James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died 65 years later in Cairo, Egypt, which says something about his art. It ranges from a kind of Minimalist sculpture, through installation, to costuming (for example, a gold lamé suit worn with a top hat) and performance. He studied philosophy and art at a big, urban state university and, after meeting the mystical painter Morris Graves, was invited to Japan, where he spent several years studying Shinto religious practices and Noh theater. After that, Mr. Byars lived here and there—New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Kyoto and Bern, Switzerland—making and exhibiting art as he went.
In 1969, when he was half the age of the average American lifespan at the time, Mr. Byars created the work that lends its title, “½ an Autobiography,” to this show. He sat in a gallery and, when someone would approach him, wrote down thoughts and questions that occurred to him. The writing was later published as “The Big Sample of Byars.”
In this retrospective, which takes up the second floor of the capacious PS1 branch of MoMA, Mr. Byars is represented by grainy films of performances, by wall-hanging paintings of simple black ovals, and most effectively by such Tiffany-spiritual sculpture as “The Conscience” (1985), a small gold ball in a tall bell jar atop a gold pedestal.
Mr. Byars’s work—an amalgam of Minimalism, Conceptual art, Zen, decorative elegance and dandyism—explores a crucial question in modern art, especially relevant in a global art world: Is it possible to reconcile the thing-in-itself core of Western modernism with Eastern metaphysics? If you don’t recoil at what can easily be taken for pretentiousness and self-importance, if you regard Mr. Byars’s work as a seeker's offering, it will seem both beautiful and, to a degree, inspiring.