James Lee Byars


This text was written for the catalogue of the exhibition called 'Silent Friendship' at the Toyota Municipal Museum, Japan, summer 1999. (Installation view below *) Even though James Lee Byars lived for more than ten years in Kyoto (with interruptions between 1958 to 1968), the Toyota Museum was the first institution to recognize the value of his work in Japan.

The Guardian of Virtues

For months on my way to work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I observed
a tall man dressed in a black velvet suit with a black hat and his eyes covered
with a scarf of black silk crossing the Grand Canale in a ferry boat, a black
Gondola. He never sat down, but always stood in the middle of the shaky boat
like a sculpture. He was conscious of every move he made, aware of every detail
of his posture as well as the energy he emanated into the surrounding space.
Finally, by introduction of a Venetian art critic, I had the chance to meet James
Lee Byars, whose silent presence had been in my life for quite some time.

“ ‘Stealing Diamonds’, I love the title of your exhibition!” James Lee said, when
my pals and I explained the scheme to him. We had plotted to get the old ship
yards on the Giudecca island during the period of the 1986 Biennial to show a
group of 20 young artists and a couple of rather known ones.
“May I make a contribution to this project? The title and your initiative sounds
so wonderful.’

His enthusiasm gave us courage to realize with few means our vision without
making compromises. At my first lunch with him and his wife Wendy in one of
the restaurants of the Zattere embankment, he threw deep red rubies into every-
ones white wine. The little precious seeds transformed the common wine into a
poem. Constantly while eating and talking, James made spheres of the roll’s soft
inside with great dexterity and precision. At the end of the meal he gave those
gray balls to each of us as a self portrait. Hard as stone, I saw them later on
curators’ desks, on bookshelves in collectors’ homes and many other places.

Initially I was just as much scared as awe inspired by his presence and radical
demand for 100% attention and sharp and intelligent answers. Often he would
say short poems during our encounters , such as ‘The old frog jumps into the old
pond-splash!’ or ‘It is so silent that even the chirping of the zikada sinks into the
stone ’ and mentioned that they were Japanese Haiku of a nomad-poet called
Basho, whom he truly admired for his succinctness and depth. Even though I
had read Haikus before, it was James Lee Byars who made me understand the
essence of this condense communication, which can penetrate the heart of the
listener like an arrow, because of its fine tip and then unfold like a flower.

James Lee Byars’ contribution to ‘Stealing Diamonds’ was not brought by any
art transport company to our venue. Starting in front of the Biennale Park
‘Giardini’, James Lee, in a golden suit with a golden hat, stood in a Gondola,
pointing a six meter long gold leafed needle to the sky and slowly let himself be
rowed across the widest part of the Venice Laguna to Giudecca. By creating a
floating sculpture, James Lee Byars turned the arrival of the work into a
celebrative act, which he called ‘The Poet of the Gondola’. In our venue, the
needle was laid horizontally on a pedestal made by a Venetian furniture artisan
on the centerwall in about 10 meters’ hight. Carefully he supervised the
positioning of his work, not giving in, until it was perfectly symmetrical with the
center axis of the space.
“In the middle, dead center!” he repeated his instructions, sometimes bursting
with impatience. That moment, for the first time, I learnt about the importance of
the precise positioning of his pieces, the integrity of which he would sometimes
defend with all his force and variety of tempers. In seconds I realized that this
man would never compromise. I had met a man who, at first glance seemed to
be an artist with idiosyncrasies, but in reality defended universal laws of nature,
for which destiny had chosen him to be an ambassador.

Having a notion, that James Lee Byars, inspite of his sharply spoken instructions,
did not stipulate difficult tasks to make himself important and send people
sadistically around, but to stand up against arbitrariness, mediocre solutions and
lack of awareness, let me say yes, when he asked for my company after leaving
Venice in autumn 1986. We went to Duesseldorf, where he was invited to have
the entire Kunsthalle and install the: ‘The Philosophical Palace.’

The walls of the Kunsthalle Duesseldorf were not of the color James needed for
his exhibition. He demanded scarlet (shun) on all walls. Exceeding the provided
budget, James Lee had to use most of his honorary to have the walls painted
thoroughly red. Without his lips moving, I heard him constantly say: ‘Sacrifice
to attain perfection. Suffer to attain poetry. Slow down to discover beauty.’

The windows had layers of tearmarks of rain. James Lee demanded they would
be all cleaned to return their transparency. They were cleaned. The space under
the major staircase had become a junk yard for things out of favor. James asked
them to be removed. They were removed. Every motion he made was a defense
and integrity to create an undisturbed access to beauty, magic, space, poetry and

During our heavy German lunches, James told me about the miraculous
disappearance and killing acts performed by Japanese Ninjas in total silence and
without leaving traces. He hoped that by listening to his accounts I would be
able to behave like a true Ninja. Even though I did not learn to climb walls or
breathe on a reed while hiding in a moat, I got a clear insight into what he meant
by being invisible and at the same time efficiently carry out functions. If one’s
attitude about oneself and ones relationship to the physical environment was
pure and not dominant, one could attain a state of not being present, not being
noticed. The third day after our arrival, we spent hours in a martial arts shop in
the Asian neighborhood of Duesseldorf. With great pleasure, James explained all
the vicious looking accessories and books. Finally he bought a Ninja suit which I
was to wear from now on, when appearing with him in public.

While quality checking thousands of 5 x 5 mm size black paper books with
golden miniature print saying ‘Beauty goes’ turn over ‘avant-garde’ I thought of
James’s wide amplitude of creation: from the almost invisible to the gigantic,
from the silent to the noisy, from extreme material presence to the
incomprehensible pure idea, all united by his poetry and aspiration to achieve
perfection, make people love beauty and grasp the essence of the moment,
sustaining attention by crescendo-decrescendo, piano-fortissimo.

The Ninja stories were only the hors d’oevre to countless tales of James’ stay in
Japan from 1958 to 1969. He did not reside in this country to find his fortune or
other precalculated reasons, but to live with and recontextualize aspects of
Japanese poetic and sensual spirituality. Through his performances, sculptures,
poems, and object constellation he both managed to remind the Japanese of their
own treasures and bring the heartbeat of the soul of Japan to the West. Having a
general letter of introduction by Yanagi Soetsu, many doors meant for few
sprang open for James and allowed him deep insights for his research and
prolific creation of works. Of course I don’t see his work as Japanesque, but he
picked up on the universal truth of phenomena, which could only appear in
Japan and destilled their essence.

While teaching at Doshisha James Lee invested most of his spare time and
resources into his dialogue with Japan. He spent a month’s salary to pay a Geisha
to walk with him 500 m along a ricepaddy outside Kyoto.

Or he went before dawn to the temples to wake up the priests with quotations
pronounced by his students from Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein and other poets.
‘Who ever loved who loved not at first sight?’ ‘A rose is a rose is a rose, is a
rose...’ Joining countless sheets of Washi, folded zig zag into a tower of an even
cube, he performed ‘The one mile paper walk’ in the gardens of Kyoto.

Few months after we finished the Duesseldorf exhibition, I found myself with
James Lee in Berkeley, working on an exhibition at the University Art Museum.
More than Duesseldorf, San Francisco offered plenty of samples to illustrate the
tales of James’ life in Japan. I felt almost brainwashed, and was convinced, that
Japan was nothing than a bag of secrets, miracles, examples of the most subtle
appreciation of nature and beauty, the highest level of craftsman ship and care
for perfection, and last but not least, host of the most enlightened form of
succinct poetry and koans.

Naturally, after James had returned to Europe, I bought a ticket to Japan, wore
my Ninja suit during the flight, and was ready to verify what my friend had
talked about for months. Often I had to scratch and dig deep to find what had
nurtured James Lee, because Japan had changed between 1969 and 1987 a little.
Yet with the help of precious guides, I found what James had talked about.
Similar to my friend, I never felt ‘finished’. There was always another level of
subtlety to be initiated to, Shinto rituals, conversations with Buddhist monchs,
projects with artisans, so I continuously extended my stay. When I saw James
Lee once in a while in Europe, he pressed me out like a lemon to receive fresh
juice from Japan. From his curiosity about what I was doing, I realized how
much he loved and missed the country, the ‘subarashi tokoro.’

James Lee Byars discusses with Masahiro Aoki
(seniour Curator of the Toyota M. Museum)
the possibility of an installation incorporating figures carved by Enku
(photo taken November 1996 at the Toyota Folk Museum)

Detail of installation at 'Silent Friendship' June 1999, showing the guilded marble work: 'The gate of Innocence'

In late autumn 1996 James Lee was invited for preparatory meetings to lead to an
exhibition in an institution near Tokyo. On that occasion, he visited the Toyota
Museum, giving the curators an opportunity to get more familiar with his work
by talking to him directly. Feeling very much back at home, James extended his
stay in Japan from one week to more than two months. We visited the Iseshrine
to pray once more under the big trees (name of shrine) and see the holy fish in
the holy river at dusk. We fed deer in the Nara Park and admired the Daibutsu.
We looked at Kyoto in the snow. Even though paralyzing pain jolted through his
body frequently, James kept working, recreating old pieces from the sixties
which had disappeared (the philosopher’s toothpick, the philosophical walk, the
sacrifice of the flower) or getting quotations from artisans to realize new projects,
such as a circular coat made from Nara Deer skin, an installation with thousands
of disks made from double sided goldleafed paper, a black stone cylinder and
many others.

Samples of deerskin meant to be sown together to form a circular coat.
James Lee Byars' room at the Nara Hotel, Nara, winter 1996/97

'The sacrifice of the flower',
James Lee Byars' room at the Nara Hotel, Nara, winter 1996/97

But his most aspired vision was to have one of his ‘One Grain Rice Buddhas’ to
be placed in the chest of the Daibutsu. Similar to when we had first met in
Venice, instead of using bread, James formed during his last stay in Japan
countless, tiny spheres, each from one grain of rice. Even though he called them
Buddhas, they also were a self-portrait, a reflection of his own Buddha nature
and illuminated thought. He chose Kairo, to be more precise the Pyramids of
Gizeh as point of departure, on May 22nd 1997.

Stephan Köhler March 1999

* The 1999 installation at the Toyota Municipal Museum consisted of 'The gate of Innocence' (foreground) 'The figure for Question is in the room' (both 1986, Kavallah marble, gilded, now part of the Toyota Municipal Museum) and 'Virtue' (white silk wedding dress, courtesy Jim Butler and Morgan Thomas)

mail to Stephan Köhler

This webpage is being published with the kind permission of the Estate James Lee Byars
Copyright Estate James Lee Byars,
Galerie Michael Werner Köln und New York
all photos and text: copyright Stephan Köhler (except of postcard of Gizeh/Kairo reverse message from James Lee Byars) .

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