James Lee Byars: Untitled

Untitled (Sigmund Freud) 1989

The deep roots of James Lee Byars’s (1932–1997) thinking in Plato’s philosophy manifest themselves centrally in the artist’s interest in basic geometrical forms as the representation of the spiritual, of ideas: cube, stele, sphere, ring. They appear in different variations and sizes, in paper, cardboard, marble, sandstone, bronze or porphyry. The predominant colours are gold, red, black and white. Everything is always purist, perfectly formed, and extremely reduced, all this with an allusion to the self-abandonment of the material in the spiritual. The Grecian ideas as intellectual facts are more important for Byars’s art than their physical appearance. In that sense his works have no content, they are merely pointers towards one.
Untitled (Sigmund Freud) from 1989 is one such pointer. Byars has given it the form of a sphere, a form which for him stands for perfection. He enhances this with a golden outer skin. “Gold is very mysterious, […] the colour from nowhere […] Gold leads me into the infinitely mystical,” says Byars in conversation with Wolf Günter Thiel.(1) The slight curve of the sphere’s surface plays down the strident effect of the reflective gleam and directs the gaze to its interior, to the inner space.
In geometrical terms all points on the outer surface are equidistant from the middle. With the rotation of the sphere they all describe their own circles and in sublime fashion perform a variation on the Oriental concept of permanence in movement, of the eternal return of the constant same. In its interior the ideal laws of the cosmos reign, as they transcend the human will. It is a natural and at the same time spiritual conglomerate of forces, as they interact with one another.
The idea and the image of the sphere are, beyond Plato’s thinking, thus central to the work of this artist – it stands for the book, the self, for thought, perfection, the grave and death. Within such a conglomerate the sphere also represents reality, in which the world of the spirit exists as a differentiated and living unity, the reality of the unity of art, philosophy, religion, science. For Byars “[…] realityis like a big sphere in which all the elements exist in a state of constant exchange, moving in quantum leaps. I believe that humans also perceive this, whether knowingly or not.”(2) It is in these constellations that the question of the self centrally belongs, and precisely in the framework of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. Again and again Byars rolled a little ball of bread and handed it – in a gesture as silent as it is eloquent – as a self-portrait to his partner in conversation. The sphere with its central point is for him the “secret symbol” for the question.
In his psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud attempts to understand and determine the human individuals’ here and now from the point of view of their history and their network of relationships. He interprets it as a shifting tension between happiness and loss, between fear and coercion, attempting to overcome them by questioning them. In this work the sphere is the mysterious golden “colour [that] stems from nowhere” and leads, though not directly, into “the infinitely mystical”(3) , the space for desire and mourning. Its comfort flows in a questioning hither and thither “out of the point of concentration, out of the circle that returns to connect with its centre; it is generally cited as a re-presentation of the un-representable, the empty centre, the seat of the divinity.”(4)

Friedhelm Mennekes

1  Wolf Günter Thiel: “Interview with James Lee Byars”. In: The White Mass (see note 3), pp.72– 88, p.86
2  Wolf Günter Thiel (see note 6), p.82
3  Wolf Günter Thiel (see note 6), p.86
4  Heinrich Heil: “James Lee Byars: The White Mass. Kunst-Station Sankt Peter 1995”. In:
The White Mass (see note 3), pp.10–16, p.14 ff.