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James Lee Byars spent a lifetime pursuing what he called “the first totally interrogative philosophy,” obsessing over the ideas of perfection, beauty, and truth. “James Lee Byars: 1/2 An Autobiography,” a comprehensive survey of the artist’s work, includes a variety of works and documentation. The show occupies the second floor of MoMA PS1 and depicts Byars’ lifelong search for answers.
He sought to define the limitations of human knowledge while evoking our desire for more. Contradictions play a crucial role in his pieces — Rose Table of Perfect (1989), a ball of 3,333 red roses with a diameter of nearly 4 feet, for example. Spectacular and invisible, monumental and minuscule, universal and personal all come together as representation of a lifetime of questions with limited, yet endless answers.
A highlight for us is an installation with a threatening title, The Ghost of James Lee Byars (1969). No more than a title and a darkened room, the piece is brilliantly unnerving, proving that a ghost story needs no more than six words. The pitch-black room seems endless and empty and forces the viewer to grope his or her way through the impossible darknes with the eminent feeling of a lingering supernatural presence. As the artist often wanted to be present in different places and times, even the idea of his ghost haunting a square room was a push toward the heightened viewing experience Byars desired.
“James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography” is on view at MoMA PS1 now through September 7.