Museum Brandhorst

James Lee Byars

He has been called the „magician of silence:” James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932. He studied art, psychology, and philosophy. Byars lived in Japan for several years and it was the confrontation with this far eastern culture that deeply influenced his mind-set. Starting in the seventies this minimalist, conceptual and performance artist acted on an international stage creating objects, sculptures, installations, and performances. He was invited to the Kassel Documenta on several occasions. Byars’s work focuses on the existential themes of life and death. His intention is to arrive at an expression of sublime perfection, a state that is achieved in the transitory conjunction of the ephemeral and the eternal. In 1994 the artist gave his performance “The perfect smile” to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. It consisted of a barely noticeable movement of the mouth turning into a smile. Because of its potential repeatability the immaterial and impermanent performance turned into an art work “conserved” in a museum.

“I am imaginary” is a marble slate rounded off at the top. Its title is inscribed in barely visible gold letters. The durable and precious material becomes a monumental epitaph, a long-term replacement for its own ephemeral existence. The ideal shape of the sphere titled “The lucky stone” is a candid visualization of the absolute and the perfect, both of which the artist (d. 1997) endeavoured to conserve in stone, a material known for its permanence.

James Lee Byars | The Play of Death, 1981 Lacquer frame, glass, gold inscription on black tissue paper, 136 x 143,8 cm Photo: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen© The Estate of James Lee Byars, Courtesy Galerie Michael Werner Märkisch Wilmersdorf, Köln & New York

James Lee Byars | The Play of Death, 1981

Lacquer frame, glass, gold inscription on black tissue paper, 136 x 143,8 cm

Photo: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
© The Estate of James Lee Byars, Courtesy Galerie Michael Werner Märkisch Wilmersdorf, Köln & New York