Artist James Lee Byars is known for work that touches upon philosophy and poetry, purity and beauty, materiality and the intangible. His art also deals with notions of time, ephemerality, and transition. Byars took abstract ideas and made them physical, and he believed that even concepts should be considered as aesthetic objects. He frequently orchestrated actions, or performances, many of which included props and participatory garments.
Byars was a prolific correspondent, and the wide range of materials he employed in his letters pushed the limits of the tradition. These materials and the techniques he used are the same ones that he exploited in much of his artwork, such as handmade Japanese and Chinese paper, tissue paper and crumpled paper, rolled or accordion-folded scrolls, textiles and garments, gold paint, gold leaf, and gold printing (often on a black ground), and string.
Byars engaged in an engrossing correspondence with Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy C. Miller for nearly two decades. After seeing a work by Mark Rothko, Byars became determined to meet the artist, and in 1958 he hitchhiked from Detroit to New York and presented himself at The Museum of Modern Art, requesting an introduction. Miller was called down to meet with him. Legendarily, that same year Byars had his first exhibition at a U.S. museum, when Miller allowed him to briefly install his large works on paper in the Museum’s emergency exit stairwell. From this point forward, Byars considered Miller an important mentor and turned to her repeatedly for support.
These documents act almost as an intimate sketchbook in which the ideas of the artist are clearly delineated while leaving room for experimentation with materials. In this way, the letters represent much more than the artist’s fondness for the Modern’s Miss Miller. Indeed, in many ways these letters can be seen as autonomous works of art.
James Lee Byars: The Art of Writing is organized by Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist.
All items in this display are from the James Lee Byars–Dorothy C. Miller Correspondence collection in The Museum of Modern Art Archives. Numbers in brackets identify the folders in which the documents reside. Items are listed from left to right.
Envelope, postmarked Kyoto, Japan, December 30, 1966 [I.15]
Byars, who lived in Japan for over ten years, was heavily influenced by Japanese culture. He once wrote, “My life and painting both seem to belong there, where the simple essence of existence has a daily meaning.”
Letter Byars to Miller, January 3, 1967 [I.15]
Byars suggests several artworks for installation at the Museum, including a 16-by-32-foot white ellipse that would “vail [sic] all the Brancusi and just blow around or what a spot it would make in front of the Monet—or do you ever put a net over your high garden square. . . . do you have an airtight observation room in which could float a black paper (made years ago 10 meters folded up in a foot). How about a black show (it would fly over) What are the air rights above your Museum? Of course in simple presentation it might softly negotiate a stairwell or fill an elevator or be the center piece up in your eating space with tables around and nothing but clear foods served.”
The proposition regarding the use of a stairwell is likely a reference to a show he allegedly mounted in a Museum stairwell in 1958.
“One page book on Gertrude Stein,” December 1970 [I.58]
Here Byars has microprinted one hundred sentences by Gertrude Stein, number one being, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Byars acknowledged Stein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Albert Einstein as major influences. This sheet echoes Thanks for All Thought?, Byars’s first group action, a decade earlier in Kyoto, for which one hundred students stood in a circle reciting one hundred lines by Stein.
Letter Byars to Miller, ca. 1961 [I.1]
Letter Byars to Miller, ca. 1965 [I.4]
This letter on black tissue paper includes a painted golden line characteristic of Byars’s works on paper.
Letter Byars to Miller, c. 1960 [I.2]
This letter on the handmade Japanese paper so frequently used by Byars summarizes his profound admiration and affection for Miller.
Letter Byars to Miller, January 1, 1966 [I.26]
Byars made this scroll, a format frequently found in his work, from a roll of calculator printer paper. In it he shares another idea for the Museum: “it would be beautiful if your museum would set aside a small space for daily change (say 8 x 8 all white) letting all of your intelligent staff take a one day set whatever they wanted from your collection. The space could also be open to one day propositions from traveling artists ‘it would be kept the most exciting space in the city with a new thing everyday.’”
Letter Byars to Miller, n.d. [I.40]
Byars wrote this letter in pencil on a lengthy piece of pink tissue paper shaped like a snake, which he subsequently crumpled and coiled into the yellow satin wrapper. The letter and its textile covering directly relate to his participatory performances. He wrote: “Mrs. Imagine this is pink satin—imagine it holds 100 people (one head hole every 10 feet) Bellydown-doing Shakespeare’s 100 Lines for your opening night out in the street (1) Mr. Fang have you entered the action? 2. Hang up Philosophy! Romanddu! III, 3. (3) If the other two be Brained like us, the state letter 100 ‘etc’—Let’s do it—Hisssssssssssssss”
Hat, original envelope, notes, October 10, 1964 (?) [I.11, I.38]
Byars wore this hat to the Museum on October 10 (10/10), and at 10 A.M. he announced himself at the reception desk, smashed the hat, and then had it sent up to Miller. The hat exists as evidence of this performance.
Letter Byars to Miller, c. September 13, 1963 [I.1]
Byars wrote the following in the shape of a circle: “Pardon the unreasonable askings but I wonder if I could get permission to flash a painting for a few minutes in the Museum Garden the streets and the Segrams [sic] Bldg are prohibited there may be some small chance JB.”
Letter Byars to Miller, December 1964 [I.3]
Byars wrote: “Dear Miss Miller, I hope by now the photographs and two works are with you. After please send photographs to the Gugg Found. I must find some support. Frankly do you think I could ever get a teaching job? Thanks and Happy Xmas. JB.” The letter, on black tissue, was accordion pleated and is reminiscent of some of Byars’s works of art, including the one the artist donated to the Museum in 1965.
Memorandum Miller to Alfred H. Barr, Jr. [Director of Museum Collections], October 27, 1964 [I.4]
In this internal Museum memo, Miller informs Barr that Byars is interested in making a donation of one of his works to the Museum collection. She explains that the work was used in “exhibitions” in Japan: “The exhibition consists of having a beautiful young Japanese girl, Miss Taki of Kyoto, unfold the paper in a long serpentine strip which stands up by itself on the ground.”
Original photograph by Simon Blackall, 1962 [I.6]
The photograph documents the performance of Untitled Object, 1962–64, the piece Byars donated to the Museum in 1965 [47.1965].
Two invitations, c. 1965 and c. September 21, 1977 [I.4, I.6]
These two samples are characteristic of Byars’s work with crushed tissue paper, minimalist language, and tiny typefaces.
Letter Miller to Byars, October 8, 1959 [I.2]
In this letter Miller requests that Byars provide her with dimensions and indications of which side is top for certain of his works, so she can show photos of them to a dealer who might represent him.
Letter Byars to Miller, c. October 12, 1959 [I.2]
Byars’s brief written response includes diagrams of twenty-one works of art.
“A WHITE PAPER WILL BLOW THROUGH THE STREETS,” c. December 5, 1966 [I.53]
This multiple was produced by Byars and sent to various individuals in the accompanying crimson envelope.
Photograph, n.d. [I.41]
This is an image of Byars’s work Four in a Dress, 1967 (black silk, sixteen feet in diameter), with the artist on the left. Byars created numerous communal “dresses” to be worn during various performances or actions.
Invitation, ca. September 25, 1963 [I.1]
Typical of Byars’s interest in the play of opposites—what is there and what is not there—this invitation consists of small black type (positive) on a large translucent sheet of glassine (negative) and announces undetermined showings of his work. The text reads, “In quiet places out in the city landscape there will be flash showings of my paintings during the next few weeks may I invite you to watch for them James Byars.” Byars also wrote to Miller about these “flash” showings (see letter c. September 13, 1963, written in the shape of a circle).
Letter Byars to Miller, c. November 1, 1966 [I.57]
This letter, written on hand-cut, heart-shaped yellow tissue paper, includes Byars’s questions to Miller regarding possible projects and patronage.
Letter of recommendation by Miller for Byars to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, February 14, 1961 [I.1]
At Byars’s request, Miller wrote letters of support for his applications to the Guggenheim and the Tiffany Foundations, in which she describes the artist as having “tremendous drive and conviction, and certain very sound ideas about simplicity and directness, both in art and in living.”
Letter Byars to Miller, c. January 1961 [I.2]
When the Guggenheim Foundation expressed an interest in seeing Byars’s work, the artist wrote from Japan to request that Miller arrange for a shipment of his works to the Foundation (some privately owned and a few that Miller was storing for him at the Museum). The letter includes small diagrams of the works in discussion.
Letter Byars to Miller, n.d. [I.7]
Byars composed this letter by writing a single word on each card. He offered an alternative to his repeatedly proposed “street egg” performance: “go around the 53rd Street block on the sidewalk with a white silk band 12 feet wide with 2 head holes 3 feet apart . . . each segment joined by the pullstitch so it all separates and the occupants depart with their segment by yellow cabs which should also ring the block.”
Letter Byars to Miller, n.d. [I.5]
This letter, written on commercially available Chinese paper with orange and gold leaf additions, contains a black cover sheet on which “THE SHOCK OF WRITING A LETTER” is printed in gold. Gold is a recurring motif in Byars’s work.
Letter Byars to Miller, c. May 8, 1961 [I.1]
This brief letter astutely summarizes Byars’s philosophy.
Single white thread in glassine sleeve, c. 1963 [I.1]
This item, placed in an envelope and sent to Miller, calls to mind Byars’s proposals for performances in which he’d release a string into the air or toss one over the wall of the Museum garden.
Hand-cut black tissue circle, c. December 27, 1967 [I.30]
Written on the circle in pencil is this instruction: “Put a minute of attention on this paper and send it to the museum at 1078 Madison.” Indicative of Byars’s interest in participatory actions as well as his desire to physically manifest abstract ideas, the item was to be forwarded to a fictitious museum at Noah Goldowsky Gallery, where the dealer Richard Bellamy supported artist projects. There, the circles were to be piled up in the corner, part of A Million Minutes of Thoughts, an exhibition proposal by Byars that was never realized.
Special thanks to The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art for supporting the exhibition.
This exhibition could not have occurred without the dedicated perseverance of the entire staff of the Museum Archives. In particular, I would like to thank Michelle Harvey, Peter Huelster, Molly Shea, and MacKenzie Bennett for their extra assistance. In addition, I am continually grateful for the encouragement and support of Milan Hughston. Many people at the people at the Museum toiled to make this effort a reality, and I am indebted to Julianna Goodman, Claire Corey, and James Kuo in Graphics; Allegra Burnette and David Hart in Digital Media; Rebecca Roberts in Publications; Sarah Ganz and Kirsten Schroeder in Education; Peter Omlor, John Dooley, Tom Krueger, Elizabeth Riggle, and Rachel Abrams in Registrar; David Hollely and Eric Meier in Exhibition Design and Production; Polly Lai and Cynthia Kramer in the Frame Shop; and Lee Ann Daffner and Erica Mosier in Conservation. Outside of the Museum, I thank Tod Lippy of Esopus magazine for his unflagging enthusiasm and creativity, and Kelly Sturhahn, Justine Birbil, and Jason Duval at Michael Werner Gallery for their generous support.
Photograph of the artist courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and Cologne. Photograph by Joaquin Romera