James Lee Byars, 1964 Carnegie International

| December 23rd, 2011, 9:49 PM

In 2010 one of our registrars, Elizabeth Tufts-Brown, turned up a treasure trove in the museum archives: a box filled with postcards and letters (performable objects?) sent by artist James Lee Byars to former Carnegie director, Gustave von Groschwitz, between 1964 and 1967.  Byars’s even, rounded lettering, usually in pencil or China marker, appears across this remarkable collection on everything from ultra thin Japanese rice paper to purple construction paper and newspaper, even cellophane. One was a large circle (printed only with “A White Paper Will Blow Through the Streets”), several were heart-shaped, some were scrolls. One was an entire 119-foot-long roll of cash register tape on which Byars had painstakingly written out a lengthy invite list complete with mailing addresses. Reading through all of these long-forgotten letters was amazing, and sometimes (as Byars undoubtedly intended) required quite a bit of maneuvering.

Many of the letters, which we exhibited as part of Ordinary Madness in 2010, pertained to three performances that Byars staged at the Museum in conjunction with the 1964 Carnegie International, which von Groschwitz curated. The first two took place on November 6, 1964  (1 x 50 Foot Drawing) and January 13, 1965 (A 1000-Foot Chinese Paper). Both were performed by a Catholic nun named Sister M. Germaine, and involved her carrying a folded paper object to the center of the room, then slowly unfolding and refolding it over the course of an hour. A third happening, The Mile Long White Paper Walk, was performed in the Hall of Sculpture on October 25, 1965, by dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. For this work, a riveted, 475-foot-long paper form was manipulated through the course of the performance by Childs, who was dressed in an elaborate white ostrich-feather costume. Alternating between each end of the paper form, Childs moved one riveted section at a time toward the center of the room, creating a pinwheel effect on the floor.

In both cases, a “performable object” of the artist’s design dictates the actions of the performer by virtue of its particular folded form, mechanizing her motions as she unravels an ephemeral drawing in time and space. In full habit or feather costume, she becomes a remote and ethereal icon, moving silently across the white marble floor. The Hall of Sculpture (which was constructed in the early 20th century to simulate the interior of the Parthenon) must have immediately appealed to Byars, with his penchant for purity and perfection, symbolism, and drama. Many artists have taken on the space since that time; most recently, Icelandic artist and musician Ragnar Kjartansson staged a long-duration performance there that Byars would surely have appreciated. In the photo above, Ragnar’s nieces recall the Three Graces, as they sing the refrain, “The weight of the world is love…”


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