Interested in Eastern philosophies and religions, James Lee Byars spent long periods of time from 1957 to 1967 in Japan, where he taught English to Buddhist monks and nuns. Drawing on his familiarity with Eastern cultures, as well as on the most advanced scientific research, Byars has evolved a personal visual language based on simple but symbolic forms, such as the geometric figures of the circle, sphere, cylinder, and pyramid. He also uses symbolically laden materials and colors, including marble and velvet, and black and gold. The meanings conveyed by Byars’ works are ambiguous, and their symbolisms are intentionally open, inviting viewers to delve into their own cultural memories.
The Spherical Book , 1981–83, consists of a sandstone sphere, placed inside a glass-sided wooden vitrine, similar to those used in museums to display art objects or archaeological finds or items of natural history. A figure with diverse meanings, the sphere is a cosmic symbol charged with associations that largely relate to spirituality. Enclosed within its vitrine, it has the effect of a protected sacred object. The stone sphere also refers to the concept of a celestial body, and the title of the work leads to the idea that this fragment of the cosmos contains the secret of our very existence, like a book of some occult science. Gold, too, is a cosmic symbol.In Byzantine and Gothic painting it is used to define the background of the composition and refers to the infinite and to divinity.Byars often uses gold to evoke its original spiritual meanings. The Wand an extremely long rod covered with gold, which spans the height of the grand staircase of the Castello. Pointing skyward, it seems to guide the viewer’s attention toward the infinite, transcending the physical space.