Len Lye's radical revolution

By Geoff Cumming

Roger Horrocks stands amongst some of the Len Lye exhibits which are being installed at the Gus Fisher Gallery. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Roger Horrocks stands amongst some of the Len Lye exhibits which are being installed at the Gus Fisher Gallery. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Just as he hoped his mechanical sculptures would one day be writ large, Len Lye's legacy continues to grow.

A major new exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery brings to Auckland five kinetic sculptures, four films, two paintings and some photograms - accompanied by the launch of two books, one with a DVD. Lectures throughout the two-month exhibition will focus on different aspects of this multi-dimensional artist who flirted with fame, and avant garde society, in London and New York.

It is some advance on 1980 when, a year after Lye's death, the Auckland City Art Gallery suggested a memorial to the hugely influential expat. The proposal to spend ratepayers' money met a backlash, fuelled by art dealer Peter Vuletic, who said the New Zealand public had been misled into thinking Lye had a considerable international reputation.

Instead the gallery held an exhibition largely of Lye paintings. Though it was well received, appreciation of Lye still did not extend far beyond the experimental film and sculptural cognoscenti.

Since then, his has become almost a household name through ongoing international and local critical acclaim, documentaries and television coverage, the definitive biography by film-maker Roger Horrocks, exhibitions of his collection - which is based at the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth - and the acceptance of posthumous works such as Wind Wand and Water Whirler on the waterfronts of New Plymouth and Wellington. A just-finished exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne drew 35,000 people.

Yet the near 30-year gap between Auckland dates leaves a feeling that he remains something of a fringe figure to northern audiences; that we still don't really get Lye. Which makes this a terrific opportunity to experience Lye and his central aesthetic - creating movement in art.

Horrocks, who worked with Lye in the last months of his life, is curator of the exhibition, which shares the title of his new book, Art That Moves. "Len developed the idea of creating movement in art in his teens and essentially spent his life achieving it," says Horrocks, the founding director of Auckland University's department of film, television and media studies. "Even his paintings can be seen as stills from a movie."

While the 2001 biography told the astonishing tale of the Christchurch boy who overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the 20th century's most significant experimental artists, the new book goes to the mechanics of Lye's art - how he achieved works in sculpture and film that continue to wow audiences in the digital age.

Kinetic works at the Fisher include Universe, Zebra - which makes its debut - and Fire Bush, which captures Lye's fascination with dance. "Len was crazy about dance but he said, 'Why should dance be limited to the human body?' So he invented mechanised dance. This is a dancer doing things which the human body can't do."

The same energy is apparent on film in Free Radicals made by simple scratches on the negative and set to African drums. Whenever Horrocks played it to his film students, he felt like dancing. "The combination of dance movement and lively visuals really was the forerunner to today's music videos. He was doing it in the 1930s and people had never seen anything like it - it polarised audiences."

Also unveiled at last night's exhibition launch was Body English: Texts and Doodles by Len Lye, which turns the spotlight on Lye's written outpourings and is a companion to the 2002 limited edition Happy Moments.

Yet another take on Lye, the richly illustrated Len Lye (co-edited by the Govett-Brewster's Tyler Cann and Professor Wystan Curnow) was released in September.

Horrocks says there is a large store of unpublished Lye writings and plans for sculptures not yet produced. The Govett-Brewster and the Len Lye Foundation hope to build a $10 million centre in New Plymouth to permanently show the collection.

International demand remains high for touring pieces. As technology improves, it is easier to get the big kinetic works up and running - technical difficulties were one reason why Lye in his lifetime did not get the recognition he deserved. "Museums didn't want to open an engineering branch and art galleries are quiet places," notes Horrocks. There were other reasons why Lye eluded mass recognition (and financial security): he moved countries, he flitted between genres and explored new directions with the same restless energy he captured in his works. He was neither a self-promoter nor businessman. "His first wife, Jane, would despair that just as he seemed poised to exploit a great idea he would move on to something else."

Horrocks says the mid-century art establishment did not know how to categorise him. In the United States, kinetic art was seen as gimmicky, a European thing and it faced competition from pop art and minimalism. Asked where he places Lye, Horrocks points to his inclusion alongside Picasso, Dali, Mondrian and Pollock among the 20th century's 100 most original artists by Germany's national art museum in 1992.

Australian critic Adrian Martin, reviewing the Melbourne exhibition, noted that "in France, Portugal, in many places, he is considered the greatest artist from the New Zealand-Australia axis to emerge during the 20th century". Horrocks was chuffed by recent Te Papa publicity inviting international visitors to see New Zealand's greatest artists. "The three highlighted were Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Len Lye. In 30 years, that's an amazing change in his recognition."

While Horrocks and fellow members of the Len Lye Foundation are around, you get the impression the Lye momentum can only continue to build. Lye himself commented in 1968, "My work I think is going to be pretty good for the 21st century. Why the 21st? It's simply that there won't be the means until then ... to have what I want, which is enlarged versions of my work, big-scale jobs."

Perhaps those wanting something iconic on the Auckland waterfront could widen the brief.

Exhibition

What: Len Lye: Art That Moves
Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to February 6
In print: Art That Moves: The Work of Len Lye, by Roger Horrocks, Auckland University Press, $59.99.
Includes a DVD with Lye films, footage by Shirley Horrocks of his sculptures in action and a Roger Horrocks film on his early life.
In print: Body English: Texts and Doodles by Len Lye, Holloway Press, $200, includes doodles and texts from phases of Lye's career.

A kinetic life

* Biographer Roger Horrocks has followed Lye's journey from his troubled childhood - his father died of tuberculosis when Len was 3; his mother's second marriage was to a lighthouse keeper who was committed to a mental hospital - to New York's Greenwich Village and a lifestyle which anticipated the hippy culture.

* Lye leaves school at 13 and uses public libraries to learn about Futurism and Surrealism. After periods in Samoa and Australia, where he learns about Aboriginal art and basic film-making, he buys ship's papers off a drunken stoker and works his way to London under the seaman's name.

* The "stoker sculptor" with boundless energy and optimism is accepted by an avant garde group of artists and develops his ideas of incorporating movement in art. He creates 4400 drawings for his first animated film Tusalava, its images influenced by Aboriginal art. He marries Jane Thompson but adheres to his belief in open relationships.

* He makes further groundbreaking films while sponsored by John Grierson, head of the General Post Office Film Unit and writes about his theory of movement.

* He moves to New York in 1944. While making commercials, he turns his attention to kinetic sculpture, begins lecturing and becomes influential in the New York art scene. He marries Ann Hindle and develops his aesthetic around concepts including motion, empathy and "old brain" or unconscious awareness.

* After visiting New Zealand in the 1970s, he arranges for his works to be housed here. When he dies in 1980, experimental film-maker Cecile Starr says: "Every age has a few truly great artists whose worth is known only to a few associates and amateurs. I believe that the foremost 'unknown' artist of our time is Len Lye."

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 30 Mar 2017 18:05:08 Processing Time: 362ms