Born in Detroit, James Lee Byars wore the mantle of “American artist” uncomfortably throughout his eccentric career. He lived for many years in Japan, Venice, and the United States before his death in Egypt in 1997. His varied body of works included drawings, sculpture, installation, and performance, all of which captured his vision of a culture at the confluence of East and West. Though well-supported early in his career by sponsors here and abroad, his suspected expatriotism caused him to be virtually ignored by American critics until the last decade of his life.
Byars’ work often featured Eastern mysticism dramatically blended with American practicality and showmanship. Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha, Byars had a unique vision stemming from his reinvention of the American vernacular, colored with international sensibilities about the spaces humans and objects share.
In The Philosophical Nail, Byars incorporates rituals from both Western and Eastern religions. The work is visually conceived as a contemporary reliquary. Inside this housing is the gold nail, an object that might represent, in terms of Western culture, a relic from the cross of Christ. It can also be perceived as the foundation nail of our history and culture. The gold metal suggests purity and contemplation, as well as a possible fetishist dimension. With the use of the glass case, Byars comments upon “museification” and the notion of the artist as the modern figure of the martyr.