Throughout his life, he led a nomadic existence, using his travels to inspire him creatively. First working with performance, where he used his body, and those of his recruited fellow performers, as agents for enactments and pronouncements of mystical and societal change, he would appear in these ceremonial performances as a dazzling dandy in suit of gold fabric, wearing black gloves and matching top hat, sometimes with his eyes covered by a scarf.
His interests soon extended to sculpture, installation, film and drawing, engaging an audience with the concepts of ‘question’, ‘perfection’ and the ‘sublime’. The restricted colour palette of gold, red, black and white which he used in these works symbolise his quest for attaining perfection through a refined minimal approach that ultimately leads to a recognition of the impossibility of actual perfection.
Later in his life, having been fascinated with the concept of his own and other people’s death, Byars staged the performance ‘The Death of James Lee Byars’ (1994), in which, attired in his golden suit and top hat, he laid on the floor of a room whose every surface was covered in gold leaf. Three years later, Byars died in Cairo, Egypt, where he had gone to create works with local artisans.
His work was exhibited in six editions of Documenta in Kassel as well as five iterations of the Venice Biennale. He has had numerous solo exhibitions in public institutions, most recently at the MuHKA Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (2018); Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2013); the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2007); and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2004).