James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932. An early interest in sculpture and oriental art took him to Japan and the far East before returning to Europe and creating a strong body of work which might be regarded as “romantic minimalism”. By the 1970s he was regarded as one of the USA’s most important conceptual artists.

He was best known for a series of slight performance art actions (such as giving a brief smile to the world after emerging from a museum window) as well as very large and very small sculptural works. The use of paper (and particularly unusual papers) in editions and printed material was also a regular motif. Some of Byars’ works are just a few millimetres in size, others were the size of entire streets.

Byars also created unique letters for many of his friends and these constructions – often written in an unusual “starry” hand – are usually regarded as unique works by the artist on par with his sculptures. They are keenly collected.

Byars suddenly died in Cairo in 1997. His grave is a simple one – and its monument does not match the artist’s pure aesthetic – a final irony.

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