James Lee Byars

James Lee Byars, “Untitled,” 1978 (detail). Private collection, Napoli. On loan to Madre · museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina, Napoli. Photo © Amedeo Benestante.

A figure of outstanding importance in American art after World War II, James Lee Byars (Detroit, 1932 – Cairo, 1997) made nomadism between different media and countries the starting point for his aesthetic research.

After studying art and philosophy, he moved to Kyoto in 1958, where he explored the rituals of Shinto and the Japanese Noh theater. Spirituality, slowness and the value attributed to the simplest gestures were all factors that would influence Byars’ work, merging it with the study of Western philosophy. Obsessed with perfection, the artist created a body of work characterized by attention to all that is ephemeral, hence precious: performance, sculptures, costumes made of fabric, books and drawings in ink: these are just some of the examples of his work, in which the pursuit of beauty was combined with the urge to aspire to absolute truth.

In his public performances, created since the 1960s, individual action was transformed into a collective event, capable of placing the individual in a pervasive relationship with the community, as in Four in a Dress (1967), Dress for Two (1969 ) or Ten in a Hat (1969), through the creation of clothes to be worn together and shared for the duration of the performance.

Byars himself described his practice as “the first wholly interrogative philosophy”, emphasizing its questioning suspension and twofold matrix, being both aesthetic and philosophical. Byars’ favored materials included tissue paper, chosen for its lightness and transparency, which he used both in the form of a material for his sculptures and performance and as a support for drawings, letters and theoretical writings, as in the case of the work in the collection.

In 1975, during the celebrations for the first ten years of Lucio Amelio’s Modern Art Agency, Byars made an intervention at Villa Volpicelli in Posillipo, where the celebration was held after the close of a number of commemorative exhibitions, all quite brief, hosted on this occasion at the gallery in Piazza de’ Martiri. The rooms of the collector Peppino Di Bennardo were filled with sculptures made of tissue paper, which created direct relation with the furnishings and the public.

Again using tissue paper as a support, the correspondence between James Lee Byars and Lucio Amelio took the form of a valuable documentation, in letters of various shapes and colors. Though they contain references to projects, such as one for the Palazzo Reale in Naples which was never realized, the content became an expressive pretext that pushed the limits of comprehension: the words, entrusted to the lightness of the paper, are often accompanied by other graphic acts that transform these messages into ephemeral explorations of the enigmatic sense of art.

[Alessandra Troncone]

Untitled, 1978 (detail)

Currently not on view

Private collection, Napoli. On loan to Madre · museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina, Napoli. Photo © Amedeo Benestante.

Installation view, in the context of "Per_forming a collection #4"

Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee, Naples. Photo © Amedeo Benestante.