James Lee Byars: Mary Boone Gallery/Perry Rubenstein Gallery/Michael Werner Gallery

By Waxman, Lori | Artforum International, September 2006 | Go to article overview

James Lee Byars: Mary Boone Gallery/Perry Rubenstein Gallery/Michael Werner Gallery


Waxman, Lori, Artforum International


If James Lee Byars, one of Detroit's finest artists, is seldom considered as a product of his hometown, much less of the United States, a comprehensive American exhibition of the peripatetic artist's oeuvre has nevertheless long been overdue. Byars, who died in Cairo in 1997, produced his formative work in Japan and spent much of the rest of his life shuttling between Venice, Los Angeles, Bern, and many other places, living an idiosyncratic life-work that was part midwestern, part European, and part "Oriental," as his sui generis Japanese-inspired aesthetic has often been called. A recent overview, dispersed across six separate spaces belonging to three New York galleries, thus seemed a fitting survey.

At one Michael Werner, two Mary Boone, and three Perry Rubenstein galleries, twenty-three works made over a forty-year period were installed sympathetically and with an occasional nod to chronology, the differences between early, middle, and late outputs tangible and curious. If in the 1950s and '60s Byars produced humorous, sometimes ad hoc works using humble materials, and the '70s saw him experiment with performance and ephemeral sculpture, the '80s and '90s witnessed his creation of increasingly luxurious, though grandly simple, monuments. These last works, which risk being mistaken for portentous "statements," are best installed, as they were at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, adjacent to earlier works of a more interrogative and unresolved nature. There the unabashedly comic anthropomorphism of the oversize granite tantric figure Untitled, 1960, and seated Self Portrait, 1959, assembled from black wooden planks and a miniscule black paper ball, animated an adjacent work from 1993-94, a pair of flat jade floor pieces, The Jade Shoes. Two bulbous, brushy black-ink paintings at Michael Werner Gallery, both from 1958 and both delightfully asymmetric, obligingly hinted at the necessary imperfections of The Angel, 1989, a heavenly stick figure composed of 125 Murano glass spheres, meticulously laid out on the floor. …

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