The world of Len Lye

Len Lye film still from Trade Tattoo (1937)

Len Lye film still from Trade Tattoo (1937)

The artist

Len Lye in front of tapa cloth, New York, 1968. Photo William Vandivert

Len Lye in front of tapa cloth, New York, 1968. Photo William Vandivert

Len Lye (1901–1980) is arguably one of the twentieth century’s most original artists; a one-man art movement spanning several countries and multiple media over a lifetime and beyond. As a New Zealander practising in London during the pre-war years, and then a key figure in the post-war New York avant-garde art scene, Lye mapped a unique course through Modernism.

Lye spent his career pursuing an ‘art of movement’, a theory he initiated before he left Aotearoa New Zealand in 1924. He wanted to affect people physically and emotionally, so that art became a full body experience. Whether this was with flashing, dancing cinematography, or thunderous, oscillating metallic sculptures, his work stimulated the senses and was unforgettable.

He was a pioneer of experimental film and kinetic sculpture, and his practice included painting and poetry, among numerous other media. The intensity, energy and excitement of his work were matched by a gregarious and restless personality; British poet Alistair Reid once described him as ‘the least boring person who ever existed’.

Part of his difference was forged during a difficult childhood. His father died prematurely, which led to a lot of moving around and instability for Lye and his brother. But the experience built a strong independence in the young Lye, and it also meant he saw more of his country than he might have otherwise.

Significantly, he spent a year living in a lighthouse on Cape Campbell, at the eastern entry to the Cook Strait, while his stepfather was the lighthouse keeper. Lye saw firsthand the great mechanised clockworks and the lantern’s sublime flashing beams of light penetrating the darkness and the storms. Light, projection, movement and mechanisation were pitted against the full force of nature, powerful symbols that forecasted the artist’s attraction to film projection and kinetic sculpture.

These sensual and often violent encounters with nature recurred at art school, and it was while watching clouds sweep over the wind-lashed Wellington hills that Lye formed his theory for an art of motion. He would compose with motion in the way musicians composed with sound, and seek entirely new expressions for his art.

But before the currents of Modernism finally carried him away to a career abroad, he wanted to learn more about his local Pacific cultures. Like most modernists, Lye was interested in what was fashionably known as the ‘primitive’, however, his interests went deeper than a purely visual study as he travelled through the Pacific.

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Māori carving was of particular interest, and he also travelled to Sydney and Sāmoa to learn about Aboriginal and Sāmoan arts and culture, particularly fascinated by their dance and movement. During his year in Sāmoa he was immersed in village life and exposed to the practices of siapo (tapa) and tatau (tattoo), impressions which influenced his practice profoundly.

Lye was liberal and open-minded, reflected in his work by the many dualities of male/female, machine/organic, and most importantly, old/new. He developed an understanding of the ‘old brain’, primitive knowledge stored in our DNA as a counterpart to the modern, ‘new brain’ intellect. It was a heady mix, full of contrast and contradiction, and a rich vein for discovery that shaped and ignited him for a lifetime.

By the time Lye hit London, this charismatic antipodean was brimming with ideas and talent, and soon began exhibiting with abstract art group the Seven and Five Society alongside figures such as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

But it was through his experimental films that he found greatest satisfaction and success. Tusalava (1929), and his first masterpiece A Colour Box (1935), showed him for the innovator he was. As a pioneer in direct filmmaking (films made without a camera) and the artistic possibilities of new colour film technology, he collaborated with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and John Geilgud. With images dancing and flickering across the big screen to soundtracks as syncopated and mesmerising as his visuals, Lye was creating a new and true art of motion.

A film opportunity drew him to New York in 1944 where he contributed to an upsurge in experimental filmmaking. But it was difficult even here to make a living out of his film work, so he diversified with sculpture and went on to become one of the most respected artists of the 1960s kinetic art movement. His ‘figures of motion’ made during the 1960s and ’70s is among the best kinetic art of any period.

Lye became a citizen of the United States in 1950. But he reconnected with Aotearoa New Zealand in later life, visiting briefly in 1968 and then again in 1977 when the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery held a solo exhibition of his large-scale kinetic sculptures. He found in his homeland collaborators brave and ambitious enough to push the limits of engineering to achieve a new scale and excitement for his motorised sculpture.

He was in his late seventies by this time, and his experience in New Plymouth convinced him to send his archive of models, paintings, sketches, drawings and manuscripts to the Govett-Brewster for its care and management. He established the Len Lye Foundation and gifted his collection and archives to the Foundation.

The Gallery has worked with the Foundation since 1980 to develop Lye’s legacy, building ambitious, large-scale sculptures, unbuildable in Lye’s day, managing and exhibiting his works. In 2015, Lye’s contemplation of a dedicated venue was realised with the opening of the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, New Zealand’s first art museum dedicated to a single artist.

Outside the Govett-Brewster, Lye’s work is held in the collections of some of the world’s most prestigious institutions of modern art and major art museums. His sculpture and paintings are represented at Auckland Art Gallery, Albright-Knox (Buffalo), Art Institute of Chicago, Berkeley Art Museum, Te Papa and Whitney Museum of American Art. His films are in the collection of MoMA, Nga Taonga, Centre Pompidou and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Lye inspires artists to dream, to innovate and to push boundaries. He also proves that an artist from New Zealand can not only be ahead of the times but can also engage the international art world and help mould the course of art history globally in a profound way.’ Francis Upritchard, artist, London.

Timeline

  • 1901

    Leonard Charles Huia Lye is born in Christchurch, New Zealand on 5 July 1901; his childhood spent between Christchurch, Cape Campbell and Wellington before travelling to Sydney and Samoa as an adult, settling in London in 1926.

    Len Lye: 1901
  • 1928

    Lye joins the Seven and Five Society, Britain’s leading group of avant-garde artists (including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore). In 1929 Lye is elected to the Society’s hanging committee.

    Len Lye: 1928
  • 1929

    Lye begins making experimental films. The first, Tusalava, is premiered by the London Film Society. Lye attends Film Society workshop lead by Sergei Eisenstein.

    Len Lye: 1929
  • 1933-38

    In addition to working for the G.P.O Film Unit, Lye is commission by numerous commercial sponsors, producing Kaleidoscope (1935) for the Imperial Tobacco Company, the puppet-animation film Birth of the Robot (1936) for Shell-Mex and BP, and Colour Flight (1938) for Imperial Airways.

    Len Lye: 1933-38
  • 1935-37

    Lye's abstract, colour film A Colour Box is screened in cinemas throughout Britain, becoming the first cameraless or ‘direct film’ screened to a general audience. The G.P.O. Film Unit employs Lye to produce further experimental films, A Rainbow Dance (1936), N. or N.W. (1937) and Trade Tattoo (1937).

    Len Lye: 1935-37
  • 1936

    Lye exhibits three works, Snow Birds Making Snow, Pond People and Self Planting at Night in The International Surrealist Exhibition, at the New Burlington Galleries alongside artists such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Joan Miro.

    Len Lye: 1936
  • 1940-51

    Lye’s films reflect the wartime climate with propagandistic works like Musical Poster #1 (1940), sponsored by the Ministry of Information. In 1944 Lye relocates to the United States to direct for Time Inc., including newsreels for The March of Time.

    Len Lye: 1940-51
  • 1952

    Lye turns his attention once more to experimental film, with Color Cry (1952-3), All Souls Carnival (1957) and Free Radicals (1958). Free Radicals is an acclaimed masterpiece however Lye declares himself ‘on strike’, largely leaving filmmaking and re-directing his efforts to producing kinetic sculpture.

    Len Lye: 1952
  • 1960

    Lye tests the first of several Wind Wand sculptures on a New York lot. Wands are exhibited at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale (1962), Toronto International Sculpture Symposium (1967) and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (2014).

    Len Lye: 1960
  • 1961

    On the 5 April 1961, Lye performs An Evening of Tangible Motion Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

  • 1961-66

    Lye exhibits his work in a wave of exhibitions devoted to kinetic art, notably On the Move (1964) and Len Lye’s Bounding Steel Sculpture (1965) at Howard Wise Gallery, New York, Bewogen Beweging (1961) at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Directions in Kinetic Sculpture (1966) at Berkeley Art Museum, California.

    Len Lye: 1961-66
  • 1977

    The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery presents Kinetic Works, the first exhibition of Lye’s work in his homeland of New Zealand

    Len Lye: 1977
  • 1980

    Lye establishes the Len Lye Foundation to care for his works and continue his legacy, just months before his death in Warwick, New York on 15 May 1980.

    Len Lye: 1980