LEN LYE: A Biography by Roger Horrocks

(A Review of LEN LYE: A Biography by Roger Horrocks, 436 pages. Auckland University Press, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand 2001)

Martin Rumsby

Printed in MFJ No. 39/40 (Winter 2003) Hidden Currents

Roger Horrock’s recently published biography of Len Lye presents an unusual, and comprehensive, take on Twentieth Century art. LEN LYE: A Biography tells the life story of an artist who was able to transcend the typical neuroses that afflicted modernist artists (plus loss, poverty, war and exile) to produce a diverse body of paintings, films, sculptures and writing.

This book is an almost complete story of Twentieth Century art in Europe, America and the South Pacific. It covers modernism, primitivism, expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism and takes us beyond modern sculpture. Lye’s story is that of an artist taking his vision and inspiration out of New Zealand and finding a place for it in the art of the modern world. Even more important, when Lye hit his stride as an artist, in a few really great works, he managed to transcend and surpass the formal limitations in the work of most of his peers, and successors.

Lye, who became an American citizen in 1950, was born in New Zealand in 1901. Early in life Lye was presented with a great abyss to cross, the death of his father. The childhood that followed was one of movement, insecurity, foster homes and difference. These experiences, which so easily could have crushed or twisted a developing personality, worked to give Lye a tough, self-sufficient interior life. Inspired by nature, light and movement Lye taught himself to draw and became interested in the processes of memory. Throughout his youth, Lye carried out systematic experiments and exercises to both strengthen his memory and liberate his thought processes.

After leaving school with minimal qualifications Lye worked in a variety of jobs throughout New Zealand. These jobs included hop picking, labouring and advertising. In his spare time Lye continued his study of painting and drawing and became aware of the modernist movement in European art and primitivism.

At the age of 22, feeling that he had exhausted the possibilities of the New Zealand art scene, Lye moved to Sydney, Australia and immersed himself in the bohemian circles of that city. Continuing to pursue his personal study of art, Lye discovered psychoanalysis, film animation and early examples of kineticism.

In 1924 Lye returned to New Zealand then decided to extend his study of tribal art by first-hand study of Polynesian culture. Lye traveled to the South Pacific islands of Fiji, Rarotonga, Tonga and Samoa, where he stayed for several months, getting to know some locals, becoming involved with local culture and learning something of their art making processes. Following his sojourn in the South Pacific, Lye returned to Sydney where his increasing desire for knowledge fed his restless yearning for a direct connection with European modernism. In late 1926, Lye worked his way to England as a stoker on a steamship.

Once in London, Lye quickly established himself within the vanguard art movements of that city and in 1927, drawing on his knowledge of Australian aboriginal and Polynesian art, commenced making images for the animated film Tusalava.

Tusalava, a 9 minute long, Black and White animation film, depicts the transformation of simple life forms into complex forms that grow, evolve and are then consumed.

After it‚s completion in 1929 and subsequent screenings in London and some European film festivals, Tusalava established Lye’s reputation as a film artist.

Originally planned as the first part of film trilogy, Lye was never able to gain sufficient support to complete the Tusalava project as he initially envisaged it. But, as a poetic film made at the very boundary of Lye’s understanding of art and cinema, the themes of Tusalava kept perplexing Lye for the rest of his life. Again and again, Lye reinvestigated these themes in various batiks, paintings, writing and theory.

Over the next few years Lye reveled in London‚s cosmopolitan artistic community, explored associative writing and drawing techniques, produced a series of original book covers for writers as diverse as Gertrude Stein and Robert Graves then, in 1931, published No Trouble, a book of his letters.

As a member of the London Film Society, Lye was able to see many of the groundbreaking European art films of his era. He was particularly interested in the films of Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter, and Walter Ruttman. Lacking the financial support to realize his own film projects Lye began painting and scratching on clear film discards from Ealing Film Studios. These experiments led to Lye being commissioned as a film artist by the GPO Film Unit in London.

In 1935 Lye produced his first direct film, A Colour Box, for the GPO Film Unit. Colour Box was screened widely in English cinemas and European film festivals. Despite a mixed public and critical reaction, Colour Box led to Lye receiving more public and private commissions to continue producing innovative direct films.

Lye’s semi-abstract films of the mid to late 1930s were technically complex, skillfully edited, bright, energetic works set to music. The images, patterns, colors and text in these films are freely associated with one another to create a moving form of visual jazz.

Enduring unemployment during the early months of World War II, Lye, now married with two children, began to develop a new theory for a liberated form of life which he called Individual, Happiness, Now.

In 1941 Lye was employed by Britain’s Realist Film Unit to produce wartime information films. On the basis of his work for Realist Lye was later offered six months work for the March of Time newsreel in New York. Leaving his family in England, Lye moved to New York in 1943.

Lye soon became enraptured with the liveliness and openness of New York and resolved to stay in the United States. Wartime travel restrictions made it impossible for Lye to move his family from London to New York. By the time Lye’s family was able to join him in New York he had commenced a serious relationship with Ann Hindle. Lye’s first marriage collapsed, he divorced his first wife, Jane, and married Ann Hindle.

In 1953, Lye produced the astounding Color Cry, a 16mm direct film featuring a searing soundtrack by the blues singer Sonny Terry.

Color Cry is a collage made up from strips of Lye’s experiments with photograms. This is a direct, or cameraless, means of producing photographic images by laying various fabrics and objects on the surface of unexposed color film in a darkroom. Once the objects were placed on the film Lye would briefly turn the room light on, thus directly printing shapes, patterns and textures onto the film. By layering materials, one over the other, in the filmmaking process, Lye was able to create three-dimensional effects that pulsate with vibrant, rhythmic energy.

Lye also used to photogram technique to produce portraits of the painter Georgia O’Keefe and the poet W.H. Auden.

In 1958 Lye began working on Free Radicals, a scratch film synchronized to a soundtrack of African drumming, for the 1958 International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium. Made without a camera by scratching directly into the emulsion of black film leader with dental implements and other sharp tools Free Radicals is a dynamic, rhythmic work. Lye’s scratched lines weave their way through various two and three-dimensional permutations as an elemental electrical line evoking creation in its most basic form; a slither of light reaching into and penetrating the unknown. Lye takes a line for a walk.

Although Free Radicals won Second Prize at the festival in Belgium it did not translate into further success, recognition or film commissions for Lye.

After years of living in poverty, the dire state of funding for experimental films and the widespread indifference to his film work Lye went on strike, refusing to make any more experimental films. From that time on Lye devoted his energies to creating kinetic sculptures and developing theories that would help him to understand the basic impetus for his work.

Through the 1960s Lye’s steel, kinetic sculptures were represented by the Howard Wise Gallery in New York and exhibited in major museums across Europe and the United States. Lye’s sculptures were expensive to make, ship, exhibit and maintain, however, and Lye was never able to recoup the financial cost of his work.

Lye’s greatest sculpture, a work equal in power to his film Free Radicals, is Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters).

Like the film Free Radicals, Trilogy is a powerful elemental work. Trilogy is made up of two nine-foot long strips of polished steel and a steel loop, all suspended from overhead electric motors. When the motors are turned on the three pieces of steel perform a terrifying ballet. The vertical strips of steel whip through the air at incredible speed, almost like reaper‚s scythes. When their electric motors abruptly stop, the two vertical steel strips crash to a halt with a thunderous clap. Witnessing this one feels he could be at the very gates of Heaven, or Hell. The looped piece of steel, controlled by two electric motors, then begins to slowly, almost painfully turn itself inside out, almost like the contortions of a metallic double-jointed gymnast. The stresses exerted on the steel produce more thunderous sounds to accompany the rippling, reflected light flashing off the highly polished steel.

Trilogy strongly evokes the basic dualism of creation and destruction and how each contains the seeds of the other. Trilogy communicates the same terrifying truth and brutal directness I remember seeing on the traditional carvings at the gateways of Maori villages when I was a child.

The continuing problems of a lack of money and surfeit of neglect for his work eventually pushed Lye away from kinetic sculpture back to writing and theorizing. Lye became interested in genetics, particularly DNA, and began to mine the biomorphic images from his paintings and doodles as a source for his theory of the workings of the Old Brain.

Despite officially going on strike from filmmaking and withdrawing from the practical difficulties of creating kinetic sculptures, Lye did actually continue his experimenting in both mediums. In 1977, Lye also returned to painting.

News of Lye’s achievements in film and art eventually reached New Zealand and, in the late 1960s, contact was made between Lye and the New Zealand art scene. Various emissaries were dispatched from New Zealand to court Lye in New York and, prodded on by his wife Ann, the Lyes traveled to Australasia and Polynesia in 1968 in search of Lye’s roots in the South Pacific.

Today most of Lye’s work in painting, sculpture, writing and film is held at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Horrock’s biography is truly inspiring. Lye’s life and work laid out in this interesting and engaging piece of research. The great value of Horrock’s book is seeing how Lye persisted through enormous difficulties and neglect, to produce a small body of great work in diverse media a 50-year period. Maybe there could have been a more detailed analytical treatment of Lye’s ideas about Individual Happiness Now and critical evaluation of Lye’s films.

Lye’s story is so different from many of the art stories we are familiar with today. He was not a ruthlessly careerist art star graduated from an institutionalized art education. Lye was not picked up by a dealer gallery early in his career, celebrated publicly, nor assured a comfortable, middle class existence. Lye’s work was not driven by theory. His work was driven by passion, inquisitiveness and openness. Later in life Lye was drawn to theory but the theory he was interested in derived in large part from his unique vision and work. Lye strived to understand and explain his creative impulse and relate it to various natural phenomena. He was driven by a really strong vision that he pursued and defined throughout his working life. Lye took enormous risks in following his vision, a vision that was commercially impractical. It was something he had a lot of difficulty verbalizing in his younger years and only really attained the reality of this vision relatively late in life.

Lye’s quest to realize his vision took him to Sydney, London and New York. Each different place he lived in helped to advance Lye’s understanding and creative ability. England provided Lye with an artistic community and the resources to apply his vision to film. New York really freed up Lye’s vision and creativity. It was only in a few films and sculptures that Lye actually succeeded in attaining a dynamic and fundamental universalism, creating work that reaches the very core of creativity. One hopes that Horrock’s biography will augment Lye’s work to inspire greater international interest in Lye’s work.