The performative events, sculptures, drawings, installations, and wearable art of James Lee Byars (b. 1932, Detroit, Michigan; d. 1997) has been widely exhibited internationally. Up until his death at the age of 65, Byars had remained in constant pursuit of the concept of perfection and truth.
Byars shaped his persona and career into a continuous performance in which his life and art merged. Through what he called “the first totally interrogative philosophy”, Byars attempted to make the limits of human knowledge visible, alleging that questions appeared to be the only possible knowledge and “the ultimate statement of reality”. Over the span of sixteen years, he sent hundreds of “letters” to various public figures as well as friends and acquaintances. His Star Letters consisted of impossibly long scrolls of illegible text, ornamented with stars. Byars’ reflections on death, another recurring topic in his art, emerge in one of the few performances documented on video titled The Perfect Epitaph. Here the artist is seen dressed in his usual gold-lamé suit slowly rolling a ball made of lava through the empty streets of Amsterdam.
James Lee Byars’s work been the subject of numerous gallery and museum exhibitions worldwide, including Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; IVAM Centre del Carme, Valencia; Castello di Rivoli/Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin; The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds; and Fundaçao de Serralves, Porto. Important posthumous exhibitions include The Arts Club of Chicago (1998); The Epitaph of Con. Art is which Questions have disappeared?, Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover (1999); Life Love and Death, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt and Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg (2004); The Perfect Silence, Whitney Museum of American Art (2004); I’m Full of Byars, Kunstmuseum Bern (2008); The Perfect Axis, Schloss Benrath, Düsseldorf; and Klein Byars Kapoor, Musée d’art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, Nice, and ARoS Kunstmuseum, Århus (2012-2013). In 2013, The Figure of the Interrogative Philosophy and The Figure of the Question of Death were included in the 55th Venice Biennale exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace, curated by Massimiliano Gioni. In 2014, MoMA PS1 in New York presented James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography, the most comprehensive survey of Byars organised in North America since the artist’s death.