A solo show by James Lee Byars at Pirelli Hangar B...

A solo show by James Lee Byars at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca

««[…] if you look into Plato you will see this magnificent definition of the mathematics beauty of the sphere where all points are equidistant. The surface is smooth and polished. Plato holds this up as one of the great examples of beauty and then goes through the cosmological idea of the earth and the religious interpretation. I am very susceptible to such ideas of beauty». (J. L. Byars)

James Lee Byars, exhibition view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023. Photo Agostino Osio, courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

Entering the spaces of Pirelli Hangar Bicocca we are immediately greeted by an imposing structure that instantly places us in a state of pleasant submission, to the point of showing us our smallness in relation to such a perfect and precious form. The Golden Tower (1990) is a column of approximately 21 meters, entirely covered in gold leaf, a color that has always accompanied the spiritual and philosophical research of James Lee Byars, who himself defined “the first entirely interrogative philosophy”, putting on stage his superlative desire to become and therefore to be something more. To be in front of a structure of this size places the viewer in a dimension of lightness that will stay with him throughout the rest of the exhibition. The same fluttering lightness distinguished the artist in his public appearances. Byars has shaped his character and therefore his career as a continuous performance, in space and time. He has been described on several occasions as a shaman or a magician, both for his clothes and his ways of acting. In fact, the artist disguised himself according to a highly refined and entirely personal aesthetic code, characterized by a strong visual and symbolic link with his works: a dress (gold, white, black, or pink depending on the occasion), a hat, gloves and sometimes a blindfold. The current exhibition is a perfect and meticulous portrait of him.

James Lee Byars, The Moon Books, 1988-89. Exhibition view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023 Paris Musées/Musée d’Art Moderne. Photo Agostino Osio, courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

Byars works between unlikely relationships such as: the universal and the personal, the luxurious and the minimal, the earthly and the divine. The last pairing finds its synthesis in two of the works present in the exhibition. The first is The Figure of Question is in the Room (1986), through which the artist undertakes a mystical/aesthetic reflection on the representation and dematerialization of the human figure, which, throughout his work, finds various visual formalizations. In this case, it is translated into a marble column approximately two meters high and covered in gold leaf, placed in relation to the other work: a ring of the same dimensions and materials entitled The Door of Innocence (1986-89), a halo placed on the same level as the human figure: metaphor of an equivalence between man and the divine.

James Lee Byars, exhibition view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023. Foreground: The Door of Innocence, 1986-89; background: The Figure of Question is in the Room, 1986, Toyota Municipal Museum of Art. Photo Agostino Osio, courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

Spread across an expanse of shapes and colours, it is possible to notice a homogeneity in Byars’ practice, which takes the form of a continuous search for perfection, emphasized by a persistent obsessive use of the same colors – red, black, gold and white – depending on the symbolism that he wants to attribute to each work; as well as a strong interest in simple geometric shapes and precious materials such as marble, lapis, bronze, gold, sandstone. A silk sheet, with a volume similar to that of a cloud, gives a sense of lightness that contrasts with the heaviness and strength of the antique hardwood table on which it is placed. The tusk of a narwhal (a cetacean of the Monodontidae family) is resting on the cloth. What the spectacular tusk is for remains a mystery, since females of the same species live very well without it; we can therefore consider it a sign of male strength, like the manes of lions or the tails of peacocks. In the case of Byars, this toughness translates into aesthetics.

James Lee Byars, Byars is Elephant, 1997. Exhibition view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023, Pinault Collection. Photo Agostino Osio, courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

With The Unicorn Horn (1984) Byars seems to have become aware of working in favor of an assiduous and sometimes unjustified search for absolute, pure, divine beauty, as the title of the work also suggests: the Unicorn, a mythological figure that has always held within itself everything desirable, namely beauty, strength, nobility, wisdom. His interest in another stage is accentuated by precise terminology, in which terms such as angel, death, perfect, question, star, and moon recur continuously, also accompanied by a numbering that refers to religious symbolism: 1, 3, 7, 100, 1,000. James Lee Byars, deeply aware of the power of self-representation, challenged the art world through a poetic attitude animated by three separate but interconnected motifs, an investigation of artifice, perfection and death. Most of the works were developed as something transitory, ephemeral, just like what remains of the exhibition; everything and nothing, a sense of fascination given by the memory of a scenographic and evocative exhibition, characterized by an extremely personal and original poetics, almost for its own sake. Understanding his messages is not at all immediate and perhaps it is even better to remember in this way, with a veil of mystery, one of the most legendary artistic figures of the last century.

Davide Militano


James Lee Byars
curated by Vicente Todolí
in collaboration with Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
12/10/2023 – 18/02/2024
Pirelli HangarBicocca
via Chiese 2, 20126 Milano


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