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James Lee Byars: An Artist to Be Completed by Others

An exhibition at M HKA, Antwerp, explores the artist as brand and as charismatic cult leader

Antwerp was on James Lee Byars’s regular flight path during the late 1960s and ’70s. The nomadic artist’s 1969 exhibition at Wide White Space – an independent gallery that worked with a who’s who of the avant-garde between 1966 and ’76 – was his first in Europe. For the duration of the show, the space was renamed ‘The Institute for the Advanced Study of James Lee Byars’. This vainglorious gesture was typical of Byars, who died in 1997. Caricature-ready with his broad-brimmed hat and flowing hair, he was at once monstrous ego and absence; he was artist as brand, as charismatic cult leader, as creative project, but offered little sense of the soul of the man himself, held behind the facade.

Byars engaged in acts of flamboyant eccentricity. In 1958, having seen a Mark Rothko painting in Detroit, he hitch-hiked to New York and asked a receptionist at MoMA for Rothko’s contact details so that he could show him his own work. In the 1960s, he travelled to Oxford University, unannounced, to gather questions from philosophers. When Byars discovered that Wide White Space was too small to accommodate his work A Pink Silk Airplane for 100 (1969), he told them to contact the King of Belgium and request the use of a palace.

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James Lee Byars, The Intellectual Murderer Shoes, 1975. Courtesy: the artist and M HKA, Antwerp

‘The Perfect Kiss’, at M HKA, examines Byars through an Antwerp lens, celebrating his history with Wide White Space, as well as exploring his relationship with Joseph Beuys – who was both idol and antagonist for Byars – and his participation in three iterations of documenta. (In 1972, for documenta 5, Byars performed on the roof of the Fridericianum, shouting German names through a golden megaphone.)

Many of the works at M HKA were shown at Byars’s 2014 MoMA retrospective. M HKA’s exhibition does not attempt to seduce with spectacle and is, perhaps, a more honest show for that. A Byars exhibition can’t help but look a little abject: by and large, what we are seeing are sheddings – the dead matter of performance, accessories for anecdotes. Pools of brightly coloured silk, part-extended along low plinths wait to be activated as shared garments for a multitude. Artist books remain untouchable as artefacts. There is crackly 1970s television footage of actions, happenings and performances: Byars ickily directing two girls to kiss with tongues; Byars staging The World Question Centre on Belgian TV, for which leading intellectuals of the day were asked to pose epistemological questions for discussion by a circle of students draped in a vast pink robe; Byars in leather trousers, sharing a facemask for two with an interviewer and holding forth on the potential of TV to bring a greater audience to art. There are photographs of Byars lying alongside Beuys on a black marble slab engraved with the word ‘both’. This spontaneous performance took place at the opening of Byars’s 1983 show, ‘to the happy few’, in Krefeld. We have no idea of what is taking place between the two, nor how comfortable Beuys was in the situation – although his face suggests not very.

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James Lee Byars, Extra Terrestrial (Shadow of an Extraterrestrial Man), 1976. Courtesy: the artist and M HKA, Antwerp

Byars’s extensive, correspondence – some on heart-shaped paper; much interspersed with a constellation of stars – is arguably the most compelling inclusion. The letters suggest Byars’s true art was of persuasion: he cajoles, urges, expects, demands, prods, hustles to have works staged, then performs the same trick again with his audience.

Stretching through three galleries, Extra Terrestrial (Shadow of an Extraterrestrial Man) (1976) is a vast stick-figure in black tulle, originally unfurled along the banks of the Meir in Antwerp. Although Byars did make permanent sculptures – including the thermos-like Golden Tower with Changing Tops (1982), shown here – Extra Terrestrial seems a fitting cypher for the man and his work. A shadow without a monument; the suggestion of a sculpture; an artwork to be completed by others.

James Lee Byars, 'The Perfect Kiss' runs at M HKA, Antwerp, until 20 January 2018.

Main image: James Lee Byars, A Pink Silk Airplane for 100, performance at Wide White Space Gallery, 1969. Courtesy: the artist and M HKA, Antwerp; photograph: Rudolf Walscharts

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London.

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