James Lee Byars (1932-97) was one of the more intriguing characters to stir international art waters during the 20th century’s second half. An American playing the role of artist-as-shaman, he was lionized in Europe but not so well known in the United States. “James Lee Byars: ½ an Autobiography,” a retrospective at MoMA PS1, offers a valuable opportunity to assess his career. Was he the real deal, a true mystic sage? Or was he a canny, charismatic showman who knew how to exploit a modern hunger for timeless wisdom? The question hangs in the air throughout the exhibition, which was organized by Peter Eleey, the museum’s curator and associate director of exhibitions and programs, and Magalí Arriola, curator at Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, where it had its debut last November.
Byars was a Conceptualist, a performance artist and a sculptor, and these three dimensions are seamlessly combined in the exhibition’s most compelling gallery. With a shiny, gilded sphere about 13 inches in diameter titled “Is” (1987) spotlighted in the middle of the mostly darkened cafeteria-size room, it has a hushed, ecclesiastical atmosphere.
In two of the room’s corners are smaller rooms, with walls painted intense pink, that you can look into but not enter. In one is displayed a 39-inch, gold-leafed cube with rounded corners and edges called “The Table of Perfect” (1989). In the other is an elaborately carved antique Tibetan chair, also gold-leafed. It’s titled “The Chair for the Philosophy of Question” (1990). These objects seem to glow ethereally.
On a far wall there’s a set of three flat, gold-leafed rectangles with rounded corners called “Portrait of the Artist” (1993). And at the other end of that wall hangs a gleaming gold lamé suit, an outfit that Mr. Byars often wore, along with a black top hat, in public appearances. It was his practice sometimes to sit silently thus costumed, as well as blindfolded, along with his sculptures in gallery exhibitions, as if he were himself a work of living sculpture. Since he is no longer present on the material plane of our world, the suit here serves as a placeholder for his disembodied spirit.
Considering all this, I’m torn. Byars had a finely tuned way with three-dimensional objects. There are other arresting sculptures elsewhere in the show. Installed alone in one small room is a gilded marble pillar just over five feet tall with the letters I and P engraved near its top; it’s called “The Figure of the Interrogative Philosophy” (1987/1995). An especially lovely piece called “The Diamond Floor” (1995) consists of five large crystal glass diamond shapes arranged in a dark room like the points of a star.
But there’s an overdetermined, gently overbearing quality to Byars’s art. The portentous titles, the theatrical installations and the flashy gold costume would be O.K. if they were offered in a more humorous mood. But whatever comedy there was in Byars’s enterprise — certainly there was some — is overridden by the sense of grandiose self-importance, a quality he shared with his idol, the artist-demagogue Joseph Beuys.
Still, it’s a pretty interesting career. Byars was born in Detroit in 1932, studied art and philosophy at Wayne State University and lived in Japan from 1958 to 1968, teaching English and executing his first performance works under the influence of Noh theater and Shinto rituals.
The earliest works in the exhibition, from that time, include a football-size natural stone lacquered in black (“Black Stone,” 1958-59), and “Self-Portrait” (circa 1959), a supine, blocky abstraction of a human figure made of rough pieces of wood with a tiny ball for a head: It is presented here on the floor by itself in a large room with walls painted gold.
Also from 1959 are some of his most elegant works, large pictures of simple, rounded forms brushed in black ink on Japanese paper. Two of these are pasted onto orange, traditional Japanese scrolls, measuring about 10 by 10 feet. Exuding an effortless serenity, they anticipate the craze for Eastern spirituality that would deeply influence high and popular culture in the United States in the 1960s.
In the early ’60s, Byars produced works in paper with Conceptual and performative implications, like “A 1,000 Foot White Chinese Paper” (1963-64), a stack of folded paper that, if unfolded, would extend the titular 1,000 feet. Later in the decade, he created improbable clothes out of pink or red fabric designed to be worn by multitudes of people simultaneously, like “Hat for Three Persons” (1969) and “Dress for Five Persons” (1969). These look forward to the trend in participatory art that is popular today.
By the end of the 1960s, Byars had developed his persona as a dandified hierophant. In a black-and-white video that was broadcast on Belgian television in 1969, we see him in a gallery in Antwerp, organizing people into billowing fabric with many head and neck holes. Sitting in the gallery, surrounded by participants, he also enacts a project called “The World Question Center” in which he telephoned eminent scientists and thinkers to ask them to contribute a significant question. A theme running throughout Byars’s oeuvre is the idea that questions were more important than answers.
In the video, he appears in a star-spangled shirt and high-domed, broad-brimmed hat, eagerly answering an interviewer’s questions. He’s a charmer. Boyishly handsome — almost pretty, with his shoulder-length hair — he seems a paragon of hippie chic, a glamorous rock star. The hat made me think of Richard Brautigan, the immensely popular writer who wore a similar one on the cover of “Trout Fishing in America.” In his trippy get-up and demeanor, Byars gives the impression of a Magical Mystery Tour guide. That raises questions about the influence of the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s on his enterprise. Regrettably, the exhibition doesn’t explore that potentially illuminating context.
There’s not a lot of filmed documentation of Byars’s performances in the show, but there is one particularly memorable seven-minute movie of an action he did in 1975 called “The Perfect Epitaph.” The grainy color film shows him from a distance in his gold suit and black top hat, slowly rolling a heavy, beach ball-size sphere made from red lava along vacant streets and over a bridge in Amsterdam. It’s dreamy and curiously poignant, this vision of the lonely seeker in his endless, Sisyphean pursuit of beauty and truth.
“James Lee Byars: ½ an Autobiography” runs through Sept. 7 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens; 718-784-2084, momaps1.org.