Up until recently I only knew of James Lee Byars (1932-1997) as someone who had dated a friend of mine. One degree of separation was not enough to tell me anything about the man as an artist, but I met him – so to speak - in February in the company of Joseph Beuys, and now he pops up everywhere. He’s in the New York Cool show at Bowdoin College with a couple of works on paper that don’t really do much, out of context as they are, but there’s a stronger message in a video produced by the Kunstmuseum in Bern. The show there will travel to the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art this Fall. (I hope I’m right about that – the Internet is so often deceiving about dates.) Byars always had more cred in Europe than in this country, but his ball of roses is exquisite, his gold room is stunning, and, given the ephemeralness of his performances, the sight of 100 little children running around in gold capes (“little points of light” according to the curator, Susanne Friedli) has a certain poignancy. The gold room reminds me of another artist whose work deals with spirituality and ephemerality: Montien Boonma. Boonma (1953-2000) was a Thai artist whose “House of Hope,” made of beads, invokes the walking Buddha and freedom from fear. We're invited to step inside. And I wonder as I wander why beauty triggers thoughts of ephemerality and vice versa. Is beauty always fleeting?
Writing for the Telegraph, Richard Dorment has this to say about the ball of roses. “In Rose Table Perfect, first made in 1989, a ball made out of 3,333 red roses sits on the gallery floor. On the opening night when the flowers were fresh, the sight and the scent must have been overpowering. When I saw it last week, the roses had died and the dark orb was the colour of coagulated blood. Simple as it is, in this one piece Byars sums up in purest form his awareness that beauty is inseparable from death and decay.”