View of “James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death,” 2014.

View of “James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death,” 2014.

“James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death”

View of “James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death,” 2014.

“Just make me up!” James Lee Byars is said to have instructed Thomas McEvilley as he prepared an essay on the artist for this publication in 1981, and that is exactly what Triple Candie (curatorial duo Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett) did at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Taking their cue as well as the exhibition’s title from Byars’s proclamation “I Cancel All My Works at Death,” the organizers, in conversation with guest curator Jens Hoffmann, populated a gallery with editorialized adaptations of the artist’s work. A brick wall at the entrance glittered with gold paint, in homage to Byars’s use of gold throughout his career—from his costumery of gold lamé to his gilding of the curb in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (The Gold Curb, 1970) to the gold leaf-embossed tomb of The Death of James Lee Byars, 1982/1994. But here, painted over the crumbling bricks, Byars’s favorite color evoked faked wealth, or sham stardom. Indeed, like the Midwesterner who became Gatsby, the Detroit-born Byars—with only hearsay and conjecture for a background—talked his way into a society of artists and curators who would make a reality of his imaginary life.

The exhibition was structured around a series of sets and scripts for performances of a mystery play, complete with audition advertisements, props, costumes, stage directions, and even postperformance documentation. In the center of the gallery sat an empty throne on a bloodred carpet littered with burned logs and stone orbs, all sprinkled with powdered gold dust. Hovering above this scene was a hokey representation of the artist’s spirit: a ghostlike drapery of white tulle, no doubt an allusion to his 1969 installation The Ghost of James Lee Byars. On either side of the throne—lining walls that led at a proscenium angle toward a tattered stage curtain—were posters for Byars’s many performances. Their designs were amateur, the printing was Kinko’s: We’re in a regional-theater lobby! The aesthetic was that of fakery or DIY sloppiness. Arte Povera–like materials (warped and painted cardboard served as a projection screen, and cheeky cut-paper animations were looped on cheap monitors) and penciled corrections of (intentional?) typos in the exhibition texts played up the shoddiness of the show, nearly to the point of overacting.

Byars, who died in Cairo at the age of sixty-five, was not an artist so much as he was a pose, a Rrose Sélavy. In his work, the avant-garde principle of turning life into art to destroy the distinction between them was simultaneously celebrated and made kitsch. But beneath what appeared as poseur tomfoolery was his desperate yearning for a paradoxically ephemeral perfection (from his 1975 performance The Perfect Kiss to the installation The Book of 100 Perfects,1985), which distanced his work from the cooler, brainier strands of American Conceptual art.

Hanging on the back wall behind the curtain was an arrangement of obituaries for the artist. While the obits were real, their divergences in content pointed to the instability of what we know about Byars. A page from the Detroit Free Press was included: a black, blank sheet. (Byars’s death went unremarked in his hometown paper.) Triple Candie does specialize, after all, in “exhibitions about art but devoid of it and realized without the involvement of artists.” Perhaps to its credit, but more likely to a fault, in this retrospective (or rewriting), Triple Candie ultimately created a show as much about itself—about its own modes of exhibition, appropriation, documentation, and fictionalization—as about Byars, who may be just (or may just be) the most convenient subject. Byars’s bombastic self-mythologizing and grasping for celebrity were likely as self-consciously constructed as this show, which his work eludes, as it would any show—even one that exhibited the “real” Byars. The eccentric early-Soviet writer Daniil Kharms, whose play with pseudonyms and self-portraits in the guise of alter egos resemble Byars’s performance of self, wrote of a “red-headed man who had no eyes or ears,” not even hair, and finally no physical attributes whatsoever. Like Byars in the hands of Triple Candie, Kharms’s redheaded man is cast into oblivion, only to remain hauntingly present: “So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. We’d better not talk about him anymore.”

Matvei Yankelevich