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James Lee Byars



James Lee Byars (April 10, 1932-May 23, 1997) was a colorful and attention-grabbing personality who specialized in installation sculpture and performance art. He studied art, philosophy and psychology at the Merrill-Palmer School in Detroit, and began traveling as a young man. He made the first of many trips to Japan in 1957, giving several public performances in Kyoto in the early 1960's. In 1958, his friendship with curator Dorothy Miller got some of his folded-paper art pieces on display at the New York Museum of Modern Art, albeit only for a few hours - in an emergency stairwell - but it was an encouraging start.

An eclectic innovator always expanding his horizons, Byars began putting on public performances in high-visibility areas like New York's Central Park (1964), and outside the city's Museum of Contemporary Crafts (1967). This gained him a growing following; soon he was creating costumes for what he called his "Collective" performances, and by 1969, he had made his way to Europe for his first exhibition, held at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium. While in Bern, Switzerland, Byars met Harald Szeemann, influential director of the Kunsthalle, or main art gallery there. Several years later, in Kassel, Germany, they collaborated on one of the largest, most diverse, expensive and controversial exhibitions the art world had ever seen. To this day, 1972's "Documenta 5" is hailed as a "legendary extravaganza" that scandalized and electrified people everywhere and pioneered the format of large-scale, multi-media, collaborative mega-shows in the art world. Byars would go on to participate in several more annually held Documentas in his lifetime.

In 1978, Byars was honored with his first major solo show, "Exhibition of Perfect", at the Kunsthalle in Bern, which featured a large number of his sculptures, artworks and other objects. He made what is probably the briefest personal appearance ever recorded at an opening: he came out, whispered, "Gr" (short for "Great"), to the audience, and left. Later that year, his one man show, "The Perfect Whisper is To Nothing" consisted of him simply standing around whispering inside the Bern art gallery where the works of the Old Masters hung.

Byars became a regular in the Bern art scene, and for years was honored with many shows dedicated to him by the Galerie Toni Gerber, an influential and well known gallery there. While the circumstances of his last years are not widely known, Byars is stated to have passed away from cancer in Cairo, Egypt at the age of 65.