JAMES LEE BYARS: THE ART OF WRITING
by RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
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.
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.
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
“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.