The Accordion Scroll, 1963. Ink on paper 11.75 x 141.75 in. Photo: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York.

The Art of Happenstance: The Performative Sculptures Of James Lee Byars

Byars travels to Oxford University to discover which questions exist in the Faculty of Philosophy. He meets the expert on Wittgenstein, J.I.M. Anscombe at home with her children. He speaks to two doctoral candidates who are studying event identity and the difference between extraordinary event and miracle.

In the romantic comedy Le battement d’ailes d’un Papillon by the French film director Laurent Firode, a group of strangers becomes connected during the course of a single day by random events (a thrown pebble, lettuce falling off a truck, grains of sand blowing out of an open window) that in the end fulfill the predestined fates of two of them, who happen to share the same birthday, as predicted by their horoscopes.2 The French title refers to the so-called “Butterfly Effect,” ascribed to the MIT meteorologist Ernst Lorenz, who first recognized the existence of “chaotic attractors.” Attractors are geometric forms that result from the long-term behavior of a chaotic system, proving that even random systems can be “predictable.” In a paper delivered in 1963 at the New York Academy of Sciences, Lorenz remarked that one flap of a seagull’s wing could alter the course of weather. A decade later, the seagull had evolved into the more poetic butterfly in the title of a talk given in 1972: “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

The American sculptor and performance artist and James Lee Byars (1932–97), after receiving a degree in art and philosophy from Wayne State University, left his hometown of Detroit in the late 1950s to live in Kyoto for the next 10 years, only returning to the U.S. for short visits. During these formative years, Byars adapted the highly sensual and symbolic practices of Japanese Noh theater and Shinto rituals to Western science, art, and philosophy.

The Figure of Death, 1986. Ten Blocks of basalt, 27.5 x 27.5 X 27.5 in. each. Photo: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York.

He supported himself by teaching English, an activity that he occasionally turned into an art performance. The architect Robert Landsman, who met Byars in Kyoto during that time, recalls one particular lesson on a late-spring evening.3 That day, Byars instructed his class not to speak and to follow him out of the school to his apartment, where he had laid a 10-by-10-foot piece of white paper on the floor. He then asked his students to lie face down on the paper forming a circle with their heads meeting at its center, while in the back room Landsman played the Shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, traditionally performed by monks in Shinto ceremonies. Later, as Landsman joined the students on the floor, a large insect suddenly flew through the open window and began to dance inside the circle on the paper, and then dropped dead. Byars put his finger on his lips, then gestured his class to get up and leave. His “English” lesson had ended. Byars had already mastered the art of happenstance.

In Byar’s works, as in Firode’s story, nothing and everything happens by chance. What made Byars’s work and life most remarkable was the almost hypnotic effect he had on others. He was able to enact seemingly random events that need almost to be explained by some form of “psychic magnetism.” He was a conjurer who bet the fate of his art on random events supervised by carefully orchestrated rituals. His performances were chaotic attractors, at once controlling and summoning random intervention. He was alternately a sleight-of-hand artist and a truth-seeking philosopher—two roles that for him were not contradictory. In his performative works, the extraordinary and the miraculous often became one.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously distinguished between “genius” and “apostle”—two exclusionary figures, one standing for absolute faith, the other for absolute knowledge. Byars managed to wear both hats, at times playing the role of the analytical philosopher and the founder of the “World Question Center” and at other times the spiritual artist/apostle, who rejoiced in the paradoxes of faith.

The Rose Table of Perfect, 1989. 3,333 roses, 100 cm. diameter. Photo: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York.

Byars’s works of the late 1950s and early 1960s consisted primarily of large-scale black-ink drawings on paper, which predated Richard Serra’s black-and-white drawings by at least a decade, and performative sculptures made of hundreds of sheets of hinged Japanese flax paper folded into solid geometric shapes. Byars was one of a number of artists (among them Richard Tuttle and Serra) who, in the 1960s and 1970s, expanded the medium of drawing into sculpture. One of his most important performative sculptures from that period is Performative Square (1963–64), an 18-by-18-by-18-inch cube consisting of 1,000 sheets of hinged Japanese flax paper that unfolds into a 600-x-600-inch surface. It was first exhibited at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, in 1964 but was not performed until 14 years later, in March 1978, during Byars’s exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California. There, it was unfolded by the exhibition’s curator, James Elliott, with the assistance of several others. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. To my knowledge, it has not been performed since.

In a 1964 letter to Wernher von Braun at NASA, Byars inquired whether it would be possible “to employ a government rocket or satellite” to send a folded piece of white paper into space, eight miles by four inches “to be dropped to fall on our beautiful prairie at its flattest point using international instantaneous Tel-Star announcements.”

In 1967, Byars and a friend “performed” a paper scroll, two feet wide and 100 feet long, in the exhibition of the Kyoto Independents. The audience was held in suspense as tens of feet
of blank paper were unrolled before a drawn shape was revealed, followed by an equal amount of blank paper.

Arguably, Byars’s best-known and most spectacular performative sculpture was The Giant Soluble Man, which was performed on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, New York, on November 16, 1967, during the opening of the “Made on Paper” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. A large silhouette of a man glued together from 400 feet of Dissolvo, a water-soluble paper donated by the Gilbreth Company in Philadelphia, covered all of 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues from curb to curb.5 The New York City Police Department stopped traffic and removed all cars from the block. The action was ended by two street-cleaning trucks hired by the artist to wash the figure away.

Even Byars’s first show in New York in 1958, at the Museum of Modern Art, occurred as a result of happenstance. Having been impressed by a Rothko painting that he saw exhibited at the Cranbrook Academy outside of Detroit, Byars hitchhiked to New York with some drawings, walked to the Museum of Modern Art, and asked the receptionist for Rothko’s address, so he could show him the drawings that he brought from Japan. After explaining that the museum’s policy did not allow giving out the addresses of artists, the receptionist noticed the rolls of paper under Byars’s arm and called the museum’s curator, Dorothy Miller, to come down and have a look at them. Miller ended up buying two works for herself and offering Byars a show. He chose the emergency stairwell and one evening installed several works, which unfolded all the way down the fire stairs. Most were sold, including one to Philip Johnson. The exhibition apparently lasted only several hours, and Byars personally delivered the sold pieces that night to the collectors’ homes.

The Mile Long Paper Walk, 1964-65. Japenese flax paper with rivets, 75 parts, 12 x 500 in. Photo: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York.

As RoseLee Goldberg notes, “Performance in the United States began to emerge in the late ’30s with the arrival of European war exiles in New York. By 1945 it had become an activity in its own right, recognized as such by artists and going beyond the provocations of earlier performances.”6 Black Mountain College in North Carolina became the center of performance art in the U.S., beginning in the 1930s with the residencies of Annie and Josef Albers. In the early 1950s the college’s influence surged with the music and dance activities of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, which were inspired by Zen Buddhism. For Cage, “Art should not be different than life but an action within life. Like all of life, with its accidents and chances and variety and disorder and only momentary beauties.”

Another center of early performance art was the Judson Dance Group, an offspring of the Dancer’s Workshop in San Francisco. Established in 1962 by, among others, dancers and choreographers Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, and David Gideon, it performed in the Judson Memorial Church in New York. The group regularly collaborated with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris. By the mid-1960s, American experimental dance was strongly influenced by the rising move to Minimalism in art. Recently, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project revived a number of these early Minimalist dance performances at in a program entitled “Past Forward.” One of the pieces performed was Yvonne Rainer’s Chair/Pillow (1970), in which chairs and pillows are used to execute simple actions such as sitting, standing, holding, and throwing.

There appear to be definite affinities between the Judson Group’s choreographies and Byars’s performances. In 1965, at the Carnegie Museum of |Art in Pittsburgh, Judson Group member Lucinda Childs, dressed in a full-length ostrich feather costume, performed Byars’s The Mile-Long Paper (1964–65), a long strip of handmade Japanese white flax paper in 75 sections, joined with rivets. Chairs, in particular, played an important role in Byars’s work as early as the late 1950s. For him, chairs served both as extensions of and stand-ins for the human body. One of his earliest sculptures is somewhat chair-like as well. The Black Figure (c. 1959), a minimalist human figure made from rough wooden planks painted black, suggests both a ladder and an empty stretcher, emphasizing the absence of the human body. More related to the Judson Group is an undated action, known only through a series of color photographs showing Byars sitting on a chair in various locations in New York, very much present in a red suit and his signature black hat.

The Black Figure, c. 1959. House paint on wood, 2.75 x 16 x 138 in. Photo: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York.

Chairs also appear in Byars’s later installations of objects, often gilded or painted red, symbolizing thrones, oracles, and other seats of knowledge and power. As was typical of Byars’s sculptures made during the 1980s and 1990s, the performative character of his work began to become more autonomous, requiring less and less of his presence. While Byars’s earlier, dominantly performative works were guided by the model of the Japanese Noh theater and sought to dematerialize the art object through actions and performances, his later works re-objectify actions
by transforming the material of the objects into performers who raise philosophical questions.

Byars was essentially a sculptor—who either “performed” his objects or allowed the materials and objects to perform like actors in a play—a notion he shared with the painter he admired most, Mark Rothko. Rothko perceived his painted floating rectangles as “objects” and as “actors” in an emotional drama playing out universal human tensions on his canvases. In Byars’s sculptures, what was played out were not emotions but ritual acts of body, speech, and mind.

One of Byars’s earliest series of permanent sculptures consisted of three untitled “Tantric” figures (c. 1960). Borrowing formally from Brancusi, each work consists of two blocks of granite, the top one featuring two eye-like holes. Like his later Figure of Death, constructed from basalt blocks, and Figure of Questions, a gilded marble column (both 1986), they represent religio-philosophical systems. The “Tantric Figures” refer to the system of esoteric and secret practices in Hindu or Buddhist religion that revolves around concepts of time and the conjunctions of the planets. There are two classes of Buddha’s teaching: sutras and tantras. While sutras are communicated publicly, tantras are taught individually, but only if the student is ready for them, and their content is kept between the teacher and the student. Thus these early sculptures already point to the participatory and meditative aspects of Byars’s later works.

Chair Performance, n.d., three views. Photo: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York.

Another idea that greatly influenced the art of the 1960s was the emergence of speech act theory. The theory of performative speech acts (also referred to simply as “performatives”) was introduced by the eminent Oxford analytical philosopher J.L. Austin in a series of lectures given at Harvard University in 1955 and later published under the title How To Do Things With Words. The basic question posed by speech act theory was, as John Searle writes, “How do words relate to the world? How is it possible that when a speaker stands before a hearer and emits an acoustic blast such remarkable things occur as: the speaker means something; the sounds he emits mean something; the hearer understands what is meant; the speaker makes a statement, asks a question, or gives an order?” According to Austin, performatives are utterances that perform an action as opposed to simply saying something, for example, “I believe,” “I do,” “ I declare,” “I bet.”

As defined by Austin and Searle, Anglo-American speech act theory shares with French structuralism (a linguistic theory that gained popularity in the 1960s) a predilection for function rather than meaning. Both theories are concerned more with the production of meaning—the act of communicating—than with meaning itself: “All linguistic communication involves linguistic acts. The unit of linguistic communication is not, as has generally been supposed, the symbol, word, or sentence, or even the token of the symbol, word, or sentence, but rather the production or issuance of the symbol or word or sentence in the performance of the speech act.”11 Byars’s actions and sculptures, such as The Book of Question (1987), The Philosophical Chair (1977), or the aforementioned Figure of Question, carry out what Austin called “illocutionary” acts (stating, questioning, commanding, promising).

Untitled (Tantric Figure), c. 1960. Granite, two parts, 30.5 x 20.3 x 12.7 cm; 231.1 x 29.2 x 7.8 cm. Photo: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York.

What distinguishes speech acts from random noise or gestures is intention. Even the arrangement of furniture can be understood as a performative speech act as long as it is the result of intentional behavior. As Searle remarks, “The attitude one would have to such an arrangement of furniture, if one ‘understood’ it, would be quite different from the attitude I have, say, to the arrangement of furniture in this room, even though in both cases I might regard the arrangement as resulting from intentional behavior.”

One of Byars’s first “actions” was the removal of all furniture, windows, and doors from his mother’s house. Soon after, he “re-arranged” their neighbor’s garden (with the neighbor’s consent) by removing all flowers and replacing them with a large circle of white sand. Like the Japanese art of ikebana, Byars’s installations distinguish themselves from other kinds of “arrangements” by the use of empty space as an essential feature of the composition, an aesthetic characteristic shared by traditional Japanese paintings, gardens, architecture, and design.

The “Great James Lee Byars” (as he preferred to sign his letters and postcards) was attracted by the great minds of our time. As Landsman remarked, “The three people [Byars] admired most were Stein, Einstein, and Wittgenstein.” With the writer and poet Gertrude Stein he shared a fondness for word plays; with the analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, an obsession with questions; and with Albert Einstein, a fixation on time.

Byars’s art and life seem to have been affected by Einstein’s time dilation: the phenomenon of time as it appears to almost come to a full stop as particles approach the speed of light. Like the paralyzed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Byars, a master thief of time, was in a state of compressed acceleration (which intensified toward the end of his life as he was fighting cancer). It brought his sculptures close to Hawking’s “event horizon,” which defines the edge of black holes, beyond which there is no difference between extraordinary events and miracles.

Klaus Ottmann is an independent curator and writer based in New York