Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye

by Sally Blundell / 19 January, 2018
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Len Lye in 1979. Photo/Robert Del Tredici. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation Collection, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

New essays on New Zealand-born US kinetic sculptor and experimental film-maker Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist. 

Saturday night in Manchester St. As the sky darkens over Christchurch, a group of onlookers crowd on to an empty corner section. At 9.30 sharp, a small, well-dressed seven-year-old runs towards an empty kerosene tin and kicks it with all his thin-shinned might. The sound echoes, the metal surface flashes, the crowd cheers in commemoration of a similar event in 1905 when a four-year-old Len Lye, who was born in the house that once stood on this site, found his own kerosene tin to kick. The sculptor, film-maker and writer later recalled, “I kicked that can around to make the most god-awful racket my lungs and kicks on the can could.”

That flash of light and clashing racket, resonating through Lye’s 60-year career, are evoked in The Long Dream of Waking, a new book of essays exploring the drivers and influences of an art practice that straddles medium – film, photography, painting, sculpture, poetry – as much as it straddles place: Sydney, London, New York and, from the late 1970s, New Plymouth.

US art historian Peter Selz, now 98, recalls the “frenetic energy” of Lye’s 1961 kinetic sculpture Fire Bush. Film-maker Malcolm Le Grice likens the “terrifying quality” of Blade, a vertical strip of undulating steel recently exhibited at the Christchurch Art Gallery, toa thunder-and-lightning storm as a gallery installation”. Curator and critic Wystan Curnow quotes Jim Allen, then head of sculpture at Elam School of Fine Arts, encountering Lye’s sculptures in the artist’s Greenwich Village studio. They were, he said, “thunderous”, “frightening”, “I was wondering what the hell was going to happen next.” Lye biographer Roger Horrocks quotes Australian writer Rachel Buchanan’s description of a childhood encounter with Trilogy (or Flip and Two Twisters): “It was a long creak that turned into a shudder and the shudder was like the energy of an earthquake cracking in the ground under our house … The sound of this sculpture was like the metal taste of blood in your mouth. It was just so brutal.”

Stills from A Colour Box (1935), 4 min, 35mm colour. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and the British Postal Museum and Archive. From material preserved by the BFI National Archive and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Stills from A Colour Box (1935), 4 min, 35mm colour. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and the British Postal Museum and Archive. From material preserved by the BFI National Archive and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Such visceral responses are intrinsic to sculptures such as Trilogy and Blade, where the object itself becomes secondary to Lye’s “figure of motion”, the dance of light and movement building into a dramatic and seemingly unpredictable crescendo. Lye’s works are not sculptural “lumps” like a Henry Moore, writes Le Grice, but, rather, spectacular performances: “The substance is in what they do, not what they are.”

None of the writers allude specifically to the obvious sexual connotations of these performances – although a chapter on Lye and sex was going to be included, says co-editor Paul Brobbel, Len Lye curator at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre. “I lost my nerve, I was a little afraid of making the definitive statement about it.”

This passion for movement, rhythm and light is implicit in Lye’s film work. In early abstract films such as A Colour Box (1935) and Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1939), he explored the idea of direct (camera-less) film-making, painting lines and shapes directly on to celluloid. Screened in a darkened theatre, the images quiver and jump to a jazzy Cuban soundtrack, a “kind of handrail”, explains Horrocks, “to which the audience could cling during the storm of abstract images”.

Stills from Trade Tattoo (1937), 5 min, 35mm colour. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and the British Postal Museum and Archive. From material preserved and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

As Berlin-based art commentator Luke Smythe writes, “Viewers were treated to freewheeling spectacles of light and sound that made the slower, more subdued offerings of mainstream cinema feel deadening and static by comparison.”

The “alarmingly disruptive” physicality of Lye’s kinetic works, the innovative verve of his animation and his free-thinking philosophies as outlined in Individual Happiness Now, co-written with British author Robert Graves, have conspired to present Lye as a lone figure dancing to his own idiosyncratic tune. But the writers in this book, many new to New Zealand readers about Lye, bring the artist in from the cold, placing him into the wider context of time and place.

During his four-year stint in Sydney, argue Rex Butler and ADS Donaldson, Lye became part of the story of Australian art. There he absorbed Australian Aboriginal and Papuan art, met local artists and influenced – and was influenced by – an art scene already attracting a cohort of New Zealand artists. Lye today, the writers say, is recognised as “the major Australasian artist of the 20th century, outstripping by some margin Sidney Nolan and Colin McCahon in world importance”.

Arriving in Britain in 1926, Lye joined a circle of artists and writers, including Robert Graves, TE Lawrence, poet Laura Riding and artist Ben Nicholson, applying his interest in “primitive art” to popular developments in cinema and photography.

By the time he reached New York in 1944, constructivist sculptors such as Naum Gabo and László Moholy-Nagy had already championed new forms of kinetic sculpture and photography – although Lye later stated, “I would rather consider myself an ‘heir’ to the Australian Aboriginal with his boomerang and bullroarer than an ‘heir’ to constructivism” – and younger Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely was introducing his sculptural machines, or metamechanics, to an international art public.

Stills from Rainbow Dance (1936), 5 min, 35mm colour. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and the British Postal Museum and Archive. From material preserved and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Stills from Rainbow Dance (1936), 5 min, 35mm colour. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and the British Postal Museum and Archive. From material preserved and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Even in this country, writes Curnow, Lye has a place among those fellow artists who were drawn to New York, such as Billy Apple and Max Gimblett, or who explored new technologies through light, movement and cinematography, such as Leon Narbey, Jim Allen and Phil Dadson.

From the late 1960s, New Zealand interest in the “maverick expatriate artist” began to grow. First Auckland City Art Gallery director Peter Tomory, curator Hamish Keith and artist and educator Ray Thorburn beat a path to his Greenwich Village studio. Lye was wary.

“A group of NZers museum and govt national gallery are after me a fox – the tally hoo to tally the total,” he wrote to Graves.

That “tally hoo” resulted in Kinetic Works, Lye’s first major solo exhibition in New Zealand, held at the Govett-Brewster in 1977. So impressed was he with the gallery, famously calling it the “swingiest art gallery of the antipodes”, and the gallery team, led by innovative engineer John Matthews, he decided to leave his entire archive to the people of New Zealand with the understanding that it be housed at the Govett-Brewster.

Before his death in 1980, he established the Len Lye Foundation to continue the work of storing, conserving and, as this book shows, promoting his work. It was also charged with realising larger versions of his existing “tangible motion sculptures” and building new versions of unmade works, a task being done in collaboration with the engineering department at the University of Canterbury.

Len Lye: “maverick expatriate artist”.

There are challenges. Of the 13 essays, only that by Sarah Davy from the Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision film archive addresses the ethical concerns raised in relation to the posthumous realisation of an artist’s work. Is it right to give form to an artist’s unrealised idea, or to make copies of existing works, without the final approval of the artist?

In New Zealand, at least, says Brobbel, that argument “has exhausted itself”. “It is a ceasefire. All the usual voices have given arguments on either side – now it is a case of getting on with it.” After all, he says, Lye wanted and created the foundation to fulfil his unrealised goals, “and people understand if they want to see Lye, there is a necessity to engage with posthumous realisations”.

The digitisation of films is, perhaps, a more difficult issue. Although Lye may well have applauded the democratic nature of online platforms such as YouTube, such reproductions seldom do justice to his work. “It’s a Catch-22 – his films have this massive audience, so it’s a wonderful means of distribution, but the integrity of the art is just not respected. But so long as we are clear on our standards in the museum, that we are giving people the best opportunity to see the work, whether it is on analogue film or modern digital technology, we have to build a programme to say everything you experience here is as good as it will get.”

In its range of readings, The Long Dream of Waking shows there is more research to do, more works to discover – the original soundtrack to Lye’s remarkable short film Tusalava (1929), by Australian composer Jack Ellitt, has yet to be found – and more rejigging of our own art history, Curnow suggests, to include our most famous New Zealand-born US artist.

But while the book places Lye into a broader context of time and place, the artist, says Brobbel, remains something of an outlier.

“He is on the fringe of so many interesting things: he was a big figure within experimental cinema, which itself is a fringe field. He was on the fringe of the surrealist movement, never quite sure if he is in it or out of it or where he wants to be. As an antipodean figure, he walked this sort of awkward, unsteady path along with other modernists, but he never quite fitted in. That is an interesting place to be, because he is always being rediscovered or a new generation has a claim on him as a new and exciting proposition. It keeps that edge he had when he was alive.”

THE LONG DREAM OF WAKING: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON LEN LYE, edited by Paul Brobbel, Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks (Canterbury University Press, $49.99)

This article was first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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