James Lee Byars

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
James Lee Byars
Born(1932-04-10)April 10, 1932
DiedMay 23, 1997(1997-05-23) (aged 65)
Known forSculpting, performance
Notable work
The Death of James Lee Byars (1982/1994)
MovementConceptual art, performance art

James Lee Byars (born April 10, 1932 in Detroit, Michigan – died May 23, 1997 in Cairo, Egypt)[1][2] was an American conceptual artist and performance artist specializing in installations and sculptures,[3] as well as a self-considered mystic.[4] He was best known for his use of personal esoteric motifs, and his creative persona that has been described as 'half dandified trickster and half minimalist seer'.[5]

Byars' notable performance works include The Death of James Lee Byars and The Perfect Smile, and in terms of art pieces, the many letters he wrote that were composed as decorated sculptures.[6]

Themes and motifs in his works[edit]

"The room you dare not enter is golden and gleaming, 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."[7]

— John Perrault, "James Lee Byars at the Whitney", 2004

Byars' works are often noted as constantly incorporating specific personal themes and motifs, leaning towards the esoteric while simultaneously being ritualistic and materialistic: Robert Clark, writing for The Guardian on the occasion of a Milton Keynes exhibition of his work, described it as 'impenetrably yet intriguingly hermetic'.[5] Most in particular was gold as a material, which served as an elemental identifier. As well as this, works of his demonstrate a fascination with the symbolism of numbers: Clark quotes in the same exhibition, referring to a specific piece of his, writing that he 'imbued the number 100 with symbolic significance, having made a symmetrical arrangement of 100 white marbles and draping 100 nude volunteers in a collective red garment'.[5]

A common theme in his works is perfection (especially upon the word 'Perfect'), which he extended into a personal journey that led to his ambiguously celebratory exploration of shapes, numbers and precious materials. A MoMA text explaining his oeuvre, in the context of his piece The Table of Perfect, noted that while it "looks pristine, it—like any other object—can only ever exist as a sign of perfection and can never embody the total concept."[4]

Byars also showed fascination in predicting his own death and others' deaths.[8]


Recent exhibitions include Im [sic] Full of Byars: James Lee Byars - Eine Hommage, Kunstmuseum Bern; Milton Keynes Gallery, London (2008); Klein / Byars / Kapoor, Musee d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Nice; ARoS Kunstmuseum, Aarhus (2012); "James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography", Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2013 - 2014) and MoMA PS1, New York (2014); "FLEX", Kent Fine Art, New York (2014), and "James Lee Byars", Random Institute, Zurich (2014). In 2013 James Lee Byars was included in the 55th Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace.


  1. ^ Roberta Smith (30 May 1997). "James Lee Byars, 65, Creator Of Art That Lived in a Moment". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Ken Johnson (June 19, 2014), The Man in the Gold Lamé Suit New York Times.
  3. ^ Francis Morrone (20 September 2007). "Notes From a Young Artist". The New York Sun. Review of James Lee Byars: The Art of Writing at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition principally comprises numerous letters or missives that the artist Byars sent to the MoMA curator Dorothy C. Miller beginning in 1959…
  4. ^ a b "James Lee Byars. The Table of Perfect. 1989". MoMA. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c "Exhibition preview: James Lee Byars, Milton Keynes | Art and design". The Guardian. April 4, 2009. Retrieved December 6, 2018.
  6. ^ "James Lee Byars". Frieze. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  7. ^ "What to Do With the Ghost of James Lee Byars When He Is Dead and His Body Buried?". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  8. ^ "James Lee Byars - M HKA Ensembles". M HKA. Retrieved December 6, 2018.