Though raised in suburban Detroit, James Lee Byars spent the formative years of his itinerant artistic career in Japan, where from 1958 he based himself in Kyoto for a decade. Byars immersed himself in the art and philosophy of the country, teaching English to support himself while studying traditional ceramics and papermaking with master craftsmen. His early works—large, concertina-folded paper constructions revealed in long ceremonial performances—were inspired by the elegance and economy of traditional Noh theater. Though he had made frequent trips back to the United States during his Japanese sojourn, Byars returned home in 1967 for a more extended stay. Here his work encompassed a series of staged group actions in which people interacted with huge garment constructions. In Film Strip (1967), for example, dozens of volunteers donned a vast clear plastic poncho and paraded at midnight in front of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The white suit and gold mandarin outfit, the masked face, the top hat, and the lashings of purple silk—Byars’ persona and sartorial proclivities from here on would maintain an undoubtedly earnest sympathy for Zen philosophy on the one hand, yet on the other an increasing fondness for irony-free operatic glitz that could teeter into wonderfully “wrong” grandiose allusions. His attention would increasingly turn toward Europe. Whether standing on the pediment of the Museum Fridericianum at Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany, in 1972, unfurling a giant cloth figure of the Holy Ghost in the Piazza San Marco for the Venice Biennale in 1975, presenting near-annual exhibitions at the celebrated Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp, or staging his first major solo show at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1978, the artist and his sagelike appearances became a staple of the continental art circuit.
Throughout the 1980s, while based in Venice—a fittingly unique, decadent, and East-West intersecting city—Byars began to make more sculpture. Huge pillars, discs, urns, halos, and particularly spheres in white marble, gilded marble, or basalt stood in contrast to his fragile paper works or fleeting performance actions. There is something disconcerting about Byars’ elemental, impenetrable forms of this period and their cosmic, celestial, or even occult baggage. Like the iridescent slabs of artist John McCraken, or the pillar in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, they harness an otherworldly reverence that makes them seem as if they could hover or break apart to unleash untold powers at any moment.
A series of works from around 1986 consists of cryptic objects—marble lozenges, star- and donut-shaped “books”—presented in antique-looking tall wooden reliquaries. The Philosophical Nail (1986) alludes to the paraphernalia of sainthood and the crucifixion of Christ, hijacking the Catholic cult of the veneration of holy relics. Said to be able to spontaneously duplicate themselves and transmute their purported powers through mere proximity, pieces of the cross, holy lances, holy nails, and the like represent a paragon of Duchampian transubstantiation as they vanquish their humble origins to attain disproportionate significance. Also recalling phrases such as “hitting the nail on the head,” this bent tack literalizes linguistic shorthand for succinctness or perfection, terms around which Byars’ oeuvre circles in fickle orbit.