Essays & articles

Adding Len Lye to the Book of 20th-Century Art

By Andrew Johnston
International Herald Tribune
May 4, 2001

Amid the street attitude and digital trickery of MTV Europe's recent music video roster could be seen some curiously old-tech but avant-garde footage. Vividly hued patterns danced in time to blues and Cuban jazz; leaping lines mimicked violin strings or vocal cords. The music was from the 1930s and '40s and so were the films, by Len Lye, an artist as dynamic and colorful as his work who is undergoing that mixed blessing, a posthumous rediscovery.

''Every age has a few truly great artists whose worth is known only to a few associates and amateurs,'' Cecile Starr, a film historian, told The New York Times when Lye died, at 78, in 1980. ''I believe that the foremost 'unknown' artist of our time is Len Lye.''

In the last two decades this peripatetic figure, who waltzed through several art movements, genres and countries, has started to become more widely recognized as a major contributor to the story of 20th-century art.

Lye, who was born in New Zealand but spent most of his life in London and New York, was a pioneer of films made by painting or scratching directly onto celluloid. He was also a leading kinetic sculptor, turning bands and rods of stainless steel into astonishing works that writhe, wobble and twitch, each producing its own fearsome sound-and-light show.

During his 50-year career Lye fell into that honorable but inglorious category, the ''artist's artist.'' But there is nothing elitist or especially intellectual about his work, which was driven by the idea of ''composing motion'' - creating works that appeal directly to our bodily instinct for movement.

Lye, who loved to dance, was a restless soul who resolved early in life to make art out of restlessness itself - art that quite literally moved its audience. Lye's public obscurity may be due partly to the paradox that he chose technically complex ways to convey his vision. Roger Horrocks, an expert on Lye's work, describes experimental film as ''the Cinderella of the arts.'' And although kinetic sculpture enjoyed a boom in the 1960s, it soon fell out of favor. ''It required so much technical support,'' Horrocks said. ''Many museums are ultimately happier with pieces of canvas or lumps of marble.''

Another reason Lye never achieved much public recognition in his lifetime is the fact that he had two careers. ''The professional barriers between different forms of art are surprisingly strong,'' said Horrocks, director of film studies at Auckland University, whose biography of the artist is released this month. ''When Lye started making kinetic sculpture, the people who had known him as a filmmaker didn't go over the wall with him. And the people who knew him as a kinetic sculptor didn't know much about his films.''

That Lye did not achieve a breakthrough in the '60s, when his kinetic sculpture was exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, may also be due to the very single-mindedness that drove his work. ''I think he's a very important artist,'' said Pontus Hulten, formerly director of the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. ''But he wasn't an easy man. He wanted things to be extremely precise, and to do that you have to be very stubborn.''

In the last 10 years, however, Lye's star has steadily risen. In 1992 Hulten included a Lye sculpture in a Bonn exhibition of the century's 100 most innovative artists. Last year a Lye sculpture was one of the hits in the ''Force Fields'' show at London's Hayward Gallery, and the Pompidou Center mounted a full program of Lye's films alongside some of his sculpture, painting, drawing and photographs.

The Paris show was sponsored by MTV Europe, whose chief executive, Brent Hansen, said that broadcasting Lye's films to the network's audience of 90 million households is ''one of the achievements I'll look back on in my career.'' Hansen, who had learned of Lye's work in his native New Zealand, leaped at the chance to program the films on MTV. ''These films were as fresh as anything coming from the hot art schools around Europe.''

Horrocks's biography is the product of a 22-year odyssey that began in 1979, when he traveled to New York to meet Lye, only to find that the artist was ill and had been given just a year to live. ''He wanted to finish a lot of projects, so he needed all the help he could get,'' said Horrocks, who volunteered to become Lye's assistant. ''Seeing the amazing stuff that was in his studio - not only works of art but documents - I was fascinated and thought, 'this is an amazing life, somebody's got to write this.'''

A working-class kid who left school at 13, Lye educated himself in the currents of modern art and developed an interest in what was then called ''primitive art. '' He studied Aboriginal art in Australia and spent a year in a Samoan village before the Northern Hemisphere's cultural pull became irresistible. In 1926 he bought ship's papers from a drunken sailor in a Sydney bar and worked his way to London as a stoker, shoveling coal in a pitching hold for nine weeks.

Lye spent 20 years in London, where he was adopted by a group of avant-garde artists that included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. His filmmaking and other activities were supported by commissions from the Post Office film unit and various enlightened companies, and encouraged by a remarkable cast of artists and writers, including Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas and Anais Nin.

When he moved to New York after the war, Lye found money for films harder to come by, and from the mid-1950s he increasingly turned to kinetic sculpture. When Lye died in 1980, Horrocks and others helped the artist's widow, Anne, pack artworks and papers and ship them to New Zealand, where a foundation had been formed to preserve and promote Lye's art - and to build the huge-scale kinetic sculptures that Lye had planned.

Horrocks's career as New Zealand's leading film educator meant that his Lye biography often had to go on the back burner. The book's release this month coincides with several exhibitions marking the centenary of the artist's birth. Jean-Michel Bouhours, who curated the Paris show with Horrocks last year, said that one of the things that makes Lye special is that he ''rendered the usual artistic categories inadequate.'' Horrocks agrees. ''Lye is an example of the fact that the art of the 20th century is not a closed book. We've got the categories, we've got the labels, but there's a lot of unfinished business. There's certainly a lot of unfinished business in Lye's work.''

So far four Lye sculptures have been reproduced on a giant scale by a team of artists and engineers with a mix of private patronage and public money. Technology that went into the masts of New Zealand's victorious America's Cup sailboats will be used to put up the 45-meter (150-foot) ''Wind Wand'' in July near New Plymouth, the city whose Govett-Brewster Gallery is home to the Len Lye Foundation.

''With the shows that have been looking back over 20th-century art in the last few years there is a desire to escape the confinement of those categories and movements and labels,'' Horrocks said. ''So there is a real chance to make some discoveries, and I think that is starting to happen with Lye.''

© International Herald Tribune