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Puzzling Precision: With "Life, Love, and Death," the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main has dedicated a comprehensive retrospective to the work of James Lee Byars

He was an artist of the nearly imperceptible transition between reality and imagination. At the same time, the American artist James Lee Byars opened himself up to the plurality of contemporary forms of expression in his poetic work, always retaining a sense for the beauty of the perfect moment. Seven years after his death, Byars is still a magician of quietude with his performances, paper works, and golden rooms.

James Lee Byars, Four in a Dress, 1967, (c) Estates of James Lee Byars, courtesy Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne/ New York

At the end of the 19th century, Paul Cézanne was already having considerable problems with the accelerating speed of daily life. Referring to the industrialization of his native city Aix-en-Provence, the French painter described an uneasiness that was to become a key motif of artistic experience soon thereafter: "One had better hurry if one still wants to see anything. Everything disappears." Although it was possible to use the technical devices of photography and film to represent the enormous speed at which the modern world was changing to a fraction of a second and with the greatest precision, the difficulty in artistically capturing the rapid transformation has basically remained a question of perception: How can enough attention be mobilized for the moment in which something is happening?

In retrospect, the work of James Lee Byars, chronologically laid out from room to room in the exhibition "Life, Love, and Death" at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle, seems like a single incessant search for the right moment. Byars, who died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 65, was a master when it came to creating a tension between suddenness and duration. In his 1970 film "Autobiography," for instance, the screen remains black for several minutes; then the artist himself, tiny and standing far away from the camera, appears in a single frame, in other words for 1/24th of a second, followed by darkness once again. In the end, the viewer can't even be sure whether the image wasn't a deception or a momentary disturbance, a ray of light or a tear in the film material itself. Even the film still offers little explanation: the blurry figure in light-colored clothing isn't much more than a small bright dot.

James Lee Byars, The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994/2004, Composition in Gold, Five Cristals, Plexiglas, Walter Vanhaerents, Torhout

Concentration through disappearance? In response to cinema and the mass media, Walter Benjamin already analyzed the shift from a culture of immersion to a culture of diversion in the nineteen-thirties. When the work of art loses its aura through its mechanical reproducibility, the viewer's attention transforms as well: it's no longer the unique original that attracts our interest, but the objects of everyday culture, the flaneur's fleeting glimpse of a larger world of goods. Byars, however, embarked on the opposite path in his work. Modern art has seldom been imbued with this degree of pathos as an expression of sublime perfection.

James Lee Byars, The perfect smile, The Perfect Smile, 1994, Performance, (c) Sammlung Museum Ludwig Cologne

This is particularly true in the case of Byars' performances. In 1976, for "The Game of Death," he appeared together with twelve doctors dressed in black on the thirteen balconies of the Dom Hotel in Cologne, whispering the "th" sound (Greek for thanatos, death) and then promptly disappearing again. At the award ceremony for the Wolfgang Hahn Prize in 1994, he appeared in Cologne's Ludwig Museum dressed completely in black and with his eyes covered, and tossed the public a brief smile. The ephemeral action, which went by the title "The Perfect Smile," has since become the first truly immaterial work of art in the museum's collection. At the same time, the word "perfect," as Viola Michely writes in her catalogue essay on the Schirn exhibition, implies a fascinating dual meaning: perfect, yes, but already a thing of the past.

James Lee Byars: The perfect Love Letter is I write I love you backwards in the air, 1974, Performance, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brüssel, Photo: Catalogue Schirn Kunsthalle

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