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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.

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