James Lee Byers

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

Had James Lee Byers not actually lived between 1932 and 1997, then it would have been necessary to invent him. He was a shaman, whose work is filled with messages and quasi-religious imagery, and also a showman, whose work is filled with pure nonsense.
Byers was an intruder, a chancer, an enigma, someone who caused ‘happenings’, a sculptor, a magician, a philosopher. He was also a man who wore funny hats. He loved asking questions. A 1974 film showed him and a group all dressed in white asking a hundred famous people, some by telephone, to pose the most important question about life. (The fact that one of these people was Viva, the Warhol Superstar, did not help.) It is essential to remember, when considering the mixture of deep banality and genius which lay at the heart of Byers’s enterprise, that he was born in America. Had he not spent a decade of his life in Japan, he might just as easily have made little movies or advertisements or spent time hanging out with Andy Warhol.
Byers sought perfection in his art and this might seem, if applied, say, to Michelangelo, a good thing, but in Byers case it caused nothing but trouble. His perfect art was often tiny, empty, fleeting, strange and deeply irritating. Byers could, as an artistic statement, let a piece of perfume evaporate, say, or whisper a piece of pure runic nonsense into a stranger’s ear, or produce a book with nothing much written in it, or appear briefly in Piazza San Marco in Venice or on a rooftop.
In his work as a sculptor he made circles and spheres. He liked gold and expensive marble. During Lent in 1995 he cleared the altar and the pews from the church of St Peter in Cologne and he put in five objects – a circle, four columns and a naked bulb. He called this ‘The White Mass’. A year earlier in Cologne he put on a performance called ‘The Perfect Smile’ and this was described by Heinrich Heil as follows: ‘a man dressed in black was to be seen followed by a man in a golden suit with a headscarf and top hat striding through a crowd of those waiting. They stopped in front of a black wall. The server in black directed the man in the golden suit to a position exactly in the middle. He then adjusted the man’s clothing and stepped to one side. On the face of the man with the golden suit the smile was there to be seen. Just as they had come, the two men left.’
During the 1991 Venice Biennale, Byers decided to fling coins into the canal made of gilt card on which a spiral was engraved. He did this in the early hours of the morning.
It is important to see Byers in a context which includes maybe performance art, minimalism, conceptual art but most important a movement known as Fluxus, which might include some work by Joseph Beuys, and also the activities of John Cage and Yoko Ono. In this context, an artist sitting around or going for a walk or doodling was more important than an artist actually making something. There was something terribly dreary about it all, as anyone who witnessed one of these happenings in the 1960s or 1970s will remember.
The worst part of it all were the critics – people who should have known better stood around as though the human race was being transformed by these frolics. And, worse again, they went home and wrote the most terrible essays on the subject. Byers has had many ridiculous, fatuous things written about him. Although he is not alone, the worst culprit is called Thomas McEvilly. He wrote about Byers: ‘Like the Orphic practitioner, he was as if exiled from another world for some primal crime and condemned to wander the round of other forms of life.’ Or ‘It surely was clear to all who knew him that describing him as an angel was accurate.’
On the other hand, Barbara Catoir, in writing about the relationship between Joseph Beuys and Byers, managed to a most telling phrase about the influence of the first on the second: ‘Beuys would share his fame with him, teach him how to be nice to rich people…’ This might be a good new definition of the performance art in which Byers excelled.