The question is the answer?

100 Questions by James Lee Byars

James Lee Byars was always asking questions. The prevailing theme throughout his oeuvre, questions posed in one way or another, appear in several works from this period. In 1969, Byars staged The World Question Center, a performance in which the artist answered questions asked by 100 intellectuals and broadcast the discussion live on Belgian television. For his 1971 work, The Black Book, Byers printed 100 questions in impossibly small gold text on black paper. The present lot, a book comprised of 100 pages each with one question printed in tiny text, asks the reader on the first page, “This book is eatable?” Byars was undoubtedly more interested in questions than answers, and probably believed that the question was more important than the answer, or perhaps that they were one in the same.

Twenty Eight Questions

From 100 Questions

This book is eatable?

I’m the self-appointed World Questions Center?

I have perfect question?

Clone me?

What’s the difference between asking and telling?

What questions are you asking yourself?

Think yourself away?

“Forget it” is a treaties?

The question is the answer?

What’s your general honorific sweetie? 

I am the complete history of the world?

The ghost of a question?

I’m the unofficial Poet Laurate of the United States?

“Well?” was her favorite question?

Question is Big Art?

How to fall in love with a phone call?

The world is so fantastic why make up?

I can repeat the question but am I bright enough to ask it?

His head weighs 25 lbs?

Mathematics Ha Ha?

Questions are gifts?

I’m full of Byars?

You’re the person they pretend doesn’t exist?

What’s the speed of an idea?

I quit you?

It takes 5 minutes to come down to your level?

The world’s smartest man got mad when asked for a question?

My tongue is insured for $50,000?

Hey there Mr. K. How are you?

The Shock of Writing a Letter

A glimpse into the mind and spirit of James Lee Byars

Detroit born artist James Lee Byars lived a nomadic life. In 1958, he moved to Japan and spent nearly a decade in Kyoto studying Japanese Noh theater, Zen meditations and Shinto ritual. In the late 1960s and 70s, Byars spent much of his time between Belgium and Germany, periodically traveling to Paris, Italy and the United States. On the occasions when he visited Los Angeles, Byars enlisted the help of Tommy Longo, a neighbor of his patrons, gallerist Eugenia Butler and attorney James Butler, to drive him around the city. A friendship ensued, and Byars and Longo (whom the artist nicknamed Peachy Keene) kept in touch through letters, postcards, and the odd phone call. 

The resulting archive of correspondence offered here provides a rare glimpse into the mind and spirit of the artist. 

Written almost in code, Byars’ letters are penned in script that loops and meanders across the page, spontaneously changing direction and size. Punctuated with tiny stars, the text is made more difficult to read by his use of shorthand. Nevertheless, his nature shows through—a thoughtful friend, romantic and esoteric, at times needy, cajoling and sweet. He writes fondly of the food in Italy and of upcoming projects, asks about friends back in Los Angeles and urges Peachy to visit him at the Biennale. Also interesting are the locales from where the letters are sent—Berlin, New York, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Venice and Bern—points on a map that trace the artist’s rambling path.

In his artistic practice, Byars is known for transforming abstract concepts into tangible experiences. It is fitting that his letters would exhibit the same qualities and in many ways, they are works of art in their own right. More than just correspondence, Byars requires his readers to interact with his letters—unfolding, unfurling, reading and rereading, turning pages, slowing down, straining to understand and finally, understanding. The act of reading becomes a performance in itself, guided and directed by the artist from afar. In one work from this collection, Byars has stamped THE SHOCK OF WRITING A LETTER in gold across a black sheet of paper, conjuring the notion that perhaps, it is also just as shocking to read one. 

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.

Learn More

Auction Results James Lee Byars