Byars and Sellers

“Every dealer starts out selling what he likes and every dealer ends up liking what he sells,” the gallerist George Staempfli was known to say. This description would not have fit Dick Bellamy, who stayed loyal to artists whose art did not sell, even those whose art was never intended to be sold. James Lee Byars was one of the latter ones, a peripatetic performance and installation artist with whom Dick collaborated for decades. One trait the two men held in common was a lifelong commitment to performing their lives. Each had scripted himself as an eccentric, a role that could be improvised but never relinquished.

Over the years, Dick and Byars worked on several non-tangible projects together. In Eye of the Sixties, my biography of Dick Bellamy, I describe a 1963 performance at the Green Gallery that included a dance improvisation by Yvonne Rainer (filmed by Andy Warhol); intermittently, a child appeared to read aloud poems by Dame Edith Sitwell. When the Green Gallery closed in 1965, Dick shifted his base to Noah Goldowsky’s gallery at 81st Street and Madison Avenue. Noah, a sweet, generous man, provided Dick with an office and periodic use of the central gallery space.

1967 James Lee Byars,  Four in a Dress

1967 James Lee Byars, Four in a Dress

It was there in 1967 that Dick hosted Byars’s Four in a Dress, an event for participants, not onlookers. Artist Peter Young remembered getting a call one evening from Dick, who summoned him and his friend Susan to get themselves over to Noah’s. The couple arrived to find the gallery walls bare and the space empty save for a large black cloth stretching from wall to wall. Several head-sized cutouts punctured the fabric. Peter saw the purple-haired noggin of Warhol superstar Ultra Violet protruding from one opening, the mustachioed head of John Chamberlain from another. Byars invited Peter and Susan to strip naked and duck their heads through the two “vacant” holes in the cloth. But the prospect of getting undressed for art’s sake, and taking part in who knows what, made them uncomfortable. “We were flower children and naive,” Young told me when I trekked out to see him at his home in Bisbee, Arizona. Peter and Susan wanted nothing to do with Four in a Dress. They exchanged glances and made a hasty exit.

Dick again used Noah’s space to host Byars in the summer of 1968, this time the artist’s fictitious Museum of Human Attention, a project that entailed collecting “a million minutes of thoughts.” Byars planned to have a million circles piled up in the corner of the room, each with his handwritten instructions: “Put a minute of attention on this page and send it to the Museum at 1078 Madison,” which was Noah’s address. The years have swallowed up the details of just how this played out.

In the early eighties Byars recruited Dick for a moveable performance, Seven Gold Men Smell Seven Cultural Institutions. The artist, Dick, his sweetheart Barbara Flynn, Thomas McEvilley, Kim Jones, Wendy Dunaway, and Stephen Harvey each were fitted out with a custom-made gold suit. Wendy remembers that the event took place during a hurricane and that she was pressed into service as chauffeur because the rented limo cancelled. The performers all piled into her car and braved the wind and the rain at seven places, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, The New York Times, The Frick and possibly the offices of Artforum. If anyone took photos, I haven’t seen them.