Ordinary Madness: James Lee Byars at Carnegie Museum of Art
In 1964 and 1965, Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Sculpture hosted the first museum performances—”happenings”—by the enigmatic and influential artist James Lee Byars, who would go on to participate in major art exhibitions all over the world. Byars’s happenings at the Carnegie involved costumed performers who engaged in processional-like actions by unfolding long paper sculptures in patterns throughout the space. Two performances featured a nun (in 1964 and early 1965) and a third featured the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs, who later collaborated with such artists as Sol LeWitt. In The Mile Long White Paper Walk, held October 25, 1965, Childs, dressed in a white costume supposedly composed of “one million ostrich feathers,” slowly unfurled a 475-foot-long riveted paper sculpture in the white, temple-like hall.
On view in the Forum Gallery is a never-before-exhibited collection of artworks, letters, and photographs tracing Byars’s involvement with Carnegie Museum of Art. The ephemera documents his conceptual development, provides insights into his contacts and cultural references, and reveals the museum’s responses to a then very new art form. Byars’s letters assume many guises: a scroll hundreds of feet long (his contacts for sending performance invitations); a message distributed over 17 individually mailed postcards; and a large, delicate foldout white circle sent in a red envelope bearing the inscription, “A White Paper Will Blow Through the Streets.” The letters testify to Byars’s alchemy of the everyday (reimbursement requests, for instance) and the otherworldly (white script on white tissue paper describing a totally white performance).