James Lee Byars 1932–1997

James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died halfway around the world in Egypt in 1997. It was not his first death, three years prior Byars staged The Death of James Lee Byars, a performance in which the artist practiced his own death when clad in a gold suit, he laid down quietly in a room entirely covered in gold leaf and seem to vanish into the background. This magical, transcendental quality permeated his impressive body of work and solidified him as one of the great conceptual artists of our time.

Before his deaths, Byars studied philosophy at Wayne State University and traveled to Japan on invitation from the artist Morris Graves. While overseas, he studied Noh theater, Zen meditations, Shinto ritual and taught English to Japanese monks. Upon returning to the Untied States in 1958, he hitchhiked to New York City in the hopes of meeting artist Mark Rothko and ended up at the reception desk at the Museum of Modern Art. There he met Dorothy Miller, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the museum, who arranged for his New York debut—an exhibition of his paper works in an empty stairwell at the museum that lasted only a few hours.

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