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Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen acquires James Lee Byars letters
15 August 2016
The tirelessly nomadic artist James Lee Byars (1932-1997) left traces all over the world. During his travels he sent numerous letters and postcards to Flemish museum director Flor Bex (1937). Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has acquired the complete correspondence with the generous support of the BankGiro Lottery, the Mondriaan Fund and the Rembrandt Association.
A letter on white tissue paper containing dried petals, notes with just a single word in black on small sheets of gold paper: the American artist James Lee Byars transformed letter-writing into art, although he would never have used that word himself.
The Flemish museum director Flor Bex became acquainted with Byars during his first exhibition at Wide White Space in Antwerp. In Bex, he found an ally for his experiments, someone who could realise his ambitious ideas. The friendship that blossomed between Bex and Byars would prove decisive for both their careers.
The many letters that Byars wrote to Flor Bex (and later also to his wife Lieve Bex-Dedeyne) elucidate a highly productive period in Byars’ life. In combination with the collection of Byars letters that the museum already has on long-term loan (letters to Wies Smals, founder of De Appel) and the complete published letters to fellow artist Joseph Beuys) this correspondence provides a fascinating insight into Byars’ working process and the contacts he maintained in the international art world. The museum has been able to acquire the letters with the support of the BankGiro Lottery, the Mondriaan Fund and the Rembrandt Association.
James Lee Byars was born in America, artistically formed in Japan and later welcomed with open arms in Europe. His work has been exhibited at Museo Jumex in Mexico City, MoMA PS1 and Michael Werner Gallery in New York, Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain in Nice, the Random Institute in Zurich and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. Byars initially established his reputation with performances, but later also created tangible artworks, some of which were extreme in size and execution.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has organised several exhibitions related to James Lee Byars. In the spring, the museum showed his letters to Flor and Lieve Bex as part of a larger Byars project that will culminate in 2017 with a publication in the Boijmans Studies series. The museum is currently hosting an exhibition about Byars’ most disturbing work: the staging of his own death in a gallery in Brussels in 1994. He knew at the time that he was suffering from a fatal illness and ‘rehearsed’ his death in front of an audience. The exhibition ‘Carlos Becerra Elaborates on The Death of James Lee Byars – (Brussels 1994 – Cairo 1997)’ is on show until 25 September.
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