Berkeley

James Lee Byars

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

This installation of 25 works by James Lee Byars stressed a little-acknowledged effect of his work: frustration. Ordinarily, this discomfiture is the result of our inability to crack the code of Byars’ art, or perhaps of our being unable to decide whether it has any meaning except as evidence of his careerism. Here Byars fueled those quandaries by ruling out close inspection of his work. All the objects on view were corralled within a circle of gold leaf applied to the floor, a level down from the museum’s entrance. (An identical solid circle of gold—this one void of objects—was applied to the floor on the next lowest level.) The ramp leading from the museum’s main floor to the installation was roped off at Byars’ insistence, so that visitors could view the work only from vantage points around the parapet at entry level or from higher up, along the cantilevered concrete balconies that twist upward through the museum’s central open space.

The installation—already long on gold and reflective finishes—gained radiance from the proximity of floor-to-ceiling windows that let in soft daylight. (Artificial light was kept to a minimum.) Within the gold circle were arranged many of Byars’ best-known sculptures of the ’80s along with one work from the ’70s: the giant brass ring (The Halo, 1985), a stack of basalt cubes (The Figure of Death, 1986), and a series of white marble geometric solids, including The Head of Plato, 1986; The Figure of Question is in the Room, 1986 and 1989; The Book of Thank You, 1989; (each in its own wood and glass display case), as well as the giant, gilded amphora he calls The Spinning Oracle of Delphi, 1986.

Several of Byars’ pieces, including the amphora, a 17th-century Spanish chair entitled The Philosophical Chair (Hear THe First TOtally INterrogative PHilosophy Around This Chair), 1978, and the 18th-century English console table (The Table of Perfect, 1989), are found objects. The presence of these artifacts pointed to the fact that the forms of his geometric fabricated objects are found, too, in a sense, in the realm of ideal forms. Gold, the alchemically ideal substance, gave an ambient materiality to the notion of perfection that guides much of Byars’ work. The ever-present tension between reality and possibility in his art was heightened here by the impossibility of studying it closely.

Even at the distance he dictated in this installation, it was possible to see an interplay of symbols—alchemical, sexual, perhaps cryptically personal—among Byars’ objects. It was possible to sense too the vapors of pretension given off by nearly everything he does. In his performances, even in his titles, Byars seems to change guises unpredictably from shaman to showman to sham. An artist whose public persona is such a large part of his production cannot be fairly judged on a selection of objects alone. However, after reading the catalogue that accompanies the show, with its valuable documentation of Byars’ activity, I doubt that the objects’ mute integrity as sculpture can weather the intellectual dandyism of the man who conceived them.

Kenneth Baker