One Way Reciprocity

From 1973 to 1986 James Lee Byars sent numerous letters and postcards to Joseph Beuys. Scribbles on small pieces of paper; poems knitted in golden thread on sheets of red satin; sentences inked on rice paper resembling the stones of the ten commandments. Byars’s correspondence forms an oeuvre in itself, it is recognized as one of mail art’s big treasures.

There is something strange about Byars’s correspondence: we hardly may call it a correspondence. The reason: Beuys didn’t write back to Byars. He didn’t answer. Never. Not a single postcard, not a single line. It was Byars’s correspondence to Beuys, never with Beuys.

In comments by curators and art critics the fact that Byars’s post remained a one way enterprise  is rendered as obvious: Byars never would have expected any answer from Beuys. Byars would never have intended his post to function as correspondence, but rather as art works in their own right. This is certainly part of the truth, as seen from Beuys’s perspective. Beuys considered Byars’ letters as mail art works. He kept all letters and postcards, and we may be grateful to him for that, so we can still admire them.

When reading what Byars actually wrote to Beuys, the idea of Byars never expecting any answer seems not that obvious at all. The longer the absence of any reply, the more elaborate, daring, provoking, teasing and outrageous Byars’s mail becomes. Questions turn into pleas. Byars craves for a token of reciprocity.

Beuys acted in line with the idea of Byars-the-artist. When Byars performed, with his high black hat on his head, he always provoked communication but not with him personally. He reached out for contact, he triggered reciprocity, while at the same time preventing himself in person to be the focus of a reply. Many times he performed blindfolded. Not so much to prevent himself from seeing the public, but to prevent the public to see him in the face. But was this also the case in Byars correspondence to Beuys? What about Byars personally?

At the opening of the Speck Collection in Haus Lange, Krefeld, March 1983, Byars invited Beuys for an encounter. He asked Beuys to lie down with him on an oval slab of black marble, a work from Byars, on which the golden inscription “Both” was engraved. “Beuys seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the situation”, Viola Michely writes in her essay in the catalogue on Byars oeuvre of mail art*. Byars was not only dressed in black, but his entire face was covered in black silk. Beuys talked and laughed and tried to get into contact. Now it was Byars’s turn not to reply.

Source: *p. 46 in the excellent catalogue James Lee Byars, Letters to/ Briefe an Joseph Beuys, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000, Germany. Both images are from the same catalogue, p. 2 and p. 52.

About Erik Hagoort

Encounter & Art
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