James Lee Byars

1932 - 1997

Born in Detroit (US), died in Cairo (EG).

James Lee Byars was born in 1932 in Detroit. He was a highly visible and contradictory figure in the art of the 1970s and 1980s, and remained so until his death in 1997, although he said: ‘The sixties was the only decade of my life. In the nineties it stopped.’ Byars studied philosophy and art in his native city and for ten years (1958–1967) divided his time between Kyoto, where he learned Japanese crafts and thinking, and the US. Until the end of his life (one of his obsessions was to predict his own and other people’s time of death) he remained a travelling presence, forever seeking what he called ‘Perfect’. He died in Egypt, looking for craftsmen who could blow gold as if it were glass. Towards the end of the 1960s Byars had also become an important presence in the European art life, especially after his first exhibition there, at Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp in 1969, for which the gallery was renamed The Institute for the Advanced Study of James Lee Byars. A film for Belgian television by Jef Cornelis documents the event. Byars was later to participate in Documenta 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Paradox is perhaps the best mode to speak of Byars. His practice unites Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Performance Art and Fluxus, but he was only a peripheral participant in these ‘movements’. He was searching for both Thought and Form; his intellectual heroes were ‘Stein, Einstein and Wittgenstein’. Until the mid-1970s his foremost preoccupation was ‘Question’, notably manifested in the performance The World Question Centre (1969, also televised by Cornelis) and by the acronym TH FI TO IN PH (‘The First Totally Interrogative Philosophy’). Later his quest for ‘Perfect’ would dominate, with works such as The Perfect Book, The Perfect Thought, The Perfect Death and even The Perfect Question. When he donated the ephemeral performance The Perfect Smile (8 November 1994) to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne it was the first work of its kind to enter a major museum collection. The critic and poet Thomas McEvilley writes: ‘What was really, secretly, happening is that Perfect had presented itself as an Answer to Question.’

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