NEW YORK – I first met James Lee Byars in Kyoto in early 1967 and, at his invitation, participated in his “performance.” At the time I didn’t know that he’d been back and forth between Japan and the U.S. for nearly a decade already. I was also unaware that he had already done one-man shows and taken part in independent exhibitions. Nor did I have any inkling that Byars would go on to become “one of the most mythic artistic figures” of the 20th century, as the Museum of Modern Art in New York called him in presenting his art and performance works in 2014.
As Shinobu Sakagami writes in her recently published “James Lee Byars: Days in Japan” (Floating World Editions), Byars sharpened his sensibility as “an aesthetic heretic” after arriving in Yokohama in the fall of 1958. Interestingly, it was the Japan Folk Craft Museum that the 26-year-old artist on a private painting scholarship first visited in Tokyo. There, he met its founder and director, Soetsu Yanagi, famed for advocating “beauty in everyday, utilitarian products.” Yanagi directed Byars to Kichinosuke Tonomura, founder and director of a similar folk craft museum in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture.
More than 40 years later, Sumie Kawai, an art journalist in Berlin, vividly recalled Byars’ first solo exhibition in Japan.
“I found him in a room with a gleaming black polished wooden floor, kneeling in the formal seiza posture in an indigo-dyed kimono on an indigo-dyed zabuton floor cushion. There were only two visitors, my mother and myself,” Kawai wrote. It was Tonomura’s private home. “Hanging in the tokonoma alcove was a single abstract painting, painted with squid ink on Japanese paper. I still cannot forget the beauty of the paper and the golden sheen of the ink.”
This utter simplicity, along with a great fascination with Japanese paper, would become a hallmark of Byars’ art and performances. Some may wonder if that wasn’t a leap from the “folk craft” (mingei) that Yanagi had started promoting in the 1930s, but Yanagi stressed “nonskilledness,” “artlessness” and “mindlessness” as the essences of folk craft — the same states Zen aims to attain. Yanagi was a devout Buddhist.
As Sakagami points out, it was during the decade following Japan’s defeat in war that Zen proselytizer Daisetsu T. Suzuki was invited to the U.S. for a round of influential lectures at top universities. One may add that R. H. Blyth’s multivolume haiku explications equating haiku with Zen were widely read in the U.S. Many of the questions and requests Byars posed to his close friends were koan-like.
Byars was of a deeply religious bent. So, back in his hometown, Detroit, in the fall of 1959, he wrote to Dorothy Miller, the fabled curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in his idiosyncratic English: “Painting is the ultimate finding, you, for everyone, in the beautiful self, universal, of Love. Semantics, elusive, cognitively the essence of Being, elusive, but we can live in its grace. Out of grace, beauty both, itself to itself, no touch with the temporary, all truth eventuating in One.”
Lindley Williams Hubbell, an American poet and scholar of Shakespeare at Doshisha University, Kyoto, encouraged Byars in his art. He had arrived in Japan in 1953 when he was 52 years old, naturalized, and would not return to the U.S. for the rest of his long life. He wrote his delightful “Autobiography in Fifty Sentences” in response to Byars’ request.
Hubbell was devoted to noh. When he was 78, he made a list of noh plays he had seen in the preceding 25 years, noting the number of times he’d seen each: all in all 186 of them, in the case of “Hagoromo” (“Feather Robe”) 23 times. Naturally, Byars went to see noh and was enchanted. Its influence was clear in the nonmovements and slow movements in his performance arts. Also, the gorgeous noh costumes apparently led to his preference for glittering costumes in his performances. He made structures covered with gold foil. The largest of them is the 20-meter-tall “Golden Tower” erected in Venice earlier this year — exactly 20 years after his death.
Byars embodied the Buddhist idea of setsuna-metsu, “that which comes into being vanishes upon its birth.”
Hubbell recalled some of Byars’ “presentations” in Kyoto. For example, one midnight when he turned off his radio after the Japanese national anthem was over, he heard someone knock on his door. When he opened it, Byars’ girlfriend, Sachiko Taki — later a Jungian psychoanalyst in the United States — was standing all enveloped in a robe of white feathers. She handed him a small piece of paper and vanished. When he opened it, it simply had the word “peace.”
“All that time and preparation and effort (and expense!) goes into something to be seen for only a moment and by one person,” Hubbell exclaimed in his letter of Oct. 16, 1966.
Byars did his last performance in the Nara Hotel in late 1996, ravaged by a stomach cancer. A few months later he flew to Egypt to stay in the famous Mena House that commands a clear view of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Sakagami ends her book with interviews of the hotel employees who were close to Byars in his last days.