Rainbow Dance surveys Len Lye’s multimedia practice over his fifty-year career with essential, must-see film and sculptural works together with lesser known and recently conserved works from the Len Lye Foundation collection and archive completing the picture of one of Aotearoa’s most important artists.
Born in Lyttleton in 1901, Len Lye made a permanent mark on the international art scene, first in London and then in New York, with his unique approach to “art that moves”. Five decades before the arrival of MTV, Lye’s colour film experiments of the 1930s set the format for the music video with four-minute popular jazz tunes accompanied by the artist’s colourful abstract animations. Three decades later, a new career in the field of kinetic sculpture confirmed Lye’s ambitions to be a “composer of motion” with his performative “tangible motion sculpture”. Internationally acclaimed for his ground-breaking work in these fields, Lye’s art was built on the joy of motion – the pleasure in feeling the natural rhythms of the world, the impulse to dance, the thrill of being moved and the expression of individuality through bodily freedom.
With Lye’s technical prowess in the film Rainbow Dance (1936) taking centre stage, the exhibition includes Lye’s cinematic magnum opus, Free Radicals (1958), and the rarely seen World War II propaganda film, Newspaper Train (1942), together demonstrating Lye’s versatility as a filmmaker. The obscure film experiment Ariel’s Song (1953) combines the voice of actor John Gielgud, the words of Shakespeare and Lye’s visual experiments in putting poetry on screen – one of numerous moments in the exhibition to draw on the artist’s work with poetic text.
Several of Lye’s seminal sculptures return to display in Rainbow Dance – the bounding steel loop of Universe (1976, 1998 reconstruction) and the delicate, twisting Fountain (1960) – alongside the rarely seen maquette for Universe Walk (1965), Lye’s grand vision for a monumental sculpture park in California’s Death Valley.
Between examples of Lye’s cinematic and sculptural practice, Rainbow Dance explores the full arc of Lye’s creative world. Paintings, such as the well-known King of Plants Meets First Man (1936) and the rarely seen Ice Age (1938), demonstrate Lye’s place at the forefront of British Modernism during the 1930s while examples of the artist’s “myth paintings” from the 1970s exemplify the importance of painting to Lye’s work with scale.
The exhibition is the occasion for numerous works to leave the archive for the first time including a suite of costume designs and storyboards commissioned by Lye for the never realised science fiction fantasy film, Quicksilver (1932), and recently acquired portraits of Lye by friend and photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer. Rainbow Dance charts the breadth of Lye’s ongoing contribution to contemporary forms of expression and ideas.