This September, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
presents a spellbinding project by James Lee Byars (19321997). Byars visited YSP in 1996 and was beguiled by the place and its atmosphere. St Bartholomews Chapel, built in 1744, opens to the general public for the first time in 250 years as an exhibition space for The Angel (1989), a work which comprises 125 Murano glass spheres, each one hand-blown using just a single breath, and arranged in curves that approximate a fleurs-de-lis. The installation will be a graceful statement in a meditative space.
Other works will be displayed in the Chapel and Bothy Gallery, including Is (1987), a gilded wooden sphere in the Chapel anteroom. The use of the sphere, with associations of perfection and wholeness, is pivotal in Byars work; many of his early performances involved large spheres, which the artist would stand on or roll through city streets. The use of gold, believed to be a divine metal representing immortality, was also a fundamental element of Byars work. The title Is presents a key theme that of the question without answer. For Byars, his role as an artist meant he had a responsibility to raise questions; his actions and performances were questions, and although it is considered that his later object-based practice could be seen as his time of answers, the physical works still treat the question as an independent axiom without the need for an answer.
The Bothy Gallery will contain important works from the artists career, including A Face (1959). During the late fifties Byars made several ceramic vessels reminiscent of ancient figurines like those found in the Cyclades. Byars was not only interested in the stylised aesthetic of these works, but also their religious and cultural significance. A Face is an extreme example of a pared down anthropomorphic representation, with tiny pinholes for eyes and a large void for what could be a nose or mouth. The simplicity of the form also relates to Byars self-referential approach to his work. He often appeared wearing a mask, as he believed that seeing the eyes is too intimate, or in loosely fitting clothing to hide his shape and to therefore appear unrecognisable. The influence of masks is also seen in his knowledge and appreciation of Japanese Noh theatre, where the use of the mask is prominent. Byars had a profound love of traditional Noh, particularly for the relevance of ceremonial dress and its use of conveying answers as questions.
Byars early career reflects the development of live art in the mid-twentieth century and he is increasingly recognized as a major 20th century artist who provides the third point between Beuys and Warhol, between shaman and showman (Power, Kevin, 1997). Indeed, Byars everyday life was often indistinct from his practice and he was seldom seen in public without a dramatic hat and suit, often in gold, red or black. His every action was a considered movement; critic, poet and novelist, and good friend of the artist, Thomas McEvilley, suggested that Byars had learned his style and mannerisms from the Shinto priests that he observed during his frequent stays in Japan.
As a homage to Byars, YSP plans to recreate the performance of What is Question?, an event initiated by Byars in 1997 in which four philosophers stood before an audience and responded to the question, What is Question? Further information to be released shortly.
Writing in 2006, Klaus Ottman said of Byars, like his idol T.S. Eliot, Byars found a complete art. Refusing no knowledge, and accepting no limits, he found the possibility of an art for all times by dividing or multiplying time and space by its smallest or largest factor.
Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died in Eygpt in 1997. He spent ten years living sporadically in Japan where he taught English to Buddhist monks and nuns Byars was constantly moving and spent much of his time in Europe, most notably in Berne, where he developed an important relationship with gallery owner Toni Gerber many of his performances took place at Gerbers apartment. According to several accounts, when invited to exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, he refused, stating he was not an American artist. The Whitney now hold key pieces in their collection and Byars work is also included in the collections of Kunstmuseum Berne, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and in many private collections.