New York

James Lee Byars

Goodman/Multiples Gallery

With the dreamy but aggressive flamboyance of the have-nots James Lee Byars lingers amidst the ephemera of religious thinking and the trappings of the elite, using the most perishable of art mediums. Were he to relax the contrived difficulty of his manifestations he would fade out entirely, but behind this dubious presence he must be there, somewhere. Nonetheless I think his art would disappear if we pressed it through a sieve of mechanistic criticism. His world is that of a salon Buddha.

He dresses the part, appearing at the performance opening his exhibition in black silk attire looking altogether cylindrical with top hat, cloak, and veiled face. His assistant was also in black. “This is the first totally interrogative philosophy,” he says. Others hear, “This is the first totally drunk philosophy” (they are said simultaneously). He falls down on the carpet, gets up and enters his room, inviting the audience to come in one at a time for private consultation. The conversation with him is all about abbreviation, discussed in hissing, swallowed words (“How do you abbreviate ‘Shakespeare’? ‘Shhh.’ or ‘peer’?”).

It is a mere exchange of remarks whose frivolity denies the possibility of considerate communication. His words are like manna; they fall on us but we can do nothing with them. The interaction never extends beyond a clumsy ritual of greeting. Being closeted with an unseen figure and his neurotically frantic contracted words generate a make-believe anxiety; the artist wants to let you in on something.

A silk, veil-like tent almost fills the space; its walls part at a low slit, revealing an inner chamber. A chair of indeterminate origin with a high back and golden-yellow upholstery stands on awkwardly ungracious biomorphic legs. Beneath it a golden-yellow bedspread doubles as a carpet. Glorification (or justification?) comes from the hissing mystery man: “This is Goya’s chair from the Prado.” Believing this would be discordant with everything in the event/tableau, with its mannerisms and its monstrous fake elegance. Served up to impress, like a gift, this chair indeed functions as a present to artists from the artist. Since Byars lived in Japan for seven years (in a white paper house he built) the exhibition could refer to Shinto shrines where chairs are kept for the spirits. But in Byars’ tableau it is uncertain whether the chair is for the spirit or the shrine is for the chair.

The intangible meaning doesn’t make for enigma here. It is a spectacle with a somewhat mundane, festive atmosphere. Byars’ esthetic underlines this, alluding to a class of expensive objects and a style of cheap, pompous elegance. The colors and materials of this piece, like all previous ones, are plush. In medieval times gold was the divine color. For Byars, gold is the color of art, and art is aristocratic and artificial. One of the curiosities of Byars’ world is the way in which it makes its own microcosmic utopia of an elegant court; as if the artist’s antics were to amuse the patrons.

James Lee Byars and his art are on and about the edge. But how much of his life is edging toward art? Some of it has no artistic justification and yet is carefully justified (by him) as art. I begin to measure his artistic merit by the depth of inseparability and confusion he achieves.

—Edit DeAk