James Lee Byars. The Rose Table of Perfect, 1989. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía


It is not easy, nor necessary, to put labels on the production of James Lee Byars, but it is easy to identify its references (symbols and motifs of Eastern traditions, especially Japanese culture; together with philosophy and the history of Western art , which he studied in depth) and also detect his influence on numerous authors from generations after his – he was born in 1932 in Detroit and died in Cairo in 1997 -, especially those linked to conceptual art and performance.

The physical and the spiritual equally nourished his works, in various techniques (installations, sculptures, drawings, performances and texts), since his entire career was dedicated to reflecting, from aesthetic approaches and at the same time close to mysticism, around the representation of the human figure and its dematerialization, life cycles and the notion of perfection, often involving visitors to its exhibitions in large-scale interventions or ephemeral actions; That relationship between artist and audience was equally fundamental for Lee Byars, since sometimes the viewer could respond, with his presence and attitude, to certain questions that he raised in his pieces, in a more or less explicit way.

Until last February, Pirelli HangarBicocca presented its first Italian institutional exhibition in Milan in three decades, curated by Vicente Todolí, and now this retrospective has traveled to Spain, where it can be visited at the Velázquez del Retiro Palace at the initiative of the Reina Sofía Museum. It consists of works, mostly large format, dated between the mid-seventies and the end of the nineties, in which precious materials, such as silk, gold leaf, glass or marble coexist in a more than harmonious way. with geometries that we can consider minimalist (prisms, spheres, pillars) and also with objects that refer to baroque theatricality, in a game of cross-cultural, intercultural references, which affects both the forms and the content.

A good part of the pieces gathered in “Perfecta is the question”, as this exhibition is called, have rarely been exhibited outside the collections and museums from which they come and have in common, as the title of the project itself points out, a sense allegorical that the visitor has to reveal, and that will often have to do with the aforementioned concept of perfection (on a much larger scale than human), with the awareness of the finitude of existence, with the importance of doubt as the first step towards knowledge and with the potential of art when it comes to shaping reality. Its circles, triangles and squares are not only shapes that articulate orders, but fundamentally, and by their very ubiquity, symbols of the necessary openness of the senses and mind towards the cosmos and infinity; Furthermore, Lee Byars (who traveled to Japan seven times in the sixties, and did not settle definitively in the United States until 1967) considered that the aesthetic experience does not derive only from the spectator's mere encounter with his compositions, from contemplation, but also , and above all, the fact that he perceives the sense of belonging of the works with respect to the space in which they are presented. From that knowledge he derived beauty, which therefore does not reside in the material and is not constant, but rather arises and evaporates continuously.

The exhibition begins with spheres, like the hundred of those marble pieces that make up The Thinking Field (1989), arranged horizontally on the ground. Its repetition and uniformity represent a way for the American artist to approach the aforementioned idea of ​​perfection; Furthermore, its ovoid shapes generate forces of order and dispersion at the same time. Although it would be possible to remember the harmony of the Pythagorean spheres, Heinrich Heil, echoing the author's speeches, found in these forms – an emblem, in his words, of the genius of human thought– a tribute to Plato and those who have tried to advance knowledge of the world: One hundred expanding points represent a section of the infinite sphere that occupies the field of human consciousness.

Behind them, another sphere, this one made of polished sandstone, three years earlier, insists on Lee Byars' search for artistic access to the absolute from simplicity. It has as its title The Tomb of James Lee Byars and it is, again, the result of his analysis of the symbolic meaning of the circle, whose excellence lies, as Plato himself already formulated, in the equidistance of all its points with respect to the center. The artist came here, therefore, to conceive his tomb as a complete and pure element, one more of the cosmos: a sphere, which itself evokes the sacred, in which the absence of covering and the porosity allow us to glimpse the passage of the time. The same form will meet us in The Rose Table of Perfect (1989), this time made up of 3,333 red roses whose appearance will obviously change in the months in which it remains in the Palace: they will wither until they dry out, which will accentuate the contrast between their fleeting nature and the permanent, symbolic meaning of the form that they generate, that sphere. The number of flowers used, as you can imagine, is not accidental: it refers to the numerology of the Kabbalah, in the same way that the use of red roses, and not another color, alludes to the multiple meanings that we have given them, of the love of pain or death.

James Lee Byars.  The Tomb of James Lee Byars, 1986. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
James Lee Byars.  The Rose Table of Perfect, 1989. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Other constant elements in Lee Byars' production, especially in his works on paper and sculptures, are the planet Venus (or Eros), the moon and the stars. Here they appear in subtle pieces made with gold pencil on Japanese paper; Eros, by the way, will not be interpreted as the god of love, but as the creator of the cosmos, in a sense, again, Platonic; as a force that must be dominated so that it leads us towards purity, truth and perfection.

Lee Byars also plays with transparency and communication between different spatial areas. The Hole for Speech (1981) consists of a circular sheet of glass with a hole in its center, edged with gold leaf; The first time it was exhibited, the artist performed an action in which he stood behind that panel, then wrapped in black cloth, and invited the public to tell him their personal idea of ​​perfection through that golden hole, in his words. , a needle eye for thoughts. In its current version, without coating, the viewer can isolate himself to one side of the piece while still being clearly visible, perhaps spending some time on the self-knowledge after that crystal mask; In the artist's life, and in his actions, the public was asked, covering their eyes to concentrate better, to respond to questions posed by Byars through that hole.

James Lee Byars.  The Hole for Speech, 1981. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

The central area of ​​the exhibition is occupied by its 12 golden display cases: each one houses marble sculptures whose shapes refer to stars, moons, spheres… The artist conceived them as books related to certain philosophical concepts, but the absence of words opens up all kinds of possibilities for the viewer, in their interpretation. The use of gold also adds mystery; He never used this material for ornamental or sumptuary purposes, but rather as a reference to the mystical and infinite.

James Lee Byars.  12 golden display cases.  Reina Sofía National Museum of Art Center

We will find it again in The Golden Tower With Changing Tops (1982), a good-sized lighthouse that seems to build bridges between heaven and earth and is also reminiscent of some religious constructions, such as minarets or the Tower of Babel; also in The Capital of the Golden Tower (1991), hemispherical tip of the golden tower that, breaking conventions, here we will contemplate looking down and not up.

James Lee Byars.  The Golden Tower with Changing Tops, 1982. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
James Lee Byars.  The Capital of the Golden Tower, 1991. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Red will also not return, in The Red Devil (1977), a schematic figure posed on the ground with red satin rope that, in this case, we will see close to its Red Angel of Marseille: angels and devils are a duality very well handled by the American.

James Lee Byars.  The Red Devil, 1977. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
James Lee Byars.  Red Angel of Marseille, 1993. Reina Sofia National Art Center Museum

This proposal is completed with his, also schematic, but still figurative, self-portrait from 1959, which he carried out in Japan; The Unicorn Horn (1986), a narwhal tusk wrapped in white silk and arranged on a wooden table, which refers to the legends that turned these tusks, supposed unicorn horns, into highly coveted objects, almost like relics; or their (very perfect) The Figure of Question is in the room (1986) and The Door of Innocence (1986-1989), a pillar and a circle executed in golden marble that allude, metaphorically, to the links between beauty and spoken language and to the value of the question as the first step towards knowledge. Here, again, simple geometry is put at the service of symbols.

Finally, one more room brings together documents, works on paper and objects that fully demonstrate Lee Byars' desire to place his art at the service of mystery, without fearing the cryptic and without giving up his personal charisma: himself He wore a gold suit in many of his actions.

James Lee Byars.  The Unicorn Horn, 1986. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
James Lee Byars.  The Door of Innocence, 1986-1989.  The Figure of Question is the Room, 1986

James Lee Byars. “Perfect is the question”


Retirement park


From May 10 to September 1, 2024

Similar Posts