New York

James Lee Byars

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

The room is darkened, there’s an object in the distance, decipherable in its geometry yet oddly indeterminate in the half light. Another darkened room, this time a mix of objects—two- and three-dimensional—on and against the wall and in exhibition cases. In still a third dark room a long white scroll is laid out. In its center is a giant black dot, imperfect in shape—a black pearl. The same dot multiplies on the folds of another scroll—yellow this time—placed upright on a high shelf. The Japanese flavor is unmistakable. The total effect is sacramental, obsessive, inscrutable: subdued yet potent. The gallery has become a temple. Presence is regenerated through absence, or rather, absence has itself become presence: the sheer, raw, made presence of Nothing, with Art residing in the total space, the absolutized emptiness. Objects accumulate, of different sizes and shapes—a large robotic figure on the wall, a small amorphous drawing, a grand black wall hanging, a small abstract figural sculpture, a vertical exhibition case containing a white globe on a wooden stand, several language pieces—but what counts is their arrangement in the space. The space subsumes fixed categories: it is neither simply closed nor open, intimate nor grand, finite nor infinite. Rather, it is irreducibly, irresistibly there. The space is a black hole, one in which everything has extraordinary weight but is dissolved into seductive transcendence. It is oddly humorous, for all its heaviness and gloom; as we move through the space, we become another object, accenting and accessorizing it.

The major innovation of post-Modernism is not the production of this or that kind of object, but the orchestration of very different kinds of objects—from different worlds, times, styles, materials—in a consummate space. The post-Modernist artist is more of a producer than a makers of objects. James Lee Byars takes intellectually evocative objects and uses them spatially. This is the new meta-physicality of art—in a sense, the externalization of all those heroically abstract spaces produced by Modern art, spaces imbued with the melancholy of immateriality. This is the so-called new theatricality, and Byars, who is one of its best practitioners, makes its point explicit: the restoration of that elementary wonder in which Aristotle said all reflection begins. Correspondingly, the work deals with the restoration of subjective space, that is, space in which the participant-spectator can experience himself or herself as a subject, achieve that elementary sense of being a subject that is obscured by the objectivism of the everyday, functional world. Byars’ major achievement is his demonstration that art can still induce wonder. He shows that art and wonder—that special mix of disinterested analytic curiosity and synthesizing apperception—are inseparable. Byars reinvents transcendence, reminding us of the true nature of esthetic experience.

Donald Kuspit