The works of James Lee Byars (1932–1997) and Seung-taek Lee (b. 1932), American and Korean respectively, have never been shown together until now. The two men never knew each other, and yet, as this exhibition (on view through November 18, 2023) demonstrates, there is a common sensibility in their aesthetic and their approach to making that resonates, a shared vision and spirit that emerges through proximity and dialogue between objects. The coupling of otherwise unconnected artists in a single exhibition has become a popular curatorial strategy these days, though it doesn’t always work well. In this instance, however, the pairing of Byars and Lee enriches our understanding and appreciation of both artists.
In a short essay for the exhibition catalogue, Lee writes about his obsession with the practice of binding objects. We might imagine that tying and binding would render objects impotent, but Lee regards the act as one of liberation and enlivening. His work often shuns the traditional materials of sculpture and turns instead to the potential of stones, cloth, books, and paper, which he often employs to reference the stone weights used in ancient weaving techniques. The allusion is perhaps most evident in works such as Godret Stone (1957/60), in which 30 or so small stones are each tied with rope and hung at different drops along an almost two-meter-wide strip of wood fixed to the wall. In Paper Installation (1981), more than 100 small paper pulp “rocks,” individually tied onto lengths of red rope, tumble down in a cascade from a single point of attachment. Twisted wire replaces rope in Tied Stone (1996), connecting a handful of stones to create a small freestanding group. Lee also uses rope in Tied Book (1976), knotting it so tightly that the function of the book is denied, its square geometry deformed into a new, unopenable form. In another series of works from the 1970s, lengths of rope (or hair) are fixed onto canvas so that they, too, shed their usual function.
What of Byars’s presence in this exhibition? He spent the formative years of his career in Japan, where he lived periodically for a decade, beginning in 1958, and it shows. Unlike Lee, who grew up in a unified Korea under Japanese rule and whose work demonstrates a complicated, ambivalent attitude toward what had been an oppressive culture, Byars welcomed it, immersing himself in traditional Japanese arts and the aesthetic traditions of Shinto and Zen. Compared to Lee’s “non-sculptures,” Byars’s work can tend toward more conventional uses of materials, particularly in the lacquered stone of The Black Stone (1958–59), the blue African granite of The Sphere with Stairs (1989), or the sandstone of The Moonbook (1980). However, this isn’t always the case. Spongeman (c. 1991–92), made from six natural sponges piled one on top of one another, elevates its lowly material to sculptural status and near monumentality. In Wings for Writing (c. 1972), dyed red feathers are sewn into silk wings, and an impressive antique Tibetan chair is gilded and repurposed to represent The Chair for the Philosophy of Question (1996).
With a few exceptions, the work of both artists is pared back, uncluttered, and deceptively simple. Importantly, it reflects their shared interest in Zen philosophy, which helps to explain each individual work’s sense of completeness and the essential use of natural materials such as sponge, wood, and stone in objects that ask the viewer to contemplate the essence of reality. That spirit of openness, of inquiry—as suggested by the exhibition title, “Invisible Questions That Fill the Air”—brings these two bodies of works together. Their strength lies in their essential nature, their ability to engage us gently and bring us back to basics. Separately and in dialogue, Byars’s and Lee’s works will surely bring smiles to faces, bodies will slowly relax, and minds will clear. In present times, this exhibition is a balm for the soul.