VTV Classics (r3): James Lee Byars Retrospective (2008)

James Lee Byars was one of the 20th Century’s most unusual artists. Byars was born in 1932 in Detroit and died in 1997 in Cairo, Egypt. As he had a special affinity to Bern – in 1978 the Kunsthalle Bern showed a major solo exhibition of his works – the Kunstmuseum Bern organized a retrospective exhibition in honor of the artist in 2008. The show featured letters and documents, sculptures , room installations and films of his performances drawn from the museum’s collection as well as from private and public collections. In this video we attend the opening reception on September 11, 2008.

Im full of Byars. James Lee Byars – A Homage. Kunstmuseum Bern, Vernissage, September 11, 2008.

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James Lee Byars (*1932 in Detroit , † 1997 in Kairo) was one of the 20th century’s most unusual and elusive artist figures. A commuter between America, Japan and Europe, Byars has a particular affinity with Bern. The Kunstmuseum Bern is now devoting a large survey exhibition to this artist.

An American in Bern

Repeatedly, over many years, people like Johannes Gachnang, Toni Gerber, J.G. Lischka, Harald Szeemann and many others did much to ensure that this American artist was able to stay in Bern for several weeks at a time. The first performances took place in the 1970s. In 1972 Harald Szeemann invited Byars to documenta 5 in Kassel. As of 1975 he was a regular guest at the Galerie Toni Gerber in Bern. In 1978, the Kunsthalle Bern mounted a large solo exhibition of his works. Although Byars often eschewed any kind of materialisation in his works – they were mostly short-lived performances – perhaps we owe the fact that the ephemeral in his oeuvre began to “solidify” here and there to the architectural peculiarity of Bern. In addition to the most varied kinds of marble, Byars was fascinated by Berne sandstone, with which he created numerous sculpture and objects in an almost classical repertoire of forms – using elements such as the sphere, the circle, the gate or the column.

The search for perfection

James Lee Byars was not just an artist, he was a magician, a visionary and a dandy. He knew how to put his audience under his spell. Byars bombarded his friends and acquaintances with letters of all kinds, thus demanding constant attention, sometimes without ever having got an answer. These writings testify to an incredible virtuosity and creativity. “Im full of Byars” will facilitate a survey of the work of an artist who was constantly searching for perfection (The Perfect), who equated the ephemeral and immaterial with the material and permanent, and whose work has forfeited nothing of its mystery and poetry to this very day.

A Homage at the Kunstmuseum Bern

For the first time the Kunstmuseum Bern will provide insight into surely the largest collection of letters and documents from the Toni Gerber collection, which was donated to the Kunstmuseum Bern (1986 and 1996). Moreover, the exhibition will include a precise selection of sculptures and room installations from all the periods in Byars’ creative life. The presentation will be complemented by works from the stocks of the Kunstmuseum Bern (from the Toni Gerber donations and the Hermann and Margrit Rupf Foundation) as well as numerous works on loan from private and public collections.

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