James Lee Byars (born April 10, 1932 in Detroit, Michigan – died May 23, 1997 in Cairo, Egypt) was an artist specializing in installation sculpture and in performance art. Byars' notable performance works include "The Death of James Lee Byars" and "The Perfect Smile".
Byars was born in Detroit in 1932, studied art and philosophy at Wayne State University and lived in Japan from 1958 to 1968, teaching English and executing his first performance works under the influence of Noh theater and Shinto rituals.
When Byars was 37 years old—then half an average lifespan—he wrote his “1/2 autobiography.” Sitting in a gallery, he jotted down thoughts and questions every time a visitor approached him, and published them afterwards in a book he also titled The Big Sample of Byars. Obsessed by the idea of perfection, Byars produced a remarkable body of work that strove to give form to his search for beauty and truth. Pursuing what he called “the first totally interrogative philosophy,” he made and proposed art at scales ranging from the vastness of outer space to the microscopic level of subatomic particles, in an attempt to delineate the limits of our knowledge while enacting a desire for something more.
After studying art and philosophy, Byars moved to Kyoto in 1958, where he spent much of the next decade. Influenced by aspects of Japanese Noh theater and Shinto rituals, Byars created and performed folded paper works at sites including Japanese temples and New York galleries, and made fabric pieces that served as costumes to join together two or more people in public performances. Throughout his career, he also produced a large quantity of printed books, ephemera and correspondence that he distributed among friends and acquaintances. Dispersed across a wide geography, they attest to Byars’s desire to be present—however fleetingly—in different places and times.
Byars lived and worked itinerantly, moving between New York, Venice, San Francisco, Kyoto, Bern, the Swiss Alps, Los Angeles and the American southwest, eventually choosing to die in Cairo. Posing his art confoundingly between apparent contradictions—the monumental and the minuscule, the universal and the personal, the luxurious and the minimal, the relic and the event, the spectacular and the invisible—Byars heightens the viewing experience. In the aesthetic interrogations he provokes, he suggests that perfection may occur not simply at the most evanescent edges of form, but also in the attenuated moments of attention spent trying to discern it.
The Museum of Modern Art played an important role in Byars’s early career. In 1958, after having been inspired by a Mark Rothko painting he encountered in his native Detroit, Byars came to New York and arrived unannounced at MoMA’s reception desk intent on getting an introduction to Rothko. Instead, he met Dorothy C. Miller, the museum’s first Curator of Painting and Sculpture, who took an interest in the paper works Byars had been producing in Japan. Byars convinced her to allow him to mount a brief exhibition in one of the museum’s stairwells. This event would be remembered as the artist’s first museum exhibition, and the relationship between Byars and Miller flourished into an extensive correspondence and gifts to the museum of a number of key performable paper works, which are included in the exhibition. In 2011, MoMA added important fabric pieces, ephemera and correspondence with the acquisition of the Daled Collection of American and European Conceptual Art.
Recent exhibitions include I'm Full of Byars: James Lee Byars - Eine Hommage, Kunstmuseum Bern; Milton Keynes Gallery, London (2008); The Monument to Cleopatra, Michael Werner Gallery, New York (2012); Klein / Byars / Kapoor, Musee d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Nice; ARoS Kunstmuseum, Aarhus (2012); Early Works & The Angel, Michael Werner Gallery, London (2013); "James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography", Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2013 - 2014) and MoMA PS1, New York (2014); "FLEX", Kent Fine Art, New York (2014), and "James Lee Byars", Random Institute, Zurich (2014). In 2013 James Lee Byars was included in the 55th Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace.
The estate of the artist is represented by Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London and Cologne.