the indefinite and an openness to the universe" - an ideal constellation for an open, post-modern work of art.


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