James Lee Byars is both Zen and Baroque, minimal yet luxurious, the question and the answer all at once. The visionary conceptual artist walked the line between artistic movements, philosophies, and aesthetics and found meaning in the middle. Forever chasing perfection, Byars’s body of work is engaging, playful, and otherworldly, material and completely abstract, and we are pleased to bring the enigmatic artist's works to auction.
The question is the answer?
Did you know?
Byars hitchhiked to New York in 1958 in hopes of meeting Mark Rothko.
He taught English to Buddhist monks while living in Japan.
In the 1960s, he released 100 pink helium-filled balloons towards the moon.
He handed out 10,000 sheets of round white paper with the message “A White Paper Will Blow Through the Streets”
He asked NASA to take a circular gold flag 20 feet in diameter into space on a satellite to orbit the earth. They declined.
Byars insisted that the Guggenheim museum be painted black for an exhibition he was planning. They refused.
He wrote his ½ autobiography at the age of 37.
I’m full of Byars?
What’s the difference between asking and telling?
I have perfect question?
James Lee Byars was always asking questions. The prevailing theme throughout his oeuvre, questions posed in one way or another, appear in several works from this period. In 1969, Byars staged The World Question Center, a performance in which the artist answered questions asked by 100 intellectuals and broadcast the discussion live on Belgian television. For his 1971 work, The Black Book, he printed 100 questions in impossibly small gold text on black paper. Byars was undoubtedly more interested in questions than answers, and believed that the question was more important than the answer, or perhaps that they were one in the same.
Watch a clip from the 1969 broadcast of The World Question Center with John Cage.
What questions are you asking yourself?
James Lee Byars 1932–1997
James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died halfway around the world in Egypt in 1997. It was not his first death, three years prior Byars staged The Death of James Lee Byars, a performance in which the artist practiced his own death when clad in a gold suit, he laid down quietly in a room entirely covered in gold leaf and seem to vanish into the background. This magical, transcendental quality permeated his impressive body of work and solidified him as one of the great conceptual artists of our time.
Before his deaths, Byars studied philosophy at Wayne State University and traveled to Japan on invitation from the artist Morris Graves. While overseas, he studied Noh theater, Zen meditations, Shinto ritual and taught English to Japanese monks. Upon returning to the Untied States in 1958, he hitchhiked to New York City in the hopes of meeting artist Mark Rothko and ended up at the reception desk at the Museum of Modern Art. There he met Dorothy Miller, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, who arranged for his New York debut—an exhibition of his paper works in an empty stairwell at the museum that lasted only a few hours.
Byars spent most of his career as somewhat of a nomad, splitting time between New York, Bern, Venice, Kyoto, Los Angeles and the Southwest. In 1972 he solidified his reputation in Europe after a performance during the opening of Documenta 5 where he shouted German names through a gold megaphone while standing on the roof of the Fridericianum. Throughout his nearly four-decade career, Byars continued to exhibit and perform widely. His 1975 performance The Perfect Kiss at the Louvre was landmark of his career; the artist walked quietly into the room, formed a kiss with his mouth, and quietly walked out. Several important exhibitions followed, all woven with the same esoteric beauty, lead effortlessly and almost serendipitously by the enigmatic artist.
Years later when the director of the Guggenheim, Thomas Messer, began planning a retrospective for the artist, Byars insisted that the entire museum, inside and out, be painted matte black. Messier responded that “he would give him a show when he is dead”. Since then, several international institutions have held retrospectives for the artist, and his work continues to inspire and pose the same questions as it did during his lifetime. Most recently, the MoMA PS1 presented the most comprehensive survey of Byars’ work in their 2014 exhibition James Lee Byars: ½ an Autobiography, marking a return to location of his first major exhibition over fifty years later.
Auction Results James Lee Byars