New York

James Lee Byars

James Lee Byars’ extensive oeuvre has tended to revolve around related sets of dualities: materiality and immateriality, the eternal and the instantaneous, heaviness and lightness. In his delicate and atmospheric performance pieces, he has often avoided any hint of weight (in his paradigmatic conceptualization of a performance piece, The Perfect Theatre, an audience at an Italian villa would see, on a distant wall, a man in a pink suit appear and seemingly disappear in an instant). More recently, by contrast, he has made works in heavy materials—marble, limestone, brass—that can depress the spirit by their literal gravity even as they exhilarate with their form. In Five Points Make a Man, the Moons and Constellations (all works 1995), Byars combined in a single installation the two elements of sculptural weight and heady levitation through his special use of paper, a material he has worked with for four decades.

In one room of the gallery, pure in its rectilinearity, arrays of flat paper shapes—crescents, stars, circles, and towers—ascended the walls with a rigorous subtlety. Byars’ distinctive script (in which each letter is dotted with stars at its angles), written in gold marker, appeared on the cut papers, as well as on the red- or black-paper grounds. The writing remains characteristically opaque (in Byars’ “abbrev”-speak, “Q is.” translates, more or less, as “Question is the indefinite”; “TLADOJLB,” “The Life and Death of James Lee Byars”; “PK,” “The Perfect Kiss”; “5PMAM,” “Five Points Make a Man”; etc.). However, “abbrev” is an attempt to get beyond the heavy burden of language; the overlay of this combined linguistic credo and critique added a palpable cognitive aspect to the sheer and evanescent presence of the cut papers.

The works lent a cathedral-like ambiance to the room. The wall-mounted cut papers (in red, black, or gold—no other colors are permissible in Byars’ esthetic of purity) redefine the walls as ontological fields more delicate even than those of painting. The cut red and black papers evoke the ascents and descents of gold-charted stars; other red Chinese papers were cut abstractly into sculptural towers and cathedrals. All were overlaid by glass pieces of the same shape but slightly larger. The shallow three-dimensionality of this arrangement intensified the sculptural presence of the papers.

The brief texts reflect constant themes in Byars’ work: “247D” signifies “24 hours a day seven days a week,” meaning that one should make oneself available to life always. “Eros,” a recurring word in Byars’ work, is repeated in the dead center of stars and circles. Pythagorean themes are suggested by the texts that (like “247D”) resemble mathematical formulae, and by the arrays of stars, crescent moons, and round suns. A typical recent Byars theme—the head, outstretched hands, and spread feet of Five Points Make a Man—was embodied twice in the room, once schematically, as in Leonardo’s zodiacal figure, and once in an abstract linear array. Complementing the figure within the zodiac was the heavenly surround, “The Sun and the Moon and the Stars,” as in the piece called The Big Dipper and elsewhere.

In one corner of the room four scissored red Chinese papers made up towers representing the four quarters of space. Little black moons rose overhead. In the midst, black stars mapped out unseen power lines of the universe. The perfection of these floating ephemeral forms overwhelmed the viewer at the instant of entrance and remained with him or her long after the experience of the show.

Thomas McEvilley