Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

James Lee Byars

Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York NY
April 28 – June 24, 2006

Mary Boone Gallery, New York NY
April 28 – June 24, 2006

Michael Werner Gallery, New York NY
April 27 – June 14, 2006

James Lee Byars The Angel 1989  125 glass spheres, each sphere 7-3/4 inches diameter Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery
James Lee, Byars The Angel 1989 125 glass spheres, each sphere 7-3/4 inches diameter Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery

In Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951) Erwin Panofsky argues that the builders of Gothic churches did not need to read scholastic philosophy in order to adopt a similar worldview, for “they were exposed to the Scholastic point of view in innumerable other ways….” Very often art too reflects the period style of its supporting culture. By displaying Judd’s art on the twentieth and twenty-first floors in midtown Manhattan, in rooms with large windows on all four sides of the building, Christie’s allows us to see how his sculptures and wall pieces mirror the architecture of America. Look from his boxes and stacks to the windows of the nearby skyscrapers, or compare his corner piece linking two panels with a black pipe and his wood blocks with horizontal and vertical lines to the banal architectural structures outside the gallery. In the city at large, as in Judd’s art, regular geometric divisions are omnipresent. He reconstructs our urban environments, making aesthetic the city’s basic visual vocabulary. It was instructive to walk from Renzo Piano’s newly opened reconstruction of the Morgan Library and Museum a few blocks uptown to Christie’s. The new steel-and-glass pavilions at the entrance, thrust into the older Renaissance-style palazzo designed by Charles McKim, bear a striking resemblance to Judd’s boxes. Christie’s most generous gift to the public (April 3 – May 9, 2006), the highest display of art I have yet visited, and one of the best, effectively presented Judd’s vision.

James Lee Byars’s “The Rest is Silence” was dispersed amongst gallery spaces of three New York dealers. And so when you traveled from Michael Werner uptown down to the Chelsea galleries of Mary Boone and Perry Rubenstein, it was natural to reflect upon the relationship of Byars’s art to its urban setting. The front room at Michael Werner was filled by The Angel (1989), 125 spheres of thin clear glass fabricated by a Murano glassblower, set in gracious curves. And there were two untitled drawings, an early one in Japanese ink that resembles Richard Serra’s later oilstick art on paper, and a late Byars gold design on Japanese paper. The Rubenstein show included the absolutely baffling Self-Portrait(1959), a wooden totem-like form; the granite Untitled (Tantric Figure) (1960); four gilded marble sculptures (1987/1995), figures which raise questions about death and philosophy;Untitled (American Flag) from “Two Presidents,” a relic from a 1974 performance; and The Sun (1990), 360 pieces of marble installed to form a circle, and centered so that you cannot walk entirely around it. At the entrance to Mary Boone was The Conscience (1985), a gilded wood and glass case containing a tiny golden sphere. The enormous Concave Figure (1994), five units of Thassos marble, was in the main gallery; and then The Spinning Oracle of Delphi (1986), a gigantic golden vessel you can look into, filled the back room. Unlike Judd, Byars did not have a signature style, but rather made objects that invoked a presence once associated with sacred art. When you approach a crucifix or Buddhist temple sculpture, you come to things that stand apart from everyday practical life. The sacred thus exists within a separate world, physically close to, but distinct from, the space in which we live and work. When Arthur Danto distinguishes between the physical object constituting Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) and the actual work of art, he secularizes this very traditional way of thinking.

Judd had a lot to say about the problems of the American art world–he was a famous polemicist. To my way of thinking, however, the ultimate limitations of his analysis are inadvertently revealed in his statement reprinted in Christie’s generously luxurious catalogue: “My work … was not made to be property … It is not on the market, not for sale….” But that, of course, is what has happened. That the auction proceeds will support the Judd Foundation, a good cause, does not undercut the problems here. Judd wanted his art to stand outside the culture, but that was not possible–how could it be? Artistic materialists like Judd believe that everything can be made explicit. Religious cultures, by contrast, think that the causal order can sometimes be suspended. They believe that the causally inexplicable intervention of the sacred within our world, which we may call grace or (along with Danto) transfiguration, makes possible spiritual experience and what historically is often associated with it, namely art. Judd’s very American art, in which everything can be revealed, because ultimately nothing remains to be concealed, expresses the worldview of a secular materialist society. Byars comes as it were from another place.

I better understood The Angel after seeing Carl Andre’s familiar floor plates magnificently installed in the back gallery at Paula Cooper (April 1-29, 2006). In this large, mostly empty space you can get to the far wall without treading on the sculpture. But many people choose to walk on the sculpture, whether because it is on the floor or because it is composed of industrial materials or, perhaps, as an expression of hostility. By contrast, The Angel really demands to be protected. However critical Andre and Judd were of art world politics, the style of these pragmatic materialists was at one with the working philosophy of present-day American corporate society. The art of Andre and Judd is relatively easy for Americans to understand, for it expresses our everyday style of living. Byars remains baffling. In his treatise The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (2002) Thomas McEvilley acknowledges the support of his friend Byars, “who for several years cherished a copy of the manuscript … which he carried about with him in two large shopping bags” (the book does not otherwise mention Byars). McEvilley claims that Greek and Indian philosophy, so seemingly different, are in fact deeply interconnected. Any “absolute dichotomy … between the Greek and the Indian needs to be reconsidered. It seems to have too much of that desire of the West to define itself by demarcating itself off from the East.” I can think of no better characterization of Byars’s unlocatable and yet pioneering “multicultural” art.

This article first appeard in print in art US, issue 14, July – September 2006