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In a similar vein, Beuys had asserted: "Anyone who doesn't ask questions has to leave!" And so it was natural that the two shamans got to know each other in the 1970s. They'd been friends ever since documenta V , which Harald Szeemann invited both Beuys and Byars to participate in. At least Byars' enduring affection can be read in the one hundred letters of the book "James Lee Byars: Letters to Joseph Beuys" (Hatje/ Cantz 2000, 256 pp., 35 Euro), published four years ago. In 1979, on the occasion of the major Beuys exhibition in New York, Byars wrote to his counterpart on rose-colored, hand-made paper: "Joe, the golden scream is out. Take the exhibition of the perfect to the Guggenheim as a golden footnote. Beuys with a Golden Footnote by Byars will be great for old Fifth Avenue." Later, Byars even offered him 1,000,000 dollars if Beuys would give him one little corner to show in at the Guggenheim. It was a game with the rules of the rigid museum bureaucracy, which both artists evidently had their fun with.

James Lee Byars, The Human Figure, 1992, 100 white marble spheres (c) Sammlung Museum Ludwig Cologne

Yet for Byars, the "golden footnote" was also an entirely real artistic project. Since 1974, he had been planning a gigantic tower covered in gold sheet that was supposed to rise up 1,000 feet high in the no-man's-land at the foot of the Berlin Wall. But "The Golden Tower" was neither a fantasy of omnipotence nor an artist's Babylon; instead, Byars regarded it as a mediator between the cosmic and worldly orders: a "golden needle" that points up into the sky and at the same time falls to the earth as a "golden ray." Byars worked on realizing the project throughout his lifetime; in the 1990 "Zeitlos" ("Timeless") exhibition at Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau, he was at least able to create a version 80 feet high.

Parallel to his tower project, Byars created works in which he printed short messages on rice paper with a golden stamp. The series, which was made in the mid-eighties, included prints such as "PIPD (Philosophy is practicing death)" and "FWHFW (Flower was her first word)," both of which are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection and which currently augment the Frankfurt exhibition.

James Lee Byars: The Golden Tower, 1990/2004, Photo: Catalogue Schirn Kunsthalle

Yet he continued working with gold in later years, as well. More and more frequently, Byars appeared in a gold tinseled suit for his performances; for his exhibition "The Death of James Lee Byars" in 1994, he covered the interior of the Brussels-based gallery of Marie Puck, Broodthaers' daughter, entirely in gold. At the opening, Byars laid down on the floor in golden attire, briefly merging with the room to the point of invisibility. Perhaps it was this vanishing while becoming one that was his goal from the beginning of his artistic career. Byars must have known about the alchemical meaning of gold, just as he must have been familiar with the Novalis quote: "The man of reason alone is the true adept - transforming everything, into life and gold - eschewing all elixirs. The holy retort steams within - the king is in him - Delphi too, and finally he grasps: know thy Self." Like the oracle of Delphi, Byars is still a magical medium seven years after his death, one that continues to pose riddles. Harald Fricke

"Life, Love, and Death: The Work of James Lee Byars" can be seen through July 18 in the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The catalogue to the exhibition (published by Hatje Cantz) consists of 160 pages and costs 24,90 Euros.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

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