James Lee Byars, A 1000-Foot Chinese Paper, 1965. Performance view, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, January 13, 1965.

James Lee Byars, A 1000-Foot Chinese Paper, 1965. Performance view, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, January 13, 1965.

James Lee Byars

James Lee Byars, A 1000-Foot Chinese Paper, 1965. Performance view, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, January 13, 1965.

A Lilliputian show in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s already miniature Forum Gallery, “Ordinary Madness” plucked James Lee Byars (who died in 1997 at the age of sixty-five) out of the general history of Fluxus and reframed his practice with some astonishing and wide-reaching results. On view were heretofore unexhibited letters, photographs, and films that documented Byars’s happening-like events and traced his involvement with the Carnegie between 1963 and 1966. There was also one choice “performable object”—a thousand feet of folded Chinese paper activated in a work that Byars had staged at the Carnegie on January 13, 1965 (A 1000-Foot Chinese Paper). While such ephemera evidences Byars’s conceptual development, it also reemphasizes the materiality of practices often erroneously thought of as furthering the dematerialization of art. In this show, the centrality of the performable object in his practice was clearly apparent, suggesting a debt to the materialist practices issuing from Europe at the time—those of Manzoni and Fontana in particular—and, in turn, situating Byars as a precursor to institutional critique in a way that inflects that movement differently.

The word performable was selectively used by Byars to describe objects he made (often from cut paper) with some idea in mind of impregnating them with performative potential—of creating immanent objects-as-events. For example, when the thousand-foot paper line mentioned above was displayed in this show, it appeared folded, contained by a vitrine. Meanwhile, on the rear wall, a projection of slides documenting the 1965 event to which the paper line belongs gave narrative background disclosing how the work had been enacted (it was delicately unfolded by Sister M. Germaine in the Carnegie’s Grand Sculpture Hall). Seen as such, the piece simultaneously read as drawing, sculpture, and an agent of choreography. As A 1000-Foot Chinese Paper was only one of three events that Byars executed at the Carnegie, documentation of the other two pieces (both 1965) was subsequently projected on the same screen, including 1 x 50 Foot Drawing, 1964, and The Mile-Long Paper Walk that Lucinda Childs, of Judson Memorial Church fame, carried out in 1965.

Byars’s objects suggest a dismantling of institutional authority, and not one that merely reflects the museum back onto itself, serving only to reify the institution’s originary power. Instead, in a demonstration of the feminist dictum that the personal is political (one also hopes that the political is reciprocally personal), Byars establishes a connection with the museum via handwritten notes. Penned on cut-up sheets of colored paper that are at once painterly and sculptural and evoke the assisted readymade (purchased materials), the twenty-four letters and postcards seen here had been sent by the artist to the Carnegie’s then director Gustave von Groschwitz. Byars’s tone is lighthearted if not irreverent, and, addressing the institution’s top authority as “dear GvG” (among other familiar designations), the artist interpolates the director both in his executive capacity and as a peer. That “fondly” and “merry x-mas love” sealed the correspondence only underscores Byars’s intention to undermine the formalities of professional protocol, these objects insinuating themselves like billets-doux or valentines. However, the space produced is nonetheless not one of collapsed boundaries and borders, and does not become one of intimacy, per se. Byars’s work, figuring a relationship as mediated by correspondence rather than face-to-face communication, dilates the interval between self and other, suggesting modes of relation that both dissolve authority while maintaining productive separation.

While in the press release the nun goes unnamed and Childs is identified as a dancer who later collaborated with a man (Sol LeWitt), Byars’s slides of the performances explicitly credit “Sister M. Germaine” to establish parity with “Dancer Lucinda Childs,” thereby reversing the works’ dissolution of authorial authority and the sovereignty of the artist’s own proper name. Aside from this minor misstep, the exhibition in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie, organized by current Carnegie International cocurator Dan Byers, was an exceptional coup of precision that offered points of connection between precisely the sorts of artificial categories that Byars’s work so assiduously sought to dismantle.

Jaleh Mansoor