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 James Lee Byars  (1932 - 1997)

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Lived/Active: New York/Michigan / Japan/Egypt      Known for: sculptor-conceptual, drawing, performance art

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James Lee Byars
from Auction House Records.
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Neo-Dadaist, performance and conceptual artist James Lee Byars was born April 10, 1932, in Detroit, Michigan.  He studied art and philosophy at Wayne State University, and attended the Merrill Palmer School for Human Development, both in Detroit, 1948-1956.  For a one-day thesis exhibition in 1955, Byars displayed large, spherical stones in his family's house, from which he removed all furniture, windows and doors.  In 1956, Byars rented a sod farm to exhibit his abstract figure sculptures at midnight under a full moon. The sculptures were viewed from sleds pulled over the snow.  In 1957, Byars received a one-year travel stipend from neighbors who admired a garden he designed for his Detroit patron. Byars used the stipend to visit Japan, living in Kyoto.

He met artist Morris Graves there, himself strongly influenced by Oriental culture. Byars supported himself by teaching English, while studying art, philosophy and language. The Director of the Tokyo Folk Art Museum, Yanagi Soetsu, introduced Byars to ceramics and papermaking masters, with whom he studied.

Byars remained in Japan for ten years, though he often returned to the United States. He saw the work of Mark Rothko at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, near Detroit, on his first visit back, and hitchhiked to New York City to meet the artist.  At the Museum of Modern Art, he asked MOMA curator Dorothy Miller for an introduction to Rothko.  She bought two paper works by Byars, allowing him an exhibition lasting a few hours in an emergency stairwell at the Museum.

By 1959, Byars, coming to believe that concept alone was enough to be called a work of art, moved toward paper and fabric rather than more lasting materials.

At Kyoto University, in 1960, he created a happening, Thanks for All Thought, with one hundred students who stood in a circle reciting one hundred lines by Gertrude Stein.  Clearly a disciple of Neo-Dadaist John Cage, or through his genes and/or education, a similar person and/or artist, Byars performed an artwork where he studied one hundred eggs for twelve days to find the roundest, whitest egg. I n that same year, he was awarded the William Copley Prize, from Cassandra Foundations, in New York City.  Dorothy Miller, of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, continued to promote his work.

A list of Byars performance/conceptual works produced in 1963 may suggest what his work was like throughout his lifetime.  They include riding from Los Angeles to New York on a 99-day, $99 bus trip, performing actions along the route.  A one-day exhibition at Green Gallery, New York, in which the gallery was painted black and illuminated with a single light bulb.  Byars requested an aircraft from the Federal Aviation Agency from which to drop a ten-mile-long sheet of paper, but was refused. Dressed in black, he acted as a mute servant for a day to a stranger he met on the bus. He chose the most egg-shaped passenger.  With a policeman, Byars performed Twelve-hour Bus Trip for Two throughout the American South.

And, so, his life and work continued through three more decades until his death on May 23, 1997, in Egypt, where his remains are interred.

James Lee Byars' exhibitions in the 1990s include:

Out of Actions, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, CA

The Palace of Perfect-Retrospective, Fundacao de Serralves Porto, Portugal

Henry Moore Foundation-Henry Moore Institute Leeds

Galerie Joan Prats Barcelona

Under Capricorn, City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand

Under Capricorn, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The Angel, Michael Werner Gallery New York

Negotiating Rapture, , Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, IL

Instituto de America Santa Fe, NM and Granada

Amerikaanse Perspectieven, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Five Points Make a Man, The Moons and Constellations, Michael Werner Gallery New York

James Lee Byars, Fondation Cartier pour L'art Contemporain Paris, France

Views from Abroad, Whitney Museum of American Art New York

The Perfect Moment, , IVAM Valencia

Couplet 2, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, The Netherlands


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