What to Do With the Ghost of James Lee Byars When He Is Dead and His Body Buried?
“The world is gone, I must carry you”
The room you dare not enter is golden and gleaming [The Death of James Lee Byars], both sunset and sunrise. I like the fact that the current incarnation is dated right there on the wall label as 1994 – 2004. Is Byars, who supposedly died of cancer in Cairo in 1997, still alive? Or are some mysterious death-bed instructions being followed? Is someone channeling him? You thought art was about life. Wrong. In a sense, every artist’s every artwork is a memorial.
— John Perreault2
First, some reminiscences:
On September 12, 1968, the 36-year-old James Lee Byars invited 130 guests to don a “communal garment”—a 10-foot-wide, mile-long red acetate strip punched every five feet by holes through which participants poked their heads, and then proceeded out of the League’s townhouse and onto the street, parading around the block accompanied by a tuba ensemble playing Johann Sebastian Bach. The piece completely wrapped around the block with hundreds of people in this bright red silk fabric. The New York Times asked in response it: “Was it a protest? A love-in? A graduation procession? Or maybe—heaven forbid—a Shriner’s convention?”
—Les Levine: friend, artist, filmmaker, media sculptor,
and, at the time of this event the vice president of
media sculpture at the Architectural League on East 65th Street.
In 1967 Levine made a videotape with Byars and Jill Johnston,
entitled “Clothing and the Law.”
A Drop of Black Perfume: At midnight on June 24, 1983, Byars—attired in gold, his face shrouded in black cloth, wearing a black top hat and black patent-leather shoes—appeared in front of the mountain backdrop, crossed the meadows, covered with patches of snow, and stopped at one of the stones covered with fine lichens. Almost imperceptibly, he poured a droplet of perfume onto a stone in which he discovered a special crystal; the fragrance evaporated. What stayed with the few who witnessed the performance was the memory of a unique moment. [Emphasis added.]
—Susanne Friedli: editor, exhibition catalogue,
I’m Full of Byars. 3
As part of The Book For Question, James Lee Byars’s residency at Capp Street Project (January – February, 1987), Byars presented a Sunday morning “lecture.” Dressed in a gold lamé suit, a black top hat and black gloves, he announced that he had three actions to perform. For the first action, he announced that “Perfect is in the room.” For the second action, he passed out black cards embossed with his acronymic sentences of brief spoken interrogatives, “The Soliloquy on Perfect.”He then announced that the third and final action—“I Show Perfect”—would occur in a grove of trees that he regularly visited while in San Francisco. Once relocated at the site in the Presidio, Byars offered each person an edition of one of his “books”—a small white sphere imprinted with the word perfect in a typeface so tiny that it was barely legible, a microdot of ideation. As people stood in the forest with their gifts of perfect, he slipped away, almost as if evaporating.
—Kathy Brew: friend, artist, filmmaker, writer,
educator, and, at the time of this event, the
project director of Capp Street Project
I recall a performance on the opening day of the 1993 Venice Biennale. Standing at the main gate, all dressed in gold, with his hat on and blindfolded, there he was, J.L.B., ritually handing out to each visitor an ultra-thin paper gold coin, where in ultra-minuscule size he had written “your presence is the best work.” It was the first artwork one would encounter visiting the Biennale, even more significant since that year he had not been invited.
—Luca Muscarà: friend
In 1995, during Rolywholyover: A Circus for Museum, the exhibition devoted to John Cage (downtown Guggenheim, before it turned into Prada), I was up on the second floor, at the southern end of the galleries where there were pull-out “files” of artworks that one could mix-and-match, a very tall and rather striking older man elegantly dressed in a black suit and hat, accompanied by another, younger man, stalked through the galleries with such purpose that the invigilators took notice. Near the southeast corner of the galleries, I heard him say to his friend, “This looks like a good spot.” He opened his jacket and pulled out what looked like a glassine envelope. Security became very alert. As he sprinkled gold dust on the floor they moved in while walkie-talkie-ing to unseen higher-ups. Just as they were upon him, a man in a grey suit, clearly part of the curatorial staff, held them back and whispered loudly, “It’s all right! It’s James Lee Byars.”
—Judith Rodenbeck: art historian. Author of
Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention
of Happenings, co-author of Experiments
in the Everyday: Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts—Events,
1972 – 1997
A shadow falls across my heart when I remember my pals Tom (McEvilley), Eric (Orr), and James Lee (Byars). Who else could you discuss the pre-Socratics with over dinner in a black room? I had first met James Lee in L.A. in the early ’70s with Jim Butler, a lawyer husband of Eugenia Butler who had made millions off the thalidomide lawsuit. Butler supported James Lee as a patron and father figure. We drifted in and out of each other’s lives, in New York when he burned thousands of candles in an apartment off Central Park West, in Germany with Beuys, in Venice as part of Arturo Schwartz’s Art and Alchemy Biennale, in Scotland when his pillar almost caved in the floor of the National Gallery during the Edinburgh International, in Bern where he brought a hostess giving him a party to tears. Byars moved between broke vulnerability and extravagant excess, usually courtesy of a benefactor. The persona with the top hat and blindfolds could be annoying, the lack of awareness of others’ feelings disturbing. There were the nightly three a.m. phone calls that drove my then-husband nuts. But behind the mania and the extroversion was a fragile man. This is the Byars I miss, and the one I found more interesting than the man in the top hats and tuxedo pumps.
—Ann McCoy: friend, fellow alchemist, artist, and writer.
Byars was one of those artists who really believed in the dematerialization of art, a belief that leaves nothing behind, no heavy stuff for the market. Now market forces are closing in on him and even he, towards the end, growing exhausted by his 50-year-long revel role, may have wanted a little bit.
—Thomas McEllivey: friend and author of numerous essays
on J.L.B.; writer, philosopher, poet. (He and his wife,
Joyce Burstein, were with J.L.B. when he died in Cairo
Hi Thyrza: Check out my “Some Thoughts on Improvisation” in “Work.” It is about an improvisatory “dance” I did during a Byars “event” at the Green Gallery in the mid-’60s. I haven’t seen the PS1 show. His obsessive elegance always irked me.
—Yvonne Rainer: dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, writer, artist
The doctor said, three weeks to three months. He lived three years. I pestered him all three years to come back and haunt me. Be careful what you wish for.
—Joyce Burstein: friend, artist
The Ghost: PS1 August, 2014:
Swallowed whole by the darkness, lost even. One move and suddenly you have disappeared, transformed into pure atmosphere. Your proprioception has no meaning, your limbs are suddenly useless; perhaps you take a step or two, grab onto your friend but most likely you stand still, perfectly—absorbed by pure presence. You may giggle. You may grow quiet or shuffle slowly into the void. You breathe.
Suddenly, you make out the far corner where a slit of light cuts through as a hand pulls the curtain back. The effect of first light—as poetic as light can ever be. The person—a stranger—enters the light-vacuumed room to join you, drops the curtain and all at once there is no “one” and “many” filling up a space. No sense of self and other. There is only a liquid black. It is as though you have been jettisoned into that primordial first principle of Hesiod’s Xaos or Anaximander’s apeiron (ἄπειρον)—that indefinite arche (Ancient Greek: ἀρχή) pre-form, from which all differentiation (world) will generate. A state so pure it soothes and caresses. Not even a question.5 Death, oblivion, the beyond, a haunting? As McEllivey said, “He liked things to appear to come out of nowhere rather than out of causes.”6
Not Really a Review but a Question
If one follows the path of the exhibition of James Lee Byars—excellently curated by Magalí Arriola and Peter Eleey—that originated at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City and took place at PS1 this summer, The Ghost of James Lee Byars (1969) described above is the last Byars piece one experiences. It is a culminating moment of the exhibition because not until here, where volume and self disappear into infinity under the sign of the ghost, do we experience the full art and presence of James Lee Byars. In other words, here we get something closer to pure Byars than we do when walking around the exhibition proper.
It is not that there is something lacking or ill-curated by this or the excellent 2013 show I Can’t Stand to Look at The Earth at Maccarone. Hardly—they are exquisitely curated. Yet, something is absent—that ghost who visited me above. So here is the question: how does one fully comprehend a body of objects and things made by an artist who said: “I cancel all my works at death”? A man who Thomas McEllivey describes thus: “from 1969 until 1985 or 1990—when Byars rarely made any concrete object-works; the very idea made him literally shudder. […] The point was that any formed object would be an answer.”7
To the artist who took Question as the ultimate provenance of art—along with perfection, such that inevitably the two would clash because the more one seeks perfection, the more one questions—here is my question: how does one negotiate the clean museum perfection of Byars’s objects, letters, and video documentations? Where is the man who stood with an invitation to the 1993 Venice Biennale to which he hadn’t been invited, handing out a thin gold coin with “your presence is the best work” etched in miniscule letters? What about the man who “slipped away, almost evaporating” in 1983 or 20 years earlier staged one of the most remarkable New York public events ever: a city block of people holding a gigantic cut-out figure made of water-soluble paper above their heads until the New York Sanitation Department, in league with Byars, arrived with two cleaning trucks to hose it down until it dissolved.8
In their 2013 press release, Maccarone acknowledges the ghost: “what we experience as Byars’s ‘work,’ the atmospheres in which he created, is merely the outline of a reality, a glimpse into the parallel dimension in which he spent his time. This version of reality stands as the real work, which remains invisible to us all.”
The “real work […] remains invisible to all.”
Of course this has been said and theorized ad infinitum about much of the early performance work of the late ’50s and early ’60s, of Happenings, Fluxus, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, Gutai, and Judson. So what is the difference in the stories I read and the anecdotes recollected of Byars?
It is in a way quite simple—so much of the work James Lee Byars made—“The Perfect Death of James Lee Byars”; “The Ghost of James Lee Byars”; “The Perfect Epitaph”—was about training us to live with his absence.9 So even while “the world is gone,” Celan’s directive that we must carry you protects the question of Byars’s presence and absence as we circulate through the “heavy stuff of market forces” left behind. It was your life’s work: while alive you were already playing the ghost—appearing, disappearing everyday that you lived, leaving clues, training us, long before your body was buried.
- Paul Celan, “Vast, Glowing Vault”
- John Perrault, “James Lee Byars at the Whitney.” Artopia, December 2004.
- Susanne Friedli, “James Lee Byars An American in Berne,” in I’m Full of Byars, 75. 2008.
- The information in this quote is derived from conversations with Joyce Burstein and Thomas McEllivey’s essay, “James Lee Byars—A Study in Posterity,” published in I’m Full of Byars exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Berne, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld/Leipzig, 2009.
- Obviously this will be different for everyone depending on who is in the space with you either known or not, or whether you strain to see the cracks of light that do seep through the ceiling, or fumble around until you hit the wall, breaking with infinitude. A kind of death.
- McEllivey, I’m Full of Byars, 2009.
- “Soluble Man,” Made in conjunction with for The American Craft Museum’s “Made on Paper” exhibition, 1967.
- Thanks to Paula Levine for this comment.
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.