Alberto Salvadori cited in: ‘James Lee Byars: The Golden Tower’, Studio Reduzzi, 2017, online
In James Lee Byars’s The Figure of the First Question (1987), the lustrous, gilt marble column invokes the presence of a sacred site or a ritualistic totem, lavishly adorned and gilded in the guise of ancient statuary. Standing at a comparable height to a person, the sculpture’s singularity and geometry implements a formal simplicity that evokes the work of the Minimalist artists of the 1960s, including Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Robert Morris. Much like his German counterpart Joseph Beuys, Byars was often dubbed the quintessential ‘artist-as-shaman’, and indeed the present work is imbued with a transcendent quality that is prevalent throughout the artist’s practice. Employing the language of the mystic and the aura of the clairvoyant to upend his aesthetic values, Byars asserts the spiritual and philosophical query as the highest attainable objective of art. The incandescent gold monolith in The Figure of the First Question is a recurrent and iconic motif within Byars’s practice. It developed out of the artist’s seminal performance piece from 1969, World Question Center, which saw Byars telephone several of the world’s most renowned scientists, philosophers and artists, whilst broadcast live on Belgian television, to determine what questions they thought to be the most vital, essential and pressing to humankind. Byars was fascinated by the aesthetic potential of life’s most indeterminate, unanswered, fluid and existential questions. In works such as the present, the artist potently elicits such open-ended signifiers, through his deeply enigmatic, elusive and ethereal aesthetic.
Born in 1932 in Detroit, Michigan in the USA, Byars was a renegade artist for whom philosophy and art were inseparable facets of one lifelong project. Fascinated by the idea of perfection, the artist produced an extraordinary body of work that pursued what he himself referred to as “the first totally interrogative philosophy” (James Lee Byars cited in: ‘James Lee Byars’, The Museum of Modern Art, 2014, online). Much like his contemporary Beuys, Byars was a consummate materialist: he imbued his sculptures and performances with a philosophical significance that was articulated through the symbolic materials he used to produce them. After studying art and philosophy, Byars moved to Kyoto, Japan, in 1958, where he was exposed to Japanese Noh theatre and Shinto rituals. His practice, which draws upon artistic styles and philosophies from around the world, employs theatricality as a contemplative impetus: “posing his art confoundingly between apparent contradictions – the monumental and the minuscule, the universal and the personal, the luxurious and the minimal, the relic and the event… [Byars] suggests that perfection may occur not simply at the most evanescent edges of form, but also in the attenuated moments of attention spent trying to discern it” (MoMA PS1, Press Release, ‘James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography’, The Museum of Modern Art, 2014, online).
A monument to philosophical thought, The Figure of the First Question is laden with contradiction: it is at once physical and spiritual, tactile and ephemeral, minimal and baroque, ancient and modern. One of the most archetypal characteristic of Byars’s practice, this sense of paradox speaks to the artist’s quest for an enlightened state of understanding through interrogative contemplation. The present work has been showcased in a number of notable international exhibitions in recent years, including in New York at the Michael Werner Gallery in 2006, and in Nice at the Mamac Museum Nice in 2008 and 2012-13. It follows the example set by the artist’s most seminal work, The Golden Tower of 1976, which has been shown in various iterations since its inception, most recently at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Opening the door to myriad speculations and open-ended hermeneutics, The Figure of the First Question comes to represent, through its gold, shimmering luminosity, a notion of divinity that steadfastly stands as an overwhelming symbol of artistic aspiration. The gold leaf covering the marble plinth denotes an all-encompassing power and ability to ‘communicate’, augmenting the ritualistic tenor of the work. Culminating in a majestic example of Byars’s elegant and esoteric practice, the present sculpture illustrates the artist’s self-imposed Sisyphean pursuit of beauty and truth.
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