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  • Provenance

    Michael Werner Gallery, New York

  • Exhibited

    Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh International - Reason and Emotion in Contemporary Art, December 19, 1987 - February 14, 1988
    Torino, Castello di Rivoli, James Lee Byars - The Palace of Good Luck, April 11 - July 2, 1989
    Berkeley, University Art Museum, The Perfect Thought, April 18 - June 24, 1990 then traveled to Houston, Contemporary Art Museum (September 8 - October 28, 1990)
    Porto, Fundacio de Serralves, James Lee Byars: The Palace of Perfect, October 9 - December 7, 1997
    Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art, Silence and Time, June 4 - August 28, 2011

  • Literature

    Edinburgh International - Reason and Emotion in Contemporary Art, exh. cat., Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 1988, p. 34, p. 69, p. 148, no. 1 (illustrated)
    James Lee Byars - The Palace of Good Luck, exh, cat., Castello di Rivoli, Torino, 1989, n.p. (illustrated)
    The Perfect Thought, exh. cat., University Art Museum, Berkeley, 1990, p. 30, p. 141, no. 10 (illustrated)
    James Lee Byars, The Perfect Moment, exh. cat., IVAM Centre del Carme, Valencia, 1995, p. 102 (illustrated)
    C. Haenlein, James Lee Byars, The Epitaph of Con. Art is Which Questions have Disappeared ?, Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover, 1999, no. 25 (illustrated)
    V. Maria Michley, Glück in der Kunst?: Das Werk von James Lee Byars, Berlin: Reimer, 1999, no. 44 (illustrated)
    James Lee Byars: The Palace of Perfect, exh. cat., Fundação de Serralves, Porto, 1997, p. 127 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I am overcome by ordinary daily acts and their mystery."
    James Lee Byars

    James Lee Byars, the American poet, artist, philosopher and performer remains one of the most fascinating and under-acclaimed artists of the post war period. As a monumental performer, Byars drew no differentiation between his artistic creations and his nomadic life. Having spent a decade in Japan in the mid-1950s, Byars became steeped in the rich and aesthetic culture of his surroundings; this exploration into the ceremonial beauty of Japanese culture resonated through every aspect of his work. His careful material selections of thin, folded white paper and raw stone have their origins in the ceremonial performances of Japanese Noh theater and Shinto rituals while his very personal quest for the notion of the “perfect” put him squarely at the intersection of Japanese culture and Western philosophy. The present lot, The Figure of Death, 1986, a towering monument rendered in Basalt cubes upon a gold-leaf laden base, illustrates a return to his earlier primitive figural sculptures from the 1960’s and personifies Byar’s interest in the contemplative and reflective stillness of sculpture.

    The present lot, The Figure of Death, executed in 1986 sits upon a gilded gold base. Ten cubes of porous basalt tower above with monumental weight and incomprehensible density. The Figure of Death, an isolated single pillar, looms as ominously as a tombstone. Though funeral pillars were often rendered in stone, Byars chose basalt, a rock formed by the rapid cooling of lava as his medium. The surface quality of the rock appears rough due to the countless bubbles petrified at their first moment of solidity. The permeable quality of The Figure of Death reminds the viewer “that this, too, was once a living thing, magma boiled out of the Earth’s innards.” (S. Cantrell, “Art review: DMA’s ‘Silence and Time’ explores passings, transformations,” The Dallas News, June 6, 2011) The square gold leaf base, upon which the sculpture sits emits a subtle, sacred radiance; a contemplative refuge for the approaching viewer. Gold leaf, for Byars remained his most frequently utilized material. As seen in his 1994 performance “The Death of James Lee Byers” at Galerie Marie-Puck Broodthaers in Brussels, the artist, dressed in gold-lamé, lay in a room entirely coated in gold leaf. Byars professed the performance to be a practice for death which “as a last consequence brings about the perfection of the external.”(L. O'Neill-Butler, "James Lee Byars," Artforum, November 2012)

    This perfect moment of death preoccupied the artist in 1986; he constructed not only the present lot but also The Tomb of James Lee Byars: a perfect limestone sphere. In terms of formal sculptural composition, Byars returned again and again to the sphere, circle and pillar as culturally poignant forms which were his gestural surrogates for the notion of perfection in the world beyond the living. Claiming famously in 1978: “I cancel all my works at death,” Byars perpetuated the belief of many multi-disciplinary artists including Joseph Beuys who categorized the material objects of his performances as only pieces of a greater whole. Byar’s sculptures stand as permanent, activating attendants in his carefully executed, yet fleeting performances.

    Described by Roberta Smith in 1997 as an as artist who “stressed questions over answers,” Byars embraced an unknowing, philosophical quandary in his art, gaining early notoriety in 1969 with his black and white video broadcast from Belgium entitled “The World Question Center.” In this performance, Byars telephoned renowned scientists and philosophers and asked them to supply him with what they considered to be a powerful question. This investigation into “the question” is not only illustrated through his powerful temporal performances but also his sculptures, including his early 1960 Tantric columns upon which The Figure of Death is based. These Tantric figures were constructed in granite, with drilled eyeholes that represent the abstracted human form and “the system of esoteric and secret practices in Hindu or Buddhist religion that revolves around concepts of time and the conjunctions of the planets. There are two classes of Buddha’s teaching: sutras and tantras. While sutras are communicated publicly, tantras are taught individually, but only if the student is ready for them, and their content is kept between the teacher and the student. Thus these early sculptures already point to the participatory and meditative aspects of Byars’s later works.” (K. Ottmann, The Art of Happenstance, The Performative Sculptures of James Lee Byars, November 2002, Vol.21 No.9)

    James Lee Byars constructs this participatory aspect of sculpture not just between the viewer and a solid form but within component sculptures, such as The Figure of Question is in the Room and The Figure of the Question of Death, 1987/1995. These “two totemic sculptures in gilded marble, embody Byars's philosophical ideal. Evocative of literal ‘figures,’ the sculptures activate the gallery as a space for interrogative contemplation.”(James Lee Byars: Is Is and Other Works, Press Release, Michael Werner Gallery, New York, June 2014) This visual emphasis on the softly spoken dialogue between two constructed forms has shifted within the present lot, where we, the viewer, are the second column; we are the figure of life, standing in direct and opposing dialogue with The Figure of Death. Byars wished for these enduring spheres, towers, and gravestones erected in materials of permanence to induce a moment of eternal perfection, one where all his unanswerable questions can be answered. The Figure of Death, grandiose in structure, towers upwards, spiraling to the sky, serving not only as Byars’ own funerary pillar but also as a self-portrait of an artist who has “already died perfectly, so monumentally, so many times before.” (L. O'Neill-Butler, James Lee Byars, Artforum, November 2012)


Ο ◆24

The Figure of Death

basalt, 10 pieces on gilded steel pedestal
base 6 x 70 1/2 x 70 1/2 in. (15.2 x 179.1 x 179.1 cm); each cube 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 in. (69.9 x 69.9 x 69.9 cm); overall height 281 in. (713.7 cm)
This work is accompanied by installation instructions.
This work can be seen in the following video: INSTALLATION: THE FIGURE OF DEATH BY JAMES LEE BYARS, Dallas Museum of Art, Silence and Time, 2011

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $761,000

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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

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