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.’
Items View all
Letter to Philippe Van Sn...
James Lee Byars, Letter to Philippe Van Snick, 1969. Letter, sheets of white paper, 2 x (21 x 16.5 cm).
Letter to Patrick Verelst
James Lee Byars, Letter to Patrick Verelst, 1981. Letter, yellow silk paper, 4 x (13 x 27 cm).
James Lee Byars interview...
James Lee Byars, James Lee Byars interviewed by Paul De Vree at Documenta 7 in front of 'The Golden Tower', 1982. Audio and visual equipment, audio fragment from 'kroniek', 00:10:05.
Events View all
Dear ICC – Aspects of con...
18 December 2004 - 27 February 2005.
During the seventies and the early eighties, the ICC was an intermediary between a progressive art praxis and the ill-at-ease public, as well
De Verzameling II en een ...
30 June 1990 - 04 November 1990.
'De Verzameling II' showed a selection of the M HKA collection. Artists: Ulay & Marina Abramovic, Guillaume Bijl, Jean Marie Bijtebie
The extra-terrestrial man...
14 May 1976.
The extra-terrestrial man (The Black Giant of Antwerp) is a performance by James Lee byars, where a figure, made out of black tule, measuring
Joseph Beuys – Greetings...
13 October 2017 - 21 January 2018.
The exhibition Joseph Beuys – Greetings from the Eurasian will seek simultaneously to consider Beuys’ activities in Antwerp during the 1960s
Ensembles View all
Permanent Collection 2017...
The M HKA collection is built around three approaches to art: image, action and society. While generally works cannot be classified exclusive
Chapter 4: Communication ...
Byars wrote letters day and night, and they have become an important part of his artistic legacy. The first time they were exhibited was in t
Chapter 6: Perfect Death,...
Met eerst The Perfect Love Letter is to Write I Love You Backwards in the Air en The Perfect Kiss in 1974 in Brussel maakt ‘de vraag’ in het