James Lee Byars

Aug 17–Sep 7, 2014


Performance of James Lee Byars’s The Mile-Long Paper Walk (1965–2014) at The Museum of Modern Art, August 17, 2014. Performed by Katie Dorn; choreographic construction by Lucinda Childs. © 2014 Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The Department of Media and Performance Art, in collaboration with MoMA PS1, is pleased to present several of James Lee Byars’s most influential performance works. Byars (Detroit, 1932–Cairo, 1997), one of the most mythic artistic figures of the last century, shaped his persona and career into a continuous performance. Transfixed by the idea of perfection, Byars produced a remarkable body of work—including sculptures, fabric costumes, “performable” paper pieces, film, ink paintings, correspondence, ephemera, and live performances—that strove to give form to his search for beauty and truth. Pursuing what he called “the first totally interrogative philosophy,” he attempted to delineate the limits of our knowledge while enacting a desire for something more.

In conjunction with the exhibition James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography, on view at MoMA PS1 through September 7, 2014, this series of performances will take place at MoMA, referencing Byars’s early history with the Museum. Byars’s relationship with MoMA began in 1958, following an encounter he had with a Mark Rothko painting in his native Detroit. Impressed, he hitchhiked to New York, hoping to meet the artist. Byars arrived at MoMA and asked for Rothko’s contact information; amused, the receptionist phoned curator Dorothy C. Miller, who came down to meet Byars, at which point he reportedly convinced her to allow him to hold a temporary exhibition in a stairwell at the Museum. Thus began a lengthy correspondence between Byars and Miller, in which the artist proposed ideas for actions or displays he hoped to realize at the Museum, including those involving a group of performable paper works that he gave to the Museum in 1966.

Byars had moved to Kyoto in 1958, and spent nearly a decade there, periodically leaving for Europe or the U.S. to pursue various opportunities. Influenced by aspects of Japanese Noh theater and Shinto ritual, he created and performed folded paper works at sites ranging from Japanese temples to New York galleries, and made fabric “costumes” intended to join together two or more people in public performances. Byars aimed to explore social behavior, explaining, “I want people to come and develop an awareness about their perceptions, their behavioral cycles, what they eat, their lifestyle.”

Straddling apparent contradictions—the universal and the personal, the luxurious and the minimal, the relic and the live event, the spectacular and the invisible—Byars’s work suggests that one can find perfection both at the most evanescent edges of form and in the acute moments of attention spent trying to discern it. The majority of the performances in this series were developed with ephemerality in mind. As such, though many of the constituent parts remain the same as when they were first presented, nothing should be considered a “repeat performance.” Rather, in Byars’s fashion, each can be read as an inimitable event, unique in space and time.

The Mile-Long Paper Walk (1965/2014)

The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium*, Sunday, August 17, noon, 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
Performed by Katie Dorn; choreographic construction by Lucinda Childs
The Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, Sunday, September 7, between noon and 5:00 p.m.
Performed by Jimmy Robert
Byars gave this paper work to the museum in 1966. It has been performed only once, at the Carnegie Museum of Art on October 25, 1965, where it was activated by dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs, a key figure of postmodern dance. Childs dressed in a white feathered costume supposedly composed of “one million ostrich feathers,” and slowly unfolded sections of riveted paper. On August 17, the piece will be performed by Katie Dorn, a current member of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, with instruction from Childs. On September 7, the piece will be performed by the renowned Berlin-based artist and dancer, Jimmy Robert. (The original work is on view at MoMA PS1; an exhibition copy of the work has been created for use in this performance.) (Collection The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of the artist)

Four in a Dress (1967/2014)

Fourth-floor landing, Sunday, September 7, between noon and 5:00 p.m.
Many of Byars’s early “plural garments” arose from the artist’s collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Craft and the Architectural League of New York, for which he created his largest plural or communal garment, the Dress for 500, a vibrant pink expanse of fabric with 500 cut holes fit for people’s heads. The dress was meant to be worn collectively, as is Four in a Dress. Wearing it, he asked, “Are we one or four?” (An exhibition copy is used for this performance.) (Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars)

Dress for Two (1969)

The Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Lobby Gallery, fourth floor, Sunday, September 7, between noon and 5:00 p.m.
This work was created in 1969 during a yearlong residency in Antwerp that culminated in Byars’s first European solo exhibition, at Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp. Two performers face each other while dressed in a shared red silk dress, connected by a long hat for two people and a red silk mask. (Collection Anny de Decker)

Ten in a Hat (c. 1969/2012)

Throughout the Museum, Sunday, September 7, between noon and 5:00 p.m.
Ten individuals wear this collective garment made of 10 interconnected fabric hats. (An exhibition copy is used for this performance.) (Michael Werner Gallery, The Estate of James Lee Byars)

The Perfect Kiss (1975)

Sixth-floor gallery lobby, Sunday, September 7, between noon and 5:00 p.m.
Byars referred to this fleeting performance as being “a prayer a poem and a play […] a mystical expression of my appreciation of the world.” (Colleción Jumex)

In conjunction with the MoMA PS1 exhibition James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography

The Performance Program is organized by Ana Janevski, Associate Curator, with Leora Morinis, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art, The Museum of Modern Art.

Organized in collaboration with Peter Eleey, Curator and Associate Director of Exhibitions and Programs, with Jocelyn Miller, Curatorial Assistant, MoMA PS1.

The Performance Program is made possible by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art through the Annenberg Foundation.

The presentation at MoMA PS1 is supported by Shelley Fox Aarons and Philip E. Aarons, and The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art.


Installation images

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