February 2008, Interview with MoMA Archivist Michelle Elligott

 Letter Byars to Miller, January 1, 1966 [1.26] Byars made this scroll, a format frequently found in his work, from a roll of calculator printer paper. In it he shares another idea for the Museum: “it would be beautiful if your museum would set aside a small space for daily change (say 8 x 8 all white) letting all of your intelligent staff take a one day set whatever they wanted from your collection. The space could also be open to one day propositions from traveling artists ‘it would be kept the most exciting space in the city with a new thing everyday." From The James Lee Byars Correspondence with Dorothy C. Miller, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.





James Lee Byars: The Art of Writing curated by Michelle Elligott Museum Archivist for the Museum of Modern Art, New York was on view September 5 – October 29, 2007 at MoMA. The exhibition culled out exquisite diaphanous letters, proposals, and announcements from the James Lee Byars Correspondence with Dorothy C. Miller. This archive is evidence of an uncommonly endearing and professional epistolary that developed between the artist and past MoMA curator Dorothy C. Miller. An interview with Michelle Elligott takes a closer look at the correspondence, the role of an archivist, and ephemera as both art and document.

Your exhibition, James Lee Byars: The Art of Writing, struck me with new insight into the sincerity and clarity of his work at large by providing a glimpse into his archived correspondence with past MoMA curator Dorothy C. Miller. The word and action were Byars' tools to pave his way into the Museum. His careful attention to words in describing ephemeral projects, making requests, and giving thanks to Dorothy Miller are composed with such attention and care as to be art on their own. What prompted you in curating this exhibition? What was your intention and motivation? How did you proceed with making the selection of works displayed?

I have been enthralled by these letters for many years, for many reasons. The sheer materiality of the items have such a draw -- the saturated colors, the delicate and fleeting nature of the tissue paper and other materials, the sincerity and directness of his writing to Dorothy. The unabashedly uncensored nature of his writing is both captivating and inspiring. Furthermore, being an art historian and an archivist, I am particularly drawn to such items which bridge the gap between work of art and documentary evidence. These are letters, but they are also artifacts and indeed art objects that utilize the very same conventions and support media as much of his work (for example, philosophical ideas and language, multiples, folded paper, string, silky material…).
Also, I am completely dedicated to educating the public about the role and nature of archives. I find that archives in our society are undervalued; by contrast, in Europe, archival repositories are among the most elevated and respected of cultural institutions. The precious materials in the archives are unique and are not replicated elsewhere. They are important for their artifactual, evidentiary, scholarly, and/or intrinsic value(s).
I selected work that resonated with the following criteria: items that physically resemble Byars’s art work, items which discuss his work and art-making process, items which address proposals for MoMA, items which capture his sensitive and endearing relationship with Dorothy Miller.

  Letter Byars to Miller, n.d. [I.40] Byars wrote this letter in pencil on a lengthy piece of pink tissue paper shaped like a snake, which he subsequently crumpled and coiled into the yellow satin wrapper. The letter and its textile covering directly relate to his participatory performances. He wrote: “Mrs. Imagine this is pink satin—imagine it holds 100 people (one head hole every 10 feet) Bellydown-doing Shakespeare’s 100 Lines for your opening night out in the street (1) Mr. Fang have you entered the action? 2. Hang up Philosophy! Romanddu! III, 3. (3) If the other two be Brained like us, the state letter 100 ‘etc’—Let’s do it—Hisssssssssssssss” From The James Lee Byars Correspondence with Dorothy C. Miller, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

I was first introduced to JLB's work in 2004 with a visit to the Whitney Museum. At the time, they were presenting some work with The Perfect Silence. The role of ritual in his work along with his unique intensity and intention fascinated me as an art student performing. His use of poetry and interest in surface and beauty are a welcome alternative to Joseph Beuy's pragmatic and rough agenda. Byars' delicate approach is accessible and seductive. First impressions are everything; we know JLB made his first impression at the MoMA with his smashed hat. Could you relate your first encounter with his work?

I do not remember my first encounter with his work. Rather, it seems that I have always been a fan of his artistic production. However, I do recall with distinct clarity the day I came upon these materials at the Museum. I was somewhat new at MoMA, where I have now worked for the past 12 years.  The collection had recently been transferred to the Museum Archives, having previously been in the library. I remember seeing a large box labeled “parachute” and pulling it out and opening it to the cacophony of the “letter” -- a pink tissue paper snake crumpled and stuffed into a bundled piece of yellow satin. I was struck by its “object-ness,” and was indeed further struck when I realized that it was actually a piece of correspondence. For me it represented a microcosm of my entire career – dealing with art and dealing in information. 
As a point of clarification, Byars “performed” his smashed hat in the early 1960s, several years after his first visit to the museum.

 Hat, original envelope, notes, October 10, 1964 (?) [I.11, I.38] Byars wore this hat to the Museum on October 10 (10/10), and at 10 A.M. he announced himself at the reception desk, smashed the hat, and then had it sent up to Miller. The hat exists as evidence of this performance. From The James Lee Byars Correspondence with Dorothy C. Miller, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

Considering JLB's first exhibition at the MoMA in 1958 in the emergency exit stairwell, it is appropriate to find this exhibition happening at the bottom of the stairs in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building Lobby of the Museum. Was this intentional? Nevertheless, it's a nice coincidence. 

I love your adventurous theory! No, the “under the stairwell” idea was not a riff on Byars’s legendary stairwell show. That location just happens to be the space allocated to exhibitions from the collections of the Museum Archives and the Library.  Incidentally, I think the stairwell exhibit story is somewhat unlikely, and that it is quite probable that Byars propagated this legend after some sort of small incident. Regardless of what happened, I do believe that Byars aggrandized the event, much as he continually cultivated his larger-than-life personality.
On another note, I want to thank you for taking an interest in this exhibition, even after it has closed. As with any curator, I found it difficult when the exhibition ended. After doing so much work, and seeing the cherished items made visible on a daily basis, there is a certain decrescendo afterwards. I do want to point out that the website for the exhibition remains available at http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/exhibitions.php?id=5625&ref=calendar

Letter Byars to Miller, January 3, 1967 [I.15] Byars suggests several artworks for installation at the Museum, including a 16-by-32-foot white ellipse that would “vail [sic] all the Brancusi and just blow around or what a spot it would make in front of the Monet—or do you ever put a net over your high garden square. . . . do you have an airtight observation room in which could float a black paper (made years ago 10 meters folded up in a foot). How about a black show (it would fly over) What are the air rights above your Museum? Of course in simple presentation it might softly negotiate a stairwell or fill an elevator or be the center piece up in your eating space with tables around and nothing but clear foods served.”From The James Lee Byars Correspondence with Dorothy C. Miller, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

(The proposition regarding the use of a stairwell is likely a reference to a show he allegedly mounted in a Museum stairwell in 1958.)

 Letter Byars to Miller, December 1964 [I.3] Byars wrote: “Dear Miss Miller, I hope by now the photographs and two works are with you. After please send photographs to the Gugg Found. I must find some support. Frankly do you think I could ever get a teaching job? Thanks and Happy Xmas. JB.” The letter, on black tissue, was accordion pleated and is reminiscent of some of Byars’s works of art, including the one the artist donated to the Museum in 1965. From The James Lee Byars Correspondence with Dorothy C. Miller, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

 “A WHITE PAPER WILL BLOW THROUGH THE STREETS,” c. December 5, 1966 [I.53] This multiple was produced by Byars and sent to various individuals in the accompanying crimson envelope. From The James Lee Byars Correspondence with Dorothy C. Miller, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

Richard Goldstein

Richard Goldstein is a Brooklyn based painter and sculptor.





view all articles from this author