James Lee Byars The Table of Perfect 1989

  • Not on view

Taller than a utilitarian table, this gold cube with rounded corners suggests a sacred site for contemplation or an altar involved in some ancient ritual. Born in Detroit, James Lee Byars lived for many years in Japan, Venice, and the United States before his death in Egypt, in 1997. Devoted to the confluence of East and West and their shared symbolism, his work is often based on simple forms—circles, spheres, cylinders, and pyramids.

Gallery label from 2006.
Additional text

Byars, a performance artist, poet, and sculptor, lived in the United States, Asia, and Europe and traveled extensively. His art is a synthesis of artistic styles and philosophies from throughout history and around the world. The Table of Perfect is a three-thousand-pound solid white-marble cube covered with gold leaf. In its singularity and geometry it recalls Minimalist art of the 1960s, but its materials, traditionally associated with Classical sculpture and religious icons, link the work to ancient Greek, Buddhist, and Byzantine art. This sculpture is meant to be shown in the center of an empty room; with its precious materials and monolithic quality, it suggests a shrine or altar in a sacred space.

Byars considered himself a mystic, investigating ideas of eternity and transcendence through simple acts and forms. His work is interrogative, questioning aesthetic values, linguistic meanings, and the idea of absolute truth, especially regarding the idea of perfection. While The Table of Perfect looks pristine, it—like any other object—can only ever exist as a sign of perfection and can never embody the total concept. In this sense, the work raises questions about the definition of perfection and whether it is, in fact, an attainable goal.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 116.
Gold leaf on white marble
39 1/4 x 39 1/4 x 39 1/4" (99.7 x 99.7 x 99.7 cm)
Committee on Painting and Sculpture Funds
Object number
© 2024 James Lee Byars
Painting and Sculpture

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