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Lotte Beckwé (ed.): James Lee Byars. The Perfect Kiss, Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König 2018, 143 S., ISBN 978-3-96098-423-8, EUR 24,80
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Anna-Rosja Haveman
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Christian Berger
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Anna-Rosja Haveman: Rezension von: Lotte Beckwé (ed.): James Lee Byars. The Perfect Kiss, Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König 2018, in: sehepunkte 19 (2019), Nr. 3 [15.03.2019], URL:

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Lotte Beckwé (ed.): James Lee Byars

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This is the second of three catalogues published on the occasion of three monographic exhibitions at the M HKA Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp: Joseph Beuys - Greetings from the Eurasian (2017/18), James Lee Byars - The Perfect Kiss (2018/19), and a to be announced future exhibition on Marcel Broodthaers. [1] The exhibitions examine the key role all three artists played in the Belgian art scene during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when their work was presented at spaces such as Wide White Space, A 37 90 89, and the Internationaal Cultureel Centrum, themselves institutions now regarded as precursors of M HKA and its collection.

The three exhibitions might therefore be seen as the museum's reflections not only on these historical developments, but also on the role played by those artists in the reception of the international avant-garde in Belgium. The Byars catalogue focuses on the artist's activities in Belgium and particularly in Antwerp, with contributions ranging from art historical texts and personal recollections to critical analyses - all interspersed with photos of Byars' sculptures, letters (an important part of his oeuvre) and performances.

In her introduction, the exhibition's curator Lotte Beckwé embeds the artist in the institutional history of contemporary art in Antwerp. The title, "Make Me Up", refers to a response Byers once gave to an interviewer's request for biographical background: "Just make me up!" (6) This anti-explanatory attitude, in addition to the ephemeral character of most of the artist's practice, have made it a particularly difficult task to research and analyse the whole of Byars' past activities and career. The addition of James Lee Byars - The Perfect Kiss to the extant literature on the artist is therefore a valuable contribution not only to the examination of Byars' activities in Belgium, but to a deeper understanding of his work in general. [2]

The rest of the book is structured in a roughly chronological order, with a number of different authors each analysing a section of Byars' artistic network in Belgium. The first contribution, "Call the King", is an interview with Anny De Decker, one of the initiators of Wide White Space, and covers the early formations of artistic networks in Antwerp in the 1960s, memories of Byars' first activities in Belgium, and her personal experiences in collaborating with the artist at the time. While some of these insights are unavoidably anecdotal, they are nevertheless important in understanding the manner in which Byars cultivated his persona. Els Hoek describes Byars' first ventures into Antwerp from 1969 to 1970. [3] Viola Michely takes the sentence "Bril's Gone?", which Byars once wrote in a letter to Joseph Beuys, as a starting point from which to consider the balance between the things Byars created and the performative character of the artist's practice. Magali Arriola draws revealing parallels between Byars' and Marcel Broodthaers' approaches to art and the art world. Melanie Deboutte's contribution focuses on the relation between Byars and the curator Jan Hoet, who was at the time planning an exhibition for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent - a project that was never realised (due to the artist's exorbitant demands and obstruction by the city council). Each of the articles serves to reconstruct an aspect of the artist's activities and network in Belgium, drawing extensively on his correspondence with Belgian curators, collectors, and critics. A selection of these letters has been included and transcribed for the catalogue.

Moreover, the catalogue contains a number of contributions of a more poetic character: the short reflection "That would be perfect" by the writer Yves Petry, a poem and a drawing by the artist Jacques Charlier, and the letter "I am the Footnote" by Maria Gilissen Broodthaers. In comparison with the more scholarly contributions to the catalogue, these texts tend to foster multiple interpretations rather than an accurate view of the artist's work. Yet this seems to be precisely the point of their inclusion. The different (and differing) personal interpretations and contributions help to reinforce the enigmatic and difficult-to-define nature of Byars' life project, in line with his intention to defy explanations and, most importantly it seems, to stimulate questions rather than answers. In order to illustrate the artist's infinite fascination with questions, a transcript of his lecture on "Question", given at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax in 1970, has been reproduced as an extra insert to the catalogue.

With regard to institutional histories, the catalogue occasionally runs the risk of becoming self-congratulatory, particularly with its emphasis on the importance of Antwerp and Belgium in promoting the artist's reputation in the international avant-garde. Yet it is undeniable that Byars' trips to Belgium marked the beginning of a period of extensive travels throughout Europe and were an important stage in the artist's career.

All in all, the particular strength of the book is the multiplicity of views - artistic, personal, and art historical - on the artist's persona and his oeuvre. The inclusion of a large number of photographs and letters, many of them previously unpublished, not only make for a visually enjoyable read; more importantly, they also contribute significantly to the book's value as a resource for future scholarship.

Certainly more research remains to be done on Byars and his work, particularly with regard to his activities elsewhere in Europe. [4] Yet with its diverse range of written contributions and visual materials, James Lee Byars - The Perfect Kiss offers a wealth of perspectives on Byars' practice and confirms the impression that there might never be a singular view on this mysterious artist.


[1] Initially the Broodthaers exhibition was planned to take place before the Byars exhibition, yet the actual planning seems to have been altered. See Anthony Hudek (ed.): Beuys 2017 - Broodthaers 2018 - Byars 2019 in Antwerpen (Over drie komende tentoonstellingen in M HKA - Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen), Antwerpen 2017. In the annual report of the M HKA for 2017 it is mentioned that the Broodthaers exhibition is planned for 2019. See Jaarverslag M HKA 2017, accessible online: (accessed 27 February 2019); Antony Hudek (ed.): Joseph Beuys: Greetings from the Eurasian, Köln 2017.

[2] James Elliot: The Perfect Thought: Works by James Lee Byars, Berkeley 1990; Heinrich Heil / Rudi Fuchs / Thomas McEvilley et al.: James Lee Byars: The Perfect Moment, Valencia 1995; Viola Maria Michely: James Lee Byars: Letters to Joseph Beuys = Briefe an Joseph Beuys, Ostfildern 2000; Susanne Friedli (ed.): James Lee Byars: I'm full of Byars: James Lee Byars - A Homage, Bielefeld 2009; Triple Candie (ed.): James Lee Byars - I Cancel All My Works at Death, Detroit 2014; Magali Arriola / Peter Fleey (eds.): James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography, Köln 2015.

[3] This chapter is an excerpt from a forthcoming study by the author about Byars' activities, based on the materials held at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

[4] Although there have been attempts at creating a complete overview of Byars' oeuvre, these remain fragmented, such as: James Elliot: The Perfect Thought: Works by James Lee Byars, Berkeley 1990; Heinrich Heil / Rudi Fuchs / Thomas McEvilley et al.: James Lee Byars: The Perfect Moment, Valencia 1995. As such, the focus on singular places as in this catalogue is very fruitful. For more details about Byars' work in the Netherlands, see Anna-Rosja Haveman: "The 5 Continent documenta 7 - The Material of James Lee Byars' Ephemeral Practice", in: Zeitschrift fu?r Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, special volume (Sonderband), forthcoming (2019); Els Hoek: James Lee Byars, Rotterdam, forthcoming (2019).

Anna-Rosja Haveman