New York

James Lee Byars

Mary Boone Gallery/Perry Rubenstein Gallery/Michael Werner Gallery

If James Lee Byars, one of Detroit’s finest artists, is seldom considered as a product of his hometown, much less of the United States, a comprehensive American exhibition of the peripatetic artist’s oeuvre has nevertheless long been overdue. Byars, who died in Cairo in 1997, produced his formative work in Japan and spent much of the rest of his life shuttling between Venice, Los Angeles, Bern, and many other places, living an idiosyncratic life-work that was part midwestern, part European, and part “Oriental,” as his sui generis Japanese-inspired aesthetic has often been called. A recent overview, dispersed across six separate spaces belonging to three New York galleries, thus seemed a fitting survey.

At one Michael Werner, two Mary Boone, and three Perry Rubenstein galleries, twenty-three works made over a forty-year period were installed sympathetically and with an occasional nod to chronology, the differences between early, middle, and late outputs tangible and curious. If in the 1950s and ’60s Byars produced humorous, sometimes ad hoc works using humble materials, and the ’70s saw him experiment with performance and ephemeral sculpture, the ’80s and ’90s witnessed his creation of increasingly luxurious, though grandly simple, monuments. These last works, which risk being mistaken for portentous “statements,” are best installed, as they were at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, adjacent to earlier works of a more interrogative and unresolved nature. There the unabashedly comic anthropomorphism of the oversize granite tantric figure Untitled, 1960, and seated Self Portrait, 1959, assembled from black wooden planks and a miniscule black paper ball, animated an adjacent work from 1993–94, a pair of flat jade floor pieces, The Jade Shoes. Two bulbous, brushy black-ink paintings at Michael Werner Gallery, both from 1958 and both delightfully asymmetric, obligingly hinted at the necessary imperfections of The Angel, 1989, a heavenly stick figure composed of 125 Murano glass spheres, meticulously laid out on the floor.

With fine handblown glass, African blue granite, and many of the other rich materials he used in his later projects, Byars searched for the perfect but left it undefined, a possibility always palpable but forever unresolved. At Mary Boone Gallery, the Thassos marble of his Concave Figure, 1994, five curved, human-scale rectangular columns, bears slight flaws, and the gilding of the room-sized table that holds the sixteen modest sculpted lunar phases of The Moon Books, 1989, reveals the irregularity of the gold’s application. But if the elemental grandeur of these final works is distractingly impressive, the immaterial is what Byars was always pursuing. Though it’s hard to remember this in the face of such splendor, simply seeing is not enough. In his work of the ’70s, Byars made this point manifest. During that period he created a number of peculiar performances around the idea of perfection, including The Perfect Kiss, a 1978 piece re-created daily at one of the Rubenstein spaces by an assistant who, at noon, ascends a squat white platform and blows an almost imperceptible kiss. Here an equilibrium between the ephemeral and the enduring is achieved, one that did not always carry over between the multiple venues of this exhibition. A similar effect might have been realized by adding a question mark to the end of the exhibition’s title, thereby reflecting the interrogative nature of Byars’s oeuvre. Instead of declaring The Rest Is Silence, this survey might have asked, nine years after the artist’s passing: The Rest Is Silence?