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James Lee Byars, 'Untitled', 1980, paper

Always the puzzle—artist James Lee Byars’ first important student exhibition involved the removal of all the windows, doors and furniture from the family home. From then on he masked himself, donned his performance garb and began a long personal withdrawal. In his film ‘Autobiography’ he appears for one frame floating amidst the darkness in which Everything and Nothing counts.

That he attended Edgar Allen Poe Elementary School provides as much as you need to guide you through his imaginative property. He was a peripatetic emigrant from the new world whose imagery was of the old; the top hat, a blindfold, black gloves and then the signature golden suit. He died unexpectedly in Cairo, Egypt in 1997. Then, as art denizens argued over the funeral bill and the destination of his late works, he was hastily buried under a crushed tin can headstone. His was the voice of doom that whispered, a charismatic performer with a Japanese-orientated aesthetic. Obituaries defined him as belonging to an elite, one of those three Bs who define post-war art, Beuys, Broodthaers and Byars.

Perennially marginal to all the major developments and never a recipient of a full American retrospective, the US museums’ fears were, as stated by the Guggenheim’s director, ‘to give Byars a show would be to destroy my Museum’. Byars wanted it Black, in and out. Knowledge is fuzzy now of an artist who stepped aside from their cultural mandate.

At Milton Keynes Gallery, Michael Stanley’s final curatorial hurrah in an outstanding programme, is an overdue acknowledgement that much work remains to be done towards a fuller, irrefutable display of just how far James Lee Byers was ahead of the pack. His magnificent strangeness was evident to Europe long before David Lynch and Matthew Barney. Comparisons to both fellow Americans is apposite, particularly in the full refulgence of a work from his final days shown here. The bombastic ‘Byars is Elephant’ is an ethnographic bewitching gold lamé and covers the gallery ceiling, walls and floor in the centre of which appears a large nebulous camel-hair rope ball.

Part of the Byars’ legacy is the problem of how to present his work now his enigmatic physicality is no longer available. This isn’t just a performative problem; he was a mirage far ahead of the market whose will, ‘I cancel all my works at death’, has been ignored, although the looming spherical ‘The Rose Table of Perfect’ which is comprised of 3333 cut red roses is suitably funereal. In fact much of Byars’ work marked his own death in advance, notably the now vacant gold chamber of ‘The Death of James Lee Byars’, elegantly filmed by Marie-Puck Broodthaers and unfortunately shown as part of an exhibition showreel too grainy to enliven contemporary interest.

Still, we catch images from ‘Calling German Names’, Byars’ paean to Greek perfectionism and Swiss/German precision, performed on the Kunsthalle Fredericianum during Documenta 5, 1972.

The granite wholeness of works including ‘The Perfect Sigh’ contrast their irreducible materiality with the meditative ephemera of paper or flakes of gold leaf. They tell us so little about anything else other than what is, and that what we have all exhaled is nothing more perfect than what was. The experience of his work is always tinged with the slightest edge of disappointment, his idea of perfection was grounded by material surroundings and his work must always touch the real world. However the social space Byars conjured up was the believably ceremonial separation of a physical sufferance of the everyday from the elusive perfection of the creative mind.

In the best of his melancholic performances such as ‘The Perfect Smile’ no one could see his eyes. Too intimate. In hiding his eyes he took on the becalming wisdom of the blind teacher. He remains, as in ‘The dissolvable white-paper man’, a disembodiment in the annals of art. His imagery is as weird and as elegant as a child in a tuxedo but he is now remembered as an outline, a formally attired husk.

Craig Richardson is an artist and lecturer at Oxford Brooks University