New York

James Lee Byars

Michael Werner Gallery

Shaman, charlatan, oddball, dandy—James Lee Byars carried off all these roles with flair, uniting them without contradiction. Like Yves Klein, whom he in many ways resembled, he brought to art a group of self-taught extracurricular ideas that set him somewhat beyond the grasp of art historians and critics (with the notable exception of Thomas McEvilley, one of the most convincing explicators of both men’s work). As with Klein, his thought lay as close to religion as to aesthetics, though if Klein was influenced by readings in Rosicrucianism, for Byars the deepest impression seems to have been left by the trips to Japan that he made repeatedly in the 1950s and ’60s, where he was particularly interested in the ways of Shinto priests. Like Klein, Byars embraced immateriality, creating performative, ephemeral artworks that, once completed, existed for posterity only as records and stories, often entertainingly theatrical ones. In the later years of his career, though, he produced a good number of objects, and these have gradually been seen more widely in the years since his death, in his mid-sixties, in 1997.

The centerpiece of this exhibition (smartly titled “Gold Dust Is My Ex-Libris”) was The Golden Divan, 1990, an antique chaise longue that Byars had reupholstered in gold cloth. The legs, too, are gilded—the entire object is gold. For Byars, gold intimated perfection, and he used it often in different ways—for example, in the entire gold room made for the 1994 performance The Death of James Lee Byars. The only other works in the show, in fact, were five drawings on disks of gold paper, on which Byars wrote words and phrases—IS IS, for instance—then systematically obscured the writing with scribbled stars.

The Golden Divan embodies the dandyish side of Byars, the attention-getting performer whose idea of art encompassed standing blindfolded in a gondola crossing a Venice canal, or addressing the crowds visiting the Documenta exhibition from the high roof-edge of the Fridericianum in Kassel. In this way the work actually has more presence than some of Byars’s other late sculpture, the geometric forms—spheres, hemispheres, cylinders—that he surely invested with symbolism but that better communicate the rich- ness of their own materials, a theme of little interest for its own sake. A golden chaise longue, though, turns out to be a rather odd article. The radiant material immediately suggests a throne, or some other grand, even sacred kind of seat, but the posture that the couch would force on its occupant points in another direction. Curving, rococo, full, a chaise longue is a rather silly thing, a site less of true comfort than of self-presentation, and that in a half-sitting, half-lying stance connoting languid indolence. It is one of those design objects whose elegance is close to a joke, like a cummerbund or a monocle. In this way The Golden Divan references spiritual questioning, but also the fused dignity and absurdity of that kind of search (and also, incidentally, of the role of the artist). Meanwhile, of course, the couch is empty; the man who would lie on it is gone.

David Frankel