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The Spiritual in Art

Bill Viola: Five Angels for The Millennium; James Lee Byars: The Perfect Silence.

Whitney Museum of American Art

Through March 6, 2005

James Lee Byars, “Untitled” (1960), ink on Japanese paper. Estate of James Lee Byars; Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and Cologne.

Even for a viewer largely ignorant of Tibetan Buddhism, the Tantra paintings at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art have a transcendent intensity. The central figures, remote yet radiant in their precision of detail and vibrancy of color, are pivots in a fierce, wheeling geometry, presenting an image of dynamic cosmic forces the viewer is meant to internalize, and take out into the world. It is important that these forces are by turns uplifting, serene, and terrifying. In the icon paintings of saints in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), the saints are rendered on thick chunks of wood, encrusted with gold-leaf and even jewels, and they are at once luxuriant and crude. These icons, on loan from churches and monasteries in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Russia, are remote, impersonal, and emblematic, and they offer little in the way of solace. Unlike the religious paintings of the early Italian Renaissance, such as the beautiful Duccio “Madonna and Child” recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum, icon paintings are not objects intended for aesthetic contemplation, but are rather conduits of divine power. The similarity between these two radically different spiritual and artistic traditions and temperaments is this: they are addressed to viewers—Buddhist novices, Orthodox believers—who are not so much interested in art, as in coming into contact with the world’s deeper, spiritual forces.

Bill Viola’s major video installations of the past five years, like The Quintet of Remembrance (2000), Going Forth By Day (2002), and The Passions (2002), all aspire to a lush, meditative spirituality. This is equally true of Five Angels for The Millennium (2001), a recent acquisition currently on view at the Whitney Museum. The strength of Viola’s best work has always been in the way he reinvents a distinctively painterly sensuality in the streaming time of video. For instance, in one of then Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr’s brilliant reinstallations of MOMA’s permanent collection in 2000, a beautiful early Viola video of a Japanese fishing boat in the Pacific at night, grainy red light oozing out over the dark, swelling water, the silver scales of the netted fish slimy and glistening, was at home beside Cy Twombly’s gorgeous Four Seasons paintings and Monet’s wall-length Giverny panels. Nonetheless, the sumptuous beauty of Viola’s most seductive work still falls short of the scale and ambition of his more recent projects.

Five Angels for The Millennium is comprised of five separate but concurrent video projections, titled “Departing Angel,” “Birth Angel,” “Fire Angel,” “Ascending Angel,” and “Creation Angel.” All five videos involve a man clad in white, diving into or crashing up out of—in slow motion, forwards or backwards—lit ocean depths, jewel-like gobs of water, or streaming bubbles. In “Departing Angel,” for instance, the man floats, stretched out horizontally, and then he tilts and accelerates up into boiling turbulence, where he suddenly disappears. For “Fire Angel,” the water is illuminated a cloudy red. A long, shimmering moat or passageway down through the water gradually forms, and as the water begins to churn and froth, it seems to cleave, and the man, arms outstretched, blasts upward and mysteriously evaporates on the surface. In “Ascending Angel,” the man shatters through the surface and hovers, arms extended like wings, shedding water.

The sheer beauty of the water in Five Angels for The Millennium, shot in slow motion so that every droplet has a quivering, apocalyptic quality, makes the videos mesmerizing. Yet soon the slow motion and backwards passages, their disruption of the flow of causality and time, begin to feel like mere technical gimmicks rather than integral parts of a vision. Viola’s angels are meant to be emblems for larger, fundamental forces—creation, destruction—but in fact they are purely atmospheric and emotive. The text introducing the exhibition, as well as Viola’s own writings, invokes the influence of Buddhist and Islamic mysticism—yet for both the great Zen masters and the Sufi mystics, higher forms of consciousness and vision are ultimately unnatural states arrived at through rigorous discipline. Viola’s angels are transparent, easy to assimilate, and unthreatening.

Bill Viola’s work is, in the end, pretentious and shallow, because it takes access to mystical vision, and the meaning of spirituality in general, for granted in advance. The small survey of the work of the inscrutable American artist James Lee Byars (1932–1997), entitled The Perfect Silence, is by contrast light, enigmatic, and beautiful to a fault. If Joseph Beuys was a kind of shaman, exorcising the demons of European history, then Byars was a secretive, effete Magus, refined and subtly demonic, seeking an impossible absolute. Byars’ work has the buoyancy and poetic wit of Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Broodthaers, and even Yves Klein; yet compared with those European artists, it is unambivalent. Byars’s work is indulgent, luxuriant, and despite its whiff of irony, innocent and pure.

James Lee Byars spent a number of his formative years in Japan, studying Zen Buddhism, calligraphy, and Noh theater; this is reflected in the earliest work in The Perfect Silence—three large, abstract drawings on Japanese paper, all from 1960. One might be tempted to associate these pieces with Franz Kline’s calligraphic ink drawings and black and white paintings of just a few years earlier, but where Kline (and later, in similar works, Brice Marden) was interested in the movement of the hand, now grand and expansive, now nervous and halting, the glistening black shapes in Byars’s drawings are the foci of prolonged, intense, open contemplation. In that, they are more akin to the Tantra drawings recently displayed at The Drawing Center.

Byars’s singular combination of luxuriant indulgence and alchemical mysticism is, however, more fully present in late pieces like “The Little Red Angel of Marseilles” (1991–1993), 333 hand blown red glass spheres arranged on the floor in a coiling pattern that resembles both a mandala and a scorpion. Immaculate, translucent spheres are eerie, mercurial objects; the eye slides over their surfaces continuously, without finding a point on which to rest. Though closed in on themselves, the more one looks down upon the spheres in “The Little Red Angel of Marseilles,” the more they smolder, as though they were transforming, perhaps transubstantiating, the ordinary light and substance of the room into a distilled essence that is volatile and other-worldly. The stillness and silence of the spheres—their uncanny perfection—is deceptive: like the mirroring talismans conceived by great Italian Neoplatonists (and probably Masons) like Giordano Bruno, they seem to draw the world’s luminous powers into themselves.

Much of the sculpture created over the past 40 years, at least in North America but not only, has insisted upon an assertion of the material specificity and weight of its materials: think, for instance, of Robert Morris’s drooping felt wall pieces, or Eva Hesse’s dangling webs of latex covered rope, or Richard Serra’s leaning steel beams, all work which internalizes matter’s inertia, gravity, and entropy. James Lee Byars’s work moves in the exact opposite direction. Rather than using what at least feel like rough, fundamental, industrial materials, Byars’s materials are refined and precious; rather than pushing the gross materiality of the objects to the fore, his objects are, like Brancusi’s, ephemeral and transcendent. This is especially evident in a cycle of six pieces in marble set in raised, glassed in cabinets, like rare manuscripts, and installed in a room with long mirrors on either side. “The Figure in Question” (1989), for instance, is a small, soft-edged marble pillar, its surface dense, opaque, and glittering. The objects in “The Circle Book” (1986), “The Cube Book” (1989), “The Star Book” (1990), and “The Triangle Book” (1990) all have the shapes one would expect from their titles. Although the marble is handled with great elegance, it is also blunt and porous so that it feels archaic, eroded by water and wind, and yet their supreme whiteness also gives these sculptures an uncanny, nocturnal glow.

Byars’s marble books are circular and esoteric. Like the apocryphal works of Hermes Trismegistus, they are cryptic symbols whose code has been lost but whose magical power still glows. And in the facing mirrors, Byars’s esoteric library extends infinitely in both directions. The use of mirrors to multiply perspectives, to create the illusion of indefinite, sublime depths, is a relatively crude trick. The mirror rooms created by Yayoi Kusama and Lucas Samaras, for instance, while titillating, tend to read as kitschy, psychedelic period pieces. The subdued, disciplined elegance of Byars’ pieces, harkening back as they do to the earnest, mystical surrealism of artists like Maya Deren, are filled with a kind of yearning: they go on and on, the library gets larger and larger, and yet the objects and their meanings remain equally closed. Standing there in Byars’s infinite library, one is, like a character in a Borges story, filled with a desire for knowledge and transcendence from which one is at the same time excluded. Byars’s art resonates with a naïve wanting for beauty, truth, serenity, and transcendence to coincide—but this remains within the charged register of desire. It is the combination of longing, beauty, and opacity that gives Byars’s work the tension that makes it compelling.

The Japanese aesthetic culture that the young, Detroit-born artist immersed himself in valued the relinquishment of worldly vanity. Byars, on the other hand, was both self-conscious and deeply vain. Contemplating The Perfect Silence, I kept thinking of Byars as either an eccentric entwined in an intense, irreducibly private quest, or as a fussy, compulsive, wryly self-mocking aesthete of the kind I imagine Walter Pater and Bernard Berenson to have been; probably both are true. In the original performance for “The Death of James Lee Byars” at the Marie-Puck Broodthaers Gallery in Brussels in 1994, Byars arrived decked out in a lame gold suit and top hat, and laid himself out on a raised tomb-slab in a room completely covered in gold-leaf. At the time, Byars claimed he was “practicing death.” The idea of “practicing death” is itself touching and humorous: despite it’s grounding in our often slow, physiological demise, consciousness of death is an inaccessible absolute. Now that Byars is no longer merely rehearsing his death, “The Death of James Lee Byars” is installed with five small, barely visible crystal spheres at the head and sides of the gold leaf encrusted slab, which it is difficult not to associate with the slabs on which Christ is variously laid in the paintings of Mantegna and Holbein, among others. The crude gold leaf crinkled and torn, “The Death of James Lee Byars” has a dilapidated grandeur, and it is at once kitschy and unsettling.

In his brilliant and increasingly prescient book The American Religion, Harold Bloom delivers a bitter invective against an American evangelical Christianity, which regards the teachings of the Gospels as transparent and self-evident. If the concept of the “spiritual” can mean anything for us at all, in this society, at this moment in history, then it has to be a mode of being and vision rather than a type of feeling, and it will of necessity be rare. It is not enough to illustrate the ascent or decent of angels, since we understand neither what angels are nor what powers they might represent. This dire moment in American politics, when the reactionary forces of religion have co-opted our history of freedom and democracy, is surely not a time for vague, irresponsible thinking about the spirit. The spiritual search will be an attempt to push consciousness past the speed and noise of ordinary life, to a place that is outside human invention. Perhaps the “perfect silence” is just that place; and since, as John Cage noted, there is no such thing a silence, perhaps it is only realizable in death. But for Byars, for all his hermetic concentration, the perfect silence is a place one moves toward in style, by way of beautiful red glass, ghostly white marble, and rooms covered in gold leaf.


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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