Biography - James Lee Byars

Excerpts from the book "James Lee Byars - The Epitaph of Con. Art is which Questions have disappeared?" 1999 Kestner Gesellschaft, ed. Carl Haenlein

"The chronology is a form that most aptly reflects James Lee Byars's life and work. This selected version is drawn from the more complete chronology by James Elliott in The Perfect Thought: Works by James Lee Byars (University of California, Berkeley, 1990), updated in The Perfect Moment (IVAM Centre del Carme, València, 1994) and The Palace of Perfect (Fundação de Serralves, Porto, 1997) "

footnotes marked * were added by the author of the website, who shared many moments with James Lee Byars since 1986 and particularly during his last stay in Japan.

Born 10 April in Detroit

1936 -1940s
At age four, receives a tuxedo from his parents to wear on special occasions.
Attends Edgar Allan Poe School.

Studies art and philosophy at Wayne State University and attends Merrill Palmer School for Human Developement
in Detroit.

Byars empties his family's house of all furniture, doors, and windows to display large, spherical
stones for a one-day thesis exhibition.

Rents a sod farm for the exhibition of his abstract figure sculptures at midnight under a full moon.
Invited guests view sculptures from sleds pulled over the snow.

Lives with a patron in Detroit who commissions a garden for his backyard. Admiring neighbors offer
Byars a one year travel stipend.

Travels to Japan, where he lives in Kyoto, while frequently visiting other areas. Studies art, philosophy,
and language, and supports himself teaching English. Meets Morris Graves and aristocrat Yanagi Soetsu, Director
of Tokyo Folk Art Museum, whose letter of introduction permits him to study with ceramics and papermaking masters.
Performs a series of events influenced by Zen, inviting students or friends to participate. Byars will remain in Japan
for ten years, traveling often to the United States. On his first return trip, sees work of Mark Rothko at Cranbrook
Academy of Art near Detroit and hitchhikes to New York to meet the artist. At the Museum of Modern Art, he requests an
introduction to Rothko. Dorothy Miller, meets with Byars, buys two paper works, and allows him an exhibition lasting a
few hours in an emergency stairwell at MoMA.

The Black Figure, an abstract rendering of the human form (a treatment Byars later calls »arbitrization«). Explores the nature
of the ephemeral, asserts that concept alone is sufficient. Abandons durable materials for paper and fabric.

At Kyoto University produces Thanks for All Thought? in which one hundred students standing in a circle recite one hundred lines by Gertrude Stein. Receives William Copley Prize, Cassandra Foundations New York. For The Tantric Figures, drills two holes for eyes in each of two similar stones found in a granite quarry. Performs a piece consisting of studying one hundred eggs for twelve days to find the roundest, whitest egg.

Ten Philosophical Sentences, or The Exhibition of What Do you know Mister, at Jisha University, Kyoto, introducing Byars theme of Question. Dorothy Miller promotes his work in New York.

In Japan, creates large performable paper works, inspired by Zen and Noh theater, in which solid geometric shapes are slowly unfolded by a performer. In New York, distributes thousands of clear balloons printed white with tiny question marks.

Leaves from Los Angeles to New York on a 99-day, $ 99 bus trip, performing actions along the route. One-day exhibition at Green Gallery, New York, in which the gallery is painted black and illuminated with a single light bulb. One hundred white boxes made by Chinese artist, each delivered to the gallery by a Chinese child, are shown as stands for pieces. Andy Warhol attends exhibition. Byars requests an aircraft from the Federal Aviation Agency from which to drop a ten-mile-long sheet of paper, but is refused. Dressed in black , acts as a mute servant for a day to a stranger he meets on the bus. Chooses the most egg-shaped passenger. With a policeman, performs Twelve-hour Bus Trip for Two throughout the American South. Paperworks exhibited at Shokokuji Monastery in Kyoto; one piece, A 1,000 Foot White Chinese Paper, folded like
an accordion, is unfolded by a woman in ceremonial dress into an oval shape.

The Performable Square, a giant paper piece which, when folded, reduces to 1 1/2 feet per side. The work, exhibited in the empty gallery of the in the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, is not unfolded, but visitors are presented with white fans. In New York, produces embossed cellophane announcement for James Lee Byars at the Castelli Gallery, November 11.
To the annoyance of Leo Castelli, these invitations are mailed without informing the gallery. While making a thousand-foot-long pink paper tribute to Shakespear in Central Park, Byars meets Gordon Bailey Washburn, Director of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. At Washburn's invitation, Byars presents three performances in the museum's sculpture court during the Carnegie International. In the first of these, the one-hour 1x 50 Foot Drawing, a Catholic nun carries a paper piece to the center of the court, slowly and delicately unfolds it into a cross shape, then refolds it.

Second and third actions presented at Carnegie: A 1,000-Foot Chinese Paper performed by a nun, and A Mile-long Paper Walk by dancer Lucinda Childs dressed in an ostrich-feather costume.

Peace performed in the Kyoto garden of Byars's friend and patron, British Shakespeare professor William Lindley Hubbell. At midnight, a Japanese woman dressed in white feathers appears in the garden and silently hands the astonished Hubbell a tiny sheet of paper on which is written »peace« in the smallest letter legible to the human eye.*
1 In New York, Byars lives for several months in a hallway of the appartment of architect Robert Landsman. Anonymously donates large paperworks to museums.

Unable to secure new teaching positions in Japan, Byars leaves for Los Angeles with no intention of returning (to Japan) *
2 Staying with Stanley and Elyse Grinstein in L.A., on most mornings he places a pile of fan-folded computer paper on their piano bench and remains seated on the bench until he has written a phrase on each sheet. Prepares an all-white meal at the Grinsteins'. .....


the information on the missing years is in the process of being formatted for this website

When The Monument of Language is presented at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, a man inside the sphere reads from the writings of W.B. Yeats. Performs The Santa Fe River with Peter Ehlers and Joan Halifax on the shore of the eponymous river. Byars and Ehlers , dressed identically in white linen suits, black top hats, and black blindfolds represent the Saint of the Santa Fe river. As Halifax reads out from Lao Tzu, »Water is the highest good« Ehlers collects litter from the river in a black silk bag and Byars stands among the onlookers. Travels to Japan. In Tokyo proposes an exhibition, The Treasures of James Lee Byars, which is not realized. In Nara, makes a daily pilgrimage to the Todaiji temple to place a grain of rice on the belly of the fifty-foot gilt statue of Buddha. *
3A performance at the Nara Hotel, includes Byars showing his works one by one, then entertaining Zenlike questions from the audience.*4

Plans to make a black silk carpet, The Dialectic for the End of Race. Also plans Monument to the End of Race, a ten-square-meter black rug woven from goat hair. Proposes it be submitted to the Holocaust memorial discussions in Berlin. Demands that Michael Werner be made Minister of Culture for Germany. Travels to Cairo in February. Commissions weavers for the Monument to the End of Race . Becomes ill from cancer, which he has been fighting for several years. Discusses with Mc Evilly, who visits him, his desire to construct the perfect sphere. Dies on 23 Mai, and is buried in Egypt. *




*1 Having heard from Byars about Hubbell, I went in the late eighties to Doshisha University in Kyoto in 1988 and inquired about Hubbell. I was given his address in a suburb of Osaka, and was told to write him a postcard, rather than calling him. He replied and gave me an appointment in the lobby of a Hotel on top of Umeda trainstation. There sat the skinny, sharp looking man, a woolen scarf casually thrown around his neck, and recalled his encounters with Byars. We met since then occasionally, the last time in a clinic in the hills north of Kyoto, where Hubbell lay paralyzed with age in his bed. He could talk. "I am not bored-I am reading Shakespeare to myself. I have memorized all he wrote."

*2 Byars told me that he had a sudden hearing disability, which made it difficult for him to teach language in Japan. He left Japan to have the symptoms verified in L.A., hoping to come back in good health. Byars described the house he left in Kyoto, painted silver, filled with his early works. The house was sold due to his girl friend's infidelity, even though she had promissed to wait for him and make sure nothing would get lost. During his last stay in Japan, winter 1996/97 he tried to recreate some of these early works lost, such as The Sacrifice of the Flower, a rose left to dry out, The Poetical Walk, a piece of gold thread about 2m long to be held while walking, allowing it to move freely in the air, The Philosopher's Toothpick a toothpick painted black with calligrapher's ink.

* 3 Actually Byars, while staying in Nara, devoted part of his daily routine to produce spheres each from one grain of cooked rice. He asked his visitors to help him choose the most perfect one. Among several other visions, the dominant stipulation during his last stay in Japan, was to place the most perfect of these One Grain Rice Buddhas in the tiny drawer, which is supposedly hidden in the chest of the big Buddha in Todaiji temple. Probably the repeated pilgrimages to the temple served both to feed the holy deer and to negotiate with the monchs the realization of his proposal. The belly of the Buddha is beyond any visitors' reach.

* 4 The presentation took place in the emperor's dining room of the Nara Hotel, which was rented with the support of three Japanese Galleries. One of the works was an homage to the late Lindley Hubbell, who participated in Byars' performances in 1966 (see above) Byars had invited his friend Stephan Kohler to present as well a set of his works, on the condition that he would wear a black Ninja suit and be 'invisible.' A video of this performance in NTSC format was made. Please inquire if interested in a copy.

*5 Already in Japan, he began to submit plans for Monument to the End of Race, triggered by an article he read in an English speaking newspaper about the never ending discussion on which artist's project to realize. His first proposal consisted on creating an empty lawn on the site, which he sent by fax all over the world, along with the stipulation that Michael Werner should become Cultural Minister. January 1997, staying at the 3m Hotel in Nara, the news, that his mother died in Detroit reaches James Lee Byars. He lay on his bed, morning amidst various small objects and black sheets of paper and black silk scarfs. He doubted that she received the medical care she needed and deserved in her last moments.
He was buried in Egypt, even though his friends and family knew, that his biggest wish was to be burried in Venice in the graveyard of St. Michele island.

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