I began to look at the work of James Lee Byars last year, after the death of Thomas McEvilley, when a number of the subsequent obituaries and reminiscences mentioned that the scholar had been one of the artist’s champions. To encounter his work in the context of a death, it turns out, is wholly fitting.
Not just an advocate but also a friend, McEvilley was present at Byars’s passing in 1997. He included an account of this experience in a 2008 article for Art in America, “James Lee Byars: A Study in Posterity.” A peripatetic artist, Byars was living in Cairo. He was also sick with cancer. When Byars entered intensive care, McEvilley flew to Egypt. They spent the next few days together, which were the artist’s last. He was buried in Old Cairo’s American cemetery with a flattened tin can as headstone. The stark account serves as backdrop for an overview of Byars and his work and for how, in the years since his death, galleries and institutions have attempted to tame the often difficult and strange work, in the process making Byars, in McEvilley’s words, “appear a more conventional and marketable artist than he was.”
MoMA PS1’s “James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography” takes up the building’s entire second floor. (Their copy claims it is the “the most comprehensive survey [of the artist] organized in North America since his death.”) Half the rooms are painted black, which sucks in ambient light and focuses attention on the generally brilliant work (there’s enough gold to satisfy Midas). The work ranges from early black ink drawings to monolithic para-Minimalist sculpture to groupings of ephemera, primarily correspondence.
Throughout, the pursuit of transcendence is on display, as is, concomitant with such an impulse, the willingness to hazard pretension. The distinction between solemnity and hucksterism is not always clear. The latter, though, is generally endearing and sometimes a relief. With the gold and the brimmed hat and the showmanship he’s sort of like an American Beuys. And Byars did admire his counterpart: the show contains a vitrine of letters written to the German artist. But Byars strikes me as somehow more affable and more of a genuine oddball. Regardless, personality does figure: Byars himself is quite present– in multiple videos; piece titles; and loopy, starred hand-writing. One of his gold-lamé suits hangs, spotlit, in a black room.
One particular piece, The Ghost of James Lee Byars suggests the artist’s presence and absence at once, which I suppose, is the nature of ghosts. It’s an entirely black room, lightless except for a few stray bits creeping under the blackout cloth over the doorway and around the humming air conditioner. I fumbled my way through the jellied darkness, taking measured steps, fearing the mortal edge. Hands waving out front—unsure of the room’s contents or if I was alone—I half expected to trip over something or bump into a fellow art-lover at any moment. Apprehensive, I made my way across the room and eventually touched a wall where I stood, impressed and expectant. A group of two or three visitors entered the room. They stuck to the perimeter quickly working their way along the opposite wall. Light from a cell phone appeared, and the ghost vanished.