James Lee Byars

Year and place of birth: 1932, Detroit, United States Date of death: 1997 , Cairo, Egypt

James Lee Byars was an American performance and installation artist. He was strongly influenced by the minimalism and conceptual art of his homeland and occupied a prominent position on the international arts scene from the mid-1960s to the late-1980s.

In the early 1950s, Byars studied art and philosophy. This was when his perennial quest for ultimate beauty and truth began. In 1957, Byars met the famous painter Morris Graves, who combined mysticism with modernism in his work. Through Graves, Byars obtained a scholarship to travel to Kyoto. He lived in Japan until 1963, and the country would always have a strong influence on his artistic production. Afterwards, the artist travelled ceaselessly through Europe, Asia and Africa, where he stayed in various places for long periods.

Byars was always obsessed with the idea of perfection, and he wove his artistic practice around the achievement of the ultimate utopian state. He developed what he himself described as “the first totally interrogative philosophy”, a concept within which he continually presented different kinds of art, through performances, installations and visual work with scales that varied from endless space to the microscopic world. This was his attempt to explore, delineate and transcend the limits of human knowledge.

Byars was continually searching for ways to make the most unreconcilable contradictions flow together: the monumental and the minuscule, the universal and the personal, the theatrical and the minimal, the residual and the fleeting, the spectacular and the invisible. His visual language also balanced between these extremes. Alongside visual work, Byars also produced a huge number of books, paraphernalia and letters, which he regarded as fully-fledged artworks. He would send these to acquaintances and artist friends (including Joseph Beuys) with the goal of being “present in the present”. This desire also explains his nomadic life.

Due to his outlook and given the period in which Byars was developing his oeuvre – from the late-1950s until well into the 1990s – the artist was regarded by many critics as one of the first post-modernists.

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