PRINT Summer 1981

James Lee Byars and the Atmosphere of Question

‘How does he question and how does he eat?’1

IN APRIL, 1969, THE GALLERY Wide White Space in Antwerp presented a month of continuously changing performance pieces by James Lee Byars. During the final week Byars himself was on display, seated in a Thonet chair in the all-white gallery, writing questions, enigmatic statements and fragments of autobiography on separate sheets of paper. Framed in his unusual personal brand of “abbrev” English, these tiny word sculptures encapsulated enormous philosophical implications. When a visitor appeared, Byars would read aloud the last written question or statement, and invite a response to it.

This text, known as “The Pink Book,” was later augmented and published under the additive title: 100,000 (on the spine) and, over the first several pages, 100,000 Minutes or The Big Sample of Byars, or 1/2 an Autobiography [he was 37 at the time, and the life expectancy of Americans was 74] or The First Paper of Philosophy (each phrase on a separate page). Some of the pages contain involuted metaphysical koans with a tendency to reject ontology (“Is is?”), to cast doubt on knowledge (“Judgment is impossible”) and to focus on the intentionality of questioning and its ability to “create” new objects (“If you ask for something which doesn’t exist, you deserve it on the intelligence of the request”). Others are apparently cryptic autobiographical questions (“I may be Ze-ami’s ghost?”) and statements (“His head weighs twenty-five pounds”), which bring into focus basic philosophical loci such as the problem of identity, the mind-body problem, etc.

The overriding theme that increasingly dominated Byars’ work in the ’70s was philosophical doubt, informed by Pyrrhonic and Buddhist dialectic, and by the phenomenological rejection of all claims to certainty or ultimacy of knowledge. Byars’ sensitivity to the problem of knowledge, increasing over decades, led him to posit, as an art object or the basis for a series of art objects, the primacy of the question over the answer. The self-sufficient question stood in his work as a symbol of indeterminacy, openness to the universe, freedom from the enclosing and restricting anxiety of the answer. For Byars, adding a question mark to any statement infuses it with life and moves it into the realm of art or poetry. In his work the question mark functions as an analogue of the unfettered potentiality of the zero. Each discloses an empty space where any of life’s infinite forms is invited to arise.

If, as Schelling said, art is the embodiment of an infinite contradiction in a finite product,2 then an artwork is itself a pure interrogative, a question whose “answer” is the dissolution of one’s accustomed identity. The facts of asking and requesting, in turn, when performed as open invitations to the universe to express itself, acquire the mystery and creative force of art. This process is infolded toward infinite regress in the activity of requesting questions.

In May Byars went from Antwerp to Oxford and spent a week of sculpted encounters requesting questions from the dons and finding that they were much more comfortable giving answers than questions—that, in fact, in this environment, the question apart from the answer was, as William James said, no question at all. And that was precisely the problem: Byars had located a blind spot in attention. When one is asked a question, one immediately expends calories; the urgency of finding the answer becomes work. The question is not appreciated as an object in itself, but immediately forces a departure toward an answer, and so an open, inquisitive stance is at once placed in the background, behind a claim to knowledge.

Some two weeks after the Antwerp show, Byars was installed in the Hudson Institute, a private think tank for “futurology” run by Herman Kahn at Croton-on-Hudson, about 30 miles north of New York City. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had arranged the encounter as part of its “Art and Technology” program. For two or three weeks he lived at the institute, and for several weeks more commuted to it from New York City. The core of this piece was a search for “the one hundred most interesting questions in America at this time.” Byars soon extended this to Europe and named it the “World Question Center.” He contacted staff members at the institute and telephoned prominent scientists and academics elsewhere, asking them not for answers but for questions.

Again he found that the activity of asking for questions went deep into usually uninspected psychological spaces. So overwhelming was the dominance of the notion of answer that the request for questions caused confusion and anxiety. Most of the Hudson staff responded coolly; Herman Kahn, who was supportive of Byars, nevertheless described Byars’ presence as “theoretically subversive of the goal” of good organization. Scientists and scholars contacted by telephone were both confused and wary. Marshall McLuhan’s “What do you mean, questions” was a typical response. Alvin Weinberg, director of the Atomic Energy Commission, thought about it for a while, then asked, almost in good Byars-speak: “Axiology?”3

One evening in November, 1969, the World Question Center was put on Belgian television. Byars, in pink suit, with 50 students from the University of Brussels acting as “operators,” telephoned people in Europe and the United States who had been forewarned of the event without being told that they would be asked for questions, rather than answers. Ninety minutes of confused pauses followed, as the impenetrability of pure question held sway, and the event itself became a crowning question mark.

The following year, the Hudson Institute published a selection of 100 of the questions gathered by the World Question Center, in the form, specified by Byars, of an edible book printed on paper used in espionage. The Edible Book of 100 Questions presented questions both as secret, or contraband, and as nourishment, as the very nature of the human being, able to pass directly into the organism and constitute its substance.

The most piquant entries were Byars’ own: questions that seek out the changing horizons of interrogation as cultural strata shift (“Which questions have disappeared?”); that confront the reader with the place of question within his or her personal horizon (“Do you have an affection for question?”); that posit question itself as a noematic object (“Imagine the palpability of question?”); that question the informative, as opposed to the interrogative, function of language (“Is all speech interrogative?”); that hint of a therapy of question (“The question is the answer?”); and that present human identity itself as a question mark (“Make a question as your autobiography?”). The theme of macranthropy (familiar from Byars’ earlier “plural clothes” and “giant” pieces) reappeared (“I am the complete history of the world?”), alongside dialectical implications of an infinite regress of question (“This question is able to question itself?”) and, finally, the interrogative re-casting of the artist’s activity (“Question is Big Art?”). The themes of imagination and question mingle in the most tenuous of interrogatives: “Is there an imaginary question?”; The ghost of question?"

The Pink Book and The Edible Book were the first of a series of “Byarsbooks” (to coin a term) in which his distinctive “abbrev” speech (“Every word is a poem”) compresses semantic fields into microdots of interrogation (“Do?”) and shades the human being as an open question turned back upon itself in endless implications of regress. These “Booksculptures,” as Reiner Speck has called them, are among Byars’ most characteristic products. In 1970 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art published the One Page Black Book of 100 Questions—tiny gold letters on black tissue paper, print of the smallest size that can be read without magnification by a person with 20/20 vision. In 1977 many of these linguistic “microdots,” along with some newer ones, appeared as the 100 One Page Books at Rolf Preizig in Basel: each book, bound in black silk, contains, on black tissue paper in tiny gold letters, one question or question-related statement; at the opening, Byars, dressed in black suit, hat and gloves, opened and read each book.

The following year, the Bern Kunsthalle showed the 100 One Page Stone Book, each comprising a round piece of tissue paper with one question or statement on it, placed between two thin, circular stone covers. The Spherical Book, 1979, capped the series: a selection of the interrogative semantic “microdots” on a single round piece of tissue paper, between two hemispherical stone covers, the resultant sphere approximately the size of the artist’s head (“His head weighs twenty-five pounds”). The spherical universe of Parmenides and Plato was equated with the human brainpan, both seen as containers of pure question, no answer being needed or implied.

The ongoing question of question reverberated out through Byars’ sensitive mechanism in various forms. In 1962 he “gave away 10,000 clear bags of air with tiny printed ? marks in each.” In 1972 he released, from the roof ledge of the New York Public Library, a thousand one-inch paper squares with “0?” on them. Later that year he went to the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, seeking questions, and again found the concept of question as end in itself regarded as frivolous, bizarre and subversive of good organization. At the Eric Farber Gallery in Paris, Byars exhibited What, shouting the word “faster than the speed of sound” from one block away directly at the gallery. This absolutely pure, unmitigated interrogative was then offered for sale; no object or documentation at all was involved. In 1977 the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York showed The first Totally Interrogative Philosophy (a correlate of the “presuppositionless” philosophy of the Pyrrhonists and phenomenologists): a golden chair is concealed inside a silken tent; as a visitor approaches, Byars whispers (in “abbrev”) “Hear the Fi’ To’ In’ Ph’,” pulls aside the tent flap and shines a flashlight on the golden chair. The empty chair, around which the First Totally Interrogative Philosophy was to be heard in the air, corresponds to elements in Eastern traditions whose influence Byars has felt: the empty throne signifying the Buddha in the realization of not-self, the empty chair of the ghost in Shinto rituals.

At times this activity of question has focused openly on the “problem of identity” (“Question takes name away”). The mode of existence as open question suggested transcendence of individual answer-boundaries and self-definitions. Documenta V, 1972, opened with the photographing of Byars, in white suit and hat, standing with his back to the camera in the pediment of the Museum Fredericianum, a ghost of the present exploring the frozen tundra of the past; on successive days Byars performed, from the top of that building and related public monuments, trees and statues, a piece called To hear your name in the air: standing on the parapet wrapped in gauze and silks like a Noh ghost he shouted common German names down to the street through a megaphone. Some passersby experienced their own names as mighty summonses from the sky and responded with the arrested gaze of open question. “Name” itself became the “Question [that] takes name away.”

‘Think yourself away’

Byars is unusually concerned with a mental style in art, and appeals to what may be called “the esthetics of thought” for understanding of his works. Much of his work involves the posing of philosophical questions and enigmatic statements as art objects, therapeutic devices or noemata worth contemplating for their own sake—a practice that has broken cover in the history of philosophy from the paradoxical gestures of Diogenes and the Rinzai koan-masters to Rudolf Carnap’s assertion that the appeal of philosophical arguments is primarily esthetic, yet has rarely been adopted as an aspect of art activity proper. (Honorable exceptions that Byars admires are the Mu or zero paintings of the Japanese tradition.) Like George Maciunas of Fluxus, La Monte Young, the Black Mountain group, and others, Byars was influenced by Eastern thought in the ’50s and ’60s. He is in the line of the Jain syadvada (“Maybe is what I know”), the “phantom” arguments of Naga-juna, and the “Eight Tropes” of Aenesidemus as much as that of the phenomenological reduction of Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s desire to “get the fly out of the fly-bottle.”

A question posed by The Pink Book is a kind of summation, characteristically compacted into a “glimpse,” of Byars’ work: “What’s a thing?” Not given to direct verbal answers (“Who believes in answers?”), he presents a series of tentative experiential solutions or avenues that assert the primacy of mind over the object-realm. His reluctance to make physical art objects except out of the most perishable materials (tissue paper, silk, gold leaf, crumbly kinds of stone) responds to the primacy of the delicately constituted mental object. (“In 1964 I sold just the idea of a work of art.”)

Wittgenstein and Husserl converse and intermingle along his avenues. In 1969 The Ghost of James Lee Byars was exhibited in an apparently empty gallery in the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle. The viewer (or subject) who looks into the room as empty room sees one thing; the visitor who looks into the room as container of ghost sees another. What, then, is a “thing”? Moves in the language game have altered reality in the life-world. (So keenly aware is Byars of this “creative” power of language that “He calls all his sentences ‘Mr.’”) As Husserl said, “The thing as strictly experienced gives the mere ‘this,’ an empty X.”4 This empty X is filled up through a summons to habitual systems of categories, distinctions, selections, rejections. For Byars. Husserl’s “Back to the things themselves” means a return to the empty X as an unanswered question that invites the subject into an indeterminacy where his own boundaries disappear. “To ask is enough,” as Martin Heidegger said. The question is not an intolerable uncertainty that must be set straight by enforcing on its openness some recognizable hermeneutical grid. Asking is the creative function. The question is free; the answer, an attempt to bind it.

Information is undifferentiated at discovery.” Byars wrote while on display in Antwerp, a remark in parallel with Husserl’s definition of the thing-as-strictly-experienced as an empty X. The attitude extends far behind Husserl into the Pyrrhonist and Buddhist traditions to which Byars feels a close relationship. “Nothing in itself is either this or that,” wrote Sextus Empiricus—that is, until it has been interpreted/created as a this or a that. “In the final truth,” wrote the Tibetan Buddhist Tilopa, “there is neither this nor that.” “Things,” wrote Seng Chao of the Chinese Three-treatise School, “are neither this nor that.”5 Individual object-identities are, say the Prajnaparamita texts, “Like a dream, like a vision, like a bubble, like a shadow, like dew, like lightning”—a phrase that Byars had adopted as his “eighth name.”

Many of Byars’ works shift directly into the immaterial and hypothetical as a strategy for avoiding the claustrophobic object-identity of the physical artwork and subverting viewers’ attempts to locate themselves in a familiar universe of interpretation. At one extreme this tendency results in imaginary or hypothetical works: Byars announces that he will fly; at the appointed time a crowd has gathered in front of the gallery; Byars emerges, appropriately dressed, as always, stands for “a moment” near a gold-leaf line in the street, and re-enters the gallery. It is not a “put-on,” but a serious request to the viewers to regard their mind-objects as “things”: they have been asked to imagine Byars flying and to accept this imagined event as an art object. Clearly, an imagining, like a question, is a “thing” in the life-world (Husserl: “The non-existence [or the being persuaded of the nonexistence] of the presented or ideally constructed object . . . cannot steal the presented object as such from the relevant presentation [and so from the existing intentional experience generally].”)6 And if it is a thing, then in the hands of an artist it can be a pretty thing, or a beautiful thing or whatever category-term is used to mean: an art thing. The presentation of noematic art objects is a concrete venture in the realm of immaterial art, an area usually dominated by an absolutism that, despite its apparent openness, is dogmatic at its root.

Such a work is Byars Invisible at the Met, New York, 1970: Byars appears, quite visible, in red suit, mask and top hat, on the front steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; after “a moment,” he returns inside. The viewer has been asked not merely to accept an imaginary object, but to accept, as an artwork, the dialectic between a verbally posited imaginary object and a verbally negated sensory object; that is, to accept the mental experience of a conflict of noemata as a “thing” that has been presented to him by the artist. (Currently Byars is invisibly on display for all of 1981 at de Appel Gallery in Amsterdam.)

Less extreme strategies of de-familiarization work by a withdrawal of known grids and the imposition of inscrutable ones, a scrambling of codes designed to prevent the viewer, in his urgent lust for answers, from escaping the indeterminacy of pure question. “In ’60 I showed by looking at a different 100 eggs a day for 12 days to find the roundest whitest one.” This new structure, lacking context and functional relationship to familiar code systems, is itself “a thing as strictly experienced,” “an empty X,” irreducible, functionless and perfect as the rules of a game. Art experienced as an invitation to voyage into the infinity of the unanswered question is a game that reverses the traditional subject-object axis; as Gaston Bachelard says, the artwork questions the viewer, not the other way around.

Language criticism, primacy of question and the hypothetical as real are themes that gather and flow toward a silence. At the Venice Biennale of 1980, Byars, his face masked, stands in St. Mark’s Square silently distributing tiny slips of paper that say: “Be quiet.”

‘Questions are gifts?’

Since 1975 Byars has emphasized “Perfect” works and tiny “plays” that demonstrate in a nondoctrinaire fashion a kind of phenomenological reduction wherein everything adventitious to the experience in its immediate and irreducible self-sameness has been stripped away, leaving the viewer neither time nor space in which to thrust around it the known categories of habitual prejudices. A paradigmatic work, which has not yet been realized, is The Perfect Theatre. One hundred people would be gathered in the garden of a European villa and softly directed to gaze toward a horizon; at a certain moment they would hear the whispered phrase, “The Perfect Theatre is to look”; out toward the horizon, exactly as far away as the eye with 20/20 vision can discern, a man in a pink suit would appear for “a moment,” then vanish.

So stripped of content is the event, so reduced in terms of time, context and definition, that we are helpless to throw our mental lassoes around it. We need more before our categories can take hold—but there is no more. Viewers are apt to feel that such an event is “not enough,” a question that is of keen interest to Byars (“What’s enough?” asks The Pink Book). The denial that such a slender event is “enough” seems to mean that it is not yet “enough” to be a “thing” that we can recognize, categorize, strip of question, render safe answer and integrate into our system of preconceptions. Only less than that is, in fact, “enough” for the event “as strictly experienced.” Only an event so tiny, or so displaced or so stripped of habitual associations, is a thing-as-empty-X, neither more nor less than itself. “The Perfect Theatre is to look” means only to look, not to define, interpret, categorize and evaluate.

One of Byars’ tiny summations of his esthetic is: “Glimpse is enough.” Glimpse is too slight, too quick, too evanescent, mysterious and half-concealed for analysis and classification. In the experience of “glimpse,” not yet “enough” to be converted from question into statement, the fly is already, for an instant, halfway out of the fly-bottle.

Both the Perfect works and the one-word plays (which Byars has been making since the ’60s), along with countless tiny pieces presented as private gifts to individuals, are voyages into the infinitesimal art of “glimpse,” which is in a sense an answer (appropriately sublinguistic and unformulable) to pure question. The style of these works, their rigorous formalism, which pierces into the zone of emptiness, reflects in part the influence of the seven trips Byars made between 1957 and 1967 to Japan, where the Noh theater and related Shinto ritual activities penetrated his sensibility deeply.

Shinto, as the saying goes, is caught, not taught. It purveys, in place of doctrine and image, a style of attention, a delicate quality of presence, nurtured by rituals that are minimalist performances, in which the slightest gesture is charged with meaning by the intensity, yet delicacy, of the attention bestowed upon it. Shinto votive objects—often folded papers, usually white, or stones not carved but selected from nature—lie at some remove behind Byars’ paper, silk and stone works and continue to dominate his preferences in physical materials. Shinto settings and the approaches to them are always related to the natural environment, to some tree, grove, garden or seashore, which alert but passive attention unites with the ritual in a fragile, sensuous atmosphere scented by a gong or bell, the rustling of silk, the fluttering of leaves in the wind.

The Shinto ritual style was converted into Noh theater by Ze-ami (1363–1443), whom Byars regards, in the spirit of Shinto ancestor worship, as a former self. From Ze-ami comes the abstract and formal esthetic that is based on the primacy of simplicity and elimination of extraneous detail; the attempt to create vivid sensual atmospheres in fleeting impressions; the use of masks that repress both joy and sorrow in favor of a subtle and mysterious expression like a question mark the assuming, by the leading figure (the waki), of the role of beholder, rather than participant and manipulator.

Byars’ Perfect works, like Shinto and Noh, seek to induce an evanescent but vivid flash of irreducible atmosphere, like the scent of a particular flower.

The Perfect Love Letter, Brussels, 1974: Byars (or someone else, it doesn’t matter) in white suit, black top hat and expressionless mask (to remove his personality from the equation, just as the waki of the Noh is impersonal beholder), writes “I love you” backwards in the air.

The Perfect Kiss, Berkeley, 1977: each day at noon Byars enters the lobby of the University Art Museum, stands on a low platform, ever so faintly kisses the air (the universe), and leaves.

The Perfect Tear, Los Angeles, 1979: the audience/participants assemble by invitation in a Japanese garden, down in a hollow out of sight of buildings. As each arrives, Byars surreptitiously slips into his palm a one-inch square of black tissue paper on which is printed in tiny gold letters, “The Perfect Tear.”

These and related works are far more compelling in experience than in description; carried out with a solemnity that is not heavy but buoyant, at moments exhilarating, they produce in the viewers a sense of floating between purposive behavior and functionlessness, among powerful but elusive atmospheres that are themselves the art objects. Other apparition-like works involve brief but dazzling glimpses of messengers or visitors (not necessarily played by the artist himself) from exotic, possibly celestial, realms: Fifth Avenue in New York is cleared of traffic for about a mile north and south of the Guggenheim, police at cross streets diverting cars; Byars, in gold suit and gold top hat, is driven in a taxi at 100 miles an hour past the entrance to the museum, while he sits staring straight ahead in the back of the cab.

A group show (by Isi Fiszman) on the theme of “circus,” Brussels, 1976: a circus tent has been set up, with a searchlight, perhaps half a mile away, pointing to it down a long, straight street. The lens is greased golden; the swath of light, into which the viewers gaze, is thick and dripping. At a point not visible from the tent, Byars, in gold suit and gold top hat, leaps into the beam of golden light and walks toward the tent. When close enough to be heard, he shouts, “Isi!” turns, and walks back, disappearing again into the golden light.

The Play of Death, Cologne, 1976: 13 rooms are booked on the second floor of the Dom Hotel; at noon the wing doors to each room open above the plaza and 12 doctors (“thanatologists”) step into the doorways; in the center, flanked by six doctors on each side, Byars speaks the abbrev for death (“th”) into the rain. Says Reiner Speck, who commissioned the “play,” “It was all of that which has entwined the word ‘thanatos’ since the medieval dances of death.”

‘I founded a fictitious museum in New York in ’68 and collected 1,000,000 minutes of human attention to show.’

Much recent art, of course, has been interpreted “phenomenologically,” as directing the viewer to inspect or question his or her own perceptual processes. In the “Space Division Constructions” of James Turrell, for example, a rectangular aperture in the wall appears, from a distance, to be a flat surface, but at closer range reveals itself as the opening into a room behind. Such examination of perceptual quirks, despite its location in our avant-garde, is old—as old as Democritus displaying a straight oar, then plunging it halfway into water so that it appeared bent; Democritus also used the exemplum to question the ultimacy of our sensory equipment.

Byars’ work is not “phenomenological” in this “oar-in-the-water” sense; it is not our perceptual processes but our cognitive overlays that he deals with, and he does not simply focus on them, but finds ways to forestall or circumvent them as the viewer’s consciousness is nuanced through shifting noetic dances. He performs, in conjunction with the viewer, a type of phenomenological reduction wherein a slender datum is experienced in its purity or self-sameness. A Byars event cannot be broken down into parts, implications or messages; it is self-identical and immediate, yet lacking definition because it has no recognizable boundaries and thus relates to nothing.

Much conceptual and performance art is based upon the deliberate mixing of usually isolated cultural codes. Vito Acconci, for example, has set up a dialectic between public and private, and then breached it by establishing an unaccustomed intimacy between artist and audience—threatening the audience with a crowbar, telling the audience his most shameful secrets, etc. Byars, on the other hand, does not meet the audience directly with an expression of personal feeling; the usual axis of relationship is altered. The work is not aggressively thrust by the artist upon the audience, but is experienced by both with interpenetrated sensibilities. The work is not essentially of the artist: it is of itself, produced by its own nature, the artist and audience together assimilating its elusive atmosphere, which vanishes into memory at once.

It is not perceptual quirks, cultural codes or patterns of relationship that Byars’ work focuses on, but the quality of delicate and open attention itself. The artwork is less the object of this attention than the subjective experience of it. Attention relatively purified of past and future associations, attention that can see the thing as strictly experienced, is the substance of his art, and the purpose of his unusual persona.

Meetings with him observe no ordinary contextual patterns. They are apparitional flashes of intense awareness of something that falls through the blind spaces of cultural grids. You are to meet him for breakfast at the Plaza in New York. He appears a minute late and wordlessly, again and again, strews you and the tabletop with cherry blossoms. The event, though filled with human warmth, is performed impersonally, as a celebration of life itself “as strictly experienced.” “Like a single flower blooming on an old tree,” as Ze-ami says, it forces one into the mystery and isolation of the present.

Thomas McEvilley is a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University.


My thanks to Morgan Thomas Butler of the Foundation for Art Resources for her generous help in providing photographs and archival material for this article.

1. All subheads and italicized quotations within the text are from the Byars books mentioned in this article.

2. Friedrich Wilhelm Josef von Schelling, “Systems of Transcendental Idealism,” VI:3, in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 368-9.

3. Quotes in this paragraph are from A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 1967–1971, intro. by Maurice Tuchman, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971, pp 58-66.

4. Edmund Husserl, Ideas General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. W. R. Boyce Bigson, New York: Collier Books, 1962, p. 116.

5. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. R. G. Bury, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1933, sec. 19. G. C. C. Chang, Teachings of Tibetan Yoga, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963, p. 34, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, ed Wing-Tsit Chang, Princeton, N J.: Princeton University Press, 1963, p. 356.

6. Husserl, Ideas, p. 242.