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James Lee Byars Letters From The World’s Most Famous Unknown Artist


  • Archive, Archive Exhibitions, Exhibition

  • January 17, 2004 - June 6, 2004
  • Galleries

The American artist James Lee Byars would sometimes refer to himself ironically as the “World’s Most Famous Unknown Artist,” a fitting title for a man who made of his whole life a performance and a play, but who so often remained just out of reach, inaccessible, a fleeting presence. Byars never stopped wandering; he lived and worked at various times in Japan, the Alps, Berlin, Venice, Nova Scotia, Los Angeles, and New York. He even traveled to his place of death, choosing to rest beneath the pyramids. His performances were brief, sometimes lasting only a few seconds. Then he might quickly disappear, a magician in his gold suit and top hat.

Especially in the early stages of his career, Byars favored ephemeral work and lightweight, easily transportable materials, such as cloth and paper. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was most known for his elaborate, playful costumes and mysterious performances and installations. He moved and worked in the circles of Fluxus and the Conceptual artists, with whom he shared an interest in performance, philosophical investigation, text-based art, and communication. But though his work was austere, Byars always glorified excess and beauty, favoring classical geometry and brilliant, symbolically suggestive colors such as gold, red, and pink. This marked him as an outsider and very likely contributed to his status as an “unknown artist.”

Byars did, however, maintain communication with many important people in the art world by means of an artistic correspondence that seems to have been his most consistent practice as an artist. Nearly every day, before dawn, he would rise and begin writing his spectacular letters. He wrote thousands of them. They were an extension of the Byars persona, even mirroring his costumes in their strict use of a select few colors and shapes. They were similarly mystifying, difficult to read, confusing in their syntax even where legible; Byars was unknown because he was unknowable. One might delight in (or be maddened by) the experience of unfolding a fifty-foot-long piece of pink tissue paper, only to find the gold writing nearly indecipherable, and the message as much a poetic epigram as a personal communication. One is meant to experience the letters as an aesthetic occasion, quite the opposite of how one normally experiences a letter, though today, in the age of e-mail, any handwritten letter has begun to take on a heightened quality.

The letters reflect Byars’ enduring interest in fusing the cultures of East and West. He lived in Kyoto on and off from 1958 to 1968, and there developed an interest in Japanese aesthetic philosophy, an interest that he shared with many of his contemporaries. Many American beatniks and avant-gardists of the time were fluent in Zen concepts and embraced them in their artistic work. Byars himself seems to have appropriated aspects of his practice from Noh Theatre, Japanese calligraphy, and ceremonial paper-folding and wrapping. But his fusion of Conceptual art and the ideas he encountered in Japan were highly eccentric and certainly not a literal recreation of what he learned from established masters. Nonetheless, Byars’ attempt to make the simple practice of letter-writing (and reading) a delicate, heightened aesthetic ritual is certainly informed by his time in Japan.

In interviews, many of those who received Byars’ letters commented on whether or not they were to be understood as letters or as art objects. Often they incorporated texts that contained practical information, instructions and requests, or sincere expressions of warmth. Just as often they demanded immense effort merely to open and decipher. One might read them as a poetic, soft, and sensual gift, an offer to share from a distance in the delight that the artist clearly took in making them. Or one might read them as a challenge, or a question — certainly they contained many interrogative passages; sometimes they contained bizarre instructions that suggested an engagement beyond reading, such as “Step over this letter for a mystical experience” or “This letter is to be worn at a great red dinner party.” How could one be expected to respond in kind?

The letters on display dated from 1972 to 1980, and were comprised of two major groups of correspondence. The earlier group, composed in 1972-73 and 1977-78, was written to James Lee Byars’ friend, the art historian and artist David Sewell. Byars stayed with Sewell in Los Angeles on several occasions, sometimes for months at a time. These letters contain personal references, but also include discussions about works, forthcoming projects, and possible collaborations. The second group of letters, made from 1978 to 1980, exhibit more lavish materials, evidence of the increased resources available to the artist at that time. These letters were sent to the Harvard Art Museums, principally to Charles W. (Mark) Haxthausen, then Director of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. Often they contained extravagant demands, as well as references to planned performances, including “The Soliloquy on Perfect,” which the artist ultimately performed with Haxthausen at the Busch-Reisinger during Byars’ residence there in 1980. The texts of the letters to Haxthausen were transcribed by Mari Dumett, while those from the Sewell collection were transcribed by Pan Wendt.

Postcard to Charles W. Haxthausen, 1979
Pen on oversize commercial postcard with image of the Matterhorn