Critics’ Picks

James Lee Byars, The Chair for the Philosophy of Question, 1996, gilded teak, 63 x 63 x 46”.

Los Angeles

James Lee Byars

Overduin & Co.
6693 Sunset Boulevard
April 8–May 12

With an infinite regress of impossibly perfect marble sculptures and the other bodies of work on view in this exhibition, James Lee Byars managed to make Conceptualism less a smart guy’s in-joke and more a metaphysical koan. One room in this posthumous exhibition gathers eight “books,” made between 1989 and 1994: carved marble blocks in fetishy wooden vitrines, which are installed in a grid that stands flawlessly within the grid of concrete rectangles that makes up the gallery’s floor. Grid upon grid, the patterns are quietly optical. The oblong room is lined with mirrors, like a spiritual showroom for these unreadable books (even the phrase “unreadable books” a petite koan). These plunked-down shapes—a sphere, a cube, a star—possess all the chill beauty of marble, slightly fleshy and always austere.

Another room is less ascetic and more otherworldly. The Red Tent, 1989, has been lovingly remade by the gallery with exacting precision. Here a red silk tent billows and folds, looking glimmeringly slinky, weirdly sensual; the floor offers only bunched rivulets of the shapely material. The red punches both Chinese good luck and international communism in its particularly plucky shade. Tucked inside is an empty throne, a gilded Tibetan chair (The Chair for the Philosophy of Question, 1996), waiting perhaps for the Conceptual guru, who has not so much died as perhaps only dematerialized.

As if to underline the beauty of Byars’s ghost, a video work (Autobiography, 1970) is cut cleanly into the wall so only the flickering screen shows. For less than a second, one can catch Byars’s self-portrait, beaming only momentarily in the darkness in a self-actualized beatific glow.