PRINT September 1997


James Lee Byars

JAMES LEE BYARS DIED in the Anglo-American Hospital in Cairo late on the night of May 22 or early in the morning of May 23, 1997. Cancer had planted flags of occupation in his body for several years, and finally claimed it all. Toward the end he said ruefully, “My bones stick to the chair.” Yet in the days and hours before his death, he was engrossed in the lingering issues, problems, and satisfactions of his life—working on a new will, speaking on the phone with friends on other continents and vigorously pursuing his artwork up till, literally, the final minutes.

Late on May 21 a turn for the worse caused him to go into the hospital, a pleasant place which he liked, in the midst of tall old trees on an island in the Nile. When I asked him, on his last night, whether he wanted me to take him elsewhere (Venice? Cologne?), he said, “How could I find anyplace better than this?”

As visiting hours ended, about 10:30 PM, James asked his friend and driver Magdy Hafez to take certain pieces of mirror to his brother Said's workshop to be cut the next morning. “Thank you for coming,” he whispered, clasping my hands warmly. And we left for the night.

Ismail Abdullah, the night-nurse on duty, thinks he died peacefully in his sleep about 1:30 AM. But the next morning, when I uncovered him to make sure there had been no mistake, his eyes were open in an expression of surprise.

This was a man who, the second he entered any city in the world, was the strangest person in that city—who at various times in his life had sported a pink, silk tail, or a straitjacket, as everyday garb, and who, recently, in Egypt, had gone out walking with a flower apparently growing from the top of his bald head. He had arrived in Egypt three months or so before his death, convinced that there were Egyptian gold-blowers who could blow gold the way glassblowers blow glass. He wanted one of them to blow him a sphere of molten gold the size of a human heart, but perfect—without seam or nuance. Such was the impossible dream of Johnny. . . (as we sometimes called a universal alter-ego).

In the last day or two of his life, he and I sat and stood around his room across the street from the pyramids and discussed the sphere, its various properties, and what it might have meant to Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plato. Or rather, I sat or stood while he lay in pain on the bed wearing a ruffled black shirt and holding something over his heart. Suddenly he handed it to me. It was a gold sphere 10 centimeters in diameter, glowing spectrally in the late afternoon light. He watched as I explored it with my fingertips, and as they approached a seam where two hemispheres met, he cried suddenly, and with exasperation, from the bed, “Tom, why can't we make anything perfect!?” (As perfection continued to elude Johnny, his last notebook filled darkly, like a spreading shadow, with the phrase, “The Death of Perfect.”)

His oeuvre had begun over thirty years before with the theme of Question—an open interrogative stance which lent an airy sweetness to the early work. But now, a lifetime later, his oeuvre was ending, in darkening Egyptian sunlight, with a troubled emphasis on Perfect.

In the mid ’80s the shifting relationship between these themes began with the Perfect Question. As things unfolded, it seemed increasingly clear that Perfect was not in fact a question; it was an answer.

Perfect was the Answer to Question. Now, in the death-heavy shadow of the pyramid, there was not only the heart-sized golden ball that lay incandescent in my hand, there were others, each one centimeter in diameter, perhaps a hundred, and, finally and triumphantly, a thousand of them, each one millimeter in diameter, they got lost in the lines of your hand! Johnny was ecstatic. His decimal numerology was about to become perfect. (Indeed, in the heat and darkness, Johnny was heard to murmur that it would be more respectful to call them Golden Spheres than gold balls.)

Byars worked till the last, as if production could ward off death. Entering his room, one was surrounded by a density of beauty as if by a warm glow—while behind it, the cold gaze of the pyramid loomed unrelenting in the window. Room 1204 was filled with countless small art works piled in seemingly haphazard heaps like the grave-goods in King Tut’s tomb: circles of red and black paper, golden and purple cloth, black mirror; hairy books of goatskin, scaly snakeskin, crocodile; live scarab beetles wandering among Golden Spheres, darkly meaningful stones; two red buckets, various Asian mementos, transparent gold cloths; little glass concave disks with right in the middle the smallest sphere you could imagine, like you could hardly see it.

At the time of his death Byars had two major pieces in progress in local workshops. One was a large black carpet woven from the hair of 200 Egyptian goats. In the middle of this sea of intense, coarse, unforgiving black the heart-size gold ball is to sit in lonely splendor, surrounded by a circle of one hundred replicas, each 10 centimeters high, of the Old Kingdom figures known as Witnesses: mummies with their knees drawn up, staring straight ahead. The piece presents a vision of the world he was about to enter, evoking the passage of the boat of Ra through the night, when the appearance of the golden disk in each of twelve dark caverns causes mummies to sit up and worship.

(Johnny figures it out in gathering dusk. As he pursues his investigations, penetrating ever deeper into Egyptian mysteries, death comes in the window silent as air. Something hooded, venomous, lurks beneath the golden cloth. Johnny plays with balls and mirrors as the Night of Counting the Years draws toward its end. He mourns the Death of Perfect as the hand rises over the eye in the pool. “I will make death love me,” he mutters into the darkness.)

And his shroud: a circle ten meters in diameter made of the skins of eighty black long-haired goats, with the long hair brushed over the sewn seams to conceal them. His desire, in case he died in Egypt, was to be loosely wrapped in this and air-dried in the desert. But it was not to be. Instead, on May 24, he was interred in the American cemetery in Old Cairo, the ancient part of town that is approached through a special crumbling gate, where old dreams of civilization slumber in sun-warmed dust.

It was a sickeningly hot afternoon; the service was brief and tortured, like a muffled cry. Half-dazed, I climbed down into the hole, pant cuffs in the mud, as we lowered him down into the dirt with our own hands, Magdy and some others and I, while a single crone in black watched silently.

It’s a pretty cemetery, flowers and palm trees embraced by an old stone wall. As we shoveled in the dirt, sweating in the heat, the muezzins roundabout began calling the faithful to prayer. Their voices tangled eerily over the graves as we straggled out, disoriented, into late afternoon traffic.

So now Byars lies in one of the storied tombs of Egypt. (At once a fax arrived from Paris announcing a visitor coming to see it.) Exit Johnny. And farewell. But with a last over-the-shoulder glance, he bequeaths works to various museums that had supported him. These will make their appearances in the world like ghostly returns, or greetings from some other continent, bearing the stab of memory. (Exit Johnny, yes, but he waves, for just an instant, from the horizon, wearing a gold suit and a devil's tail.

So we are not quite free from his antics yet?)

Thomas McEvilley teaches at Rice University in Houston, and practices art criticism in New York and elsewhere. His recent book, Capacity: History, The World, and The Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism, was published by Gordon and Breach in 1996.