A new book revealing artist Len Lye in his own words reflects a man who lived an ethos of great energy and happiness. Linda Herrick reports

When Auckland writer Roger Horrocks was researching his 2001 biography of New Zealand artist Len Lye, he celebrated the originality, inventiveness and humour which made him such a towering figure in international modernism. Now Horrocks has just released a new book: Zizz!, a word Lye used to mean energy, fizz, excitement - the very embodiment of the way he lived his life.

It's a nicely compact volume which burrows into more personal anecdotes than the earlier book. Horrocks had access to Lye's notes, essays and letters, and he also talked to some of Lye's friends, particularly the girlfriends. Lye had a lot of girlfriends.

"Cherchez la femme, look for the women," says Horrocks, who worked as Lye's assistant in New York for a year until his death in 1980. "Len was very attractive to women. He didn't go out of his way to chase them but he frequently took advantage of the opportunity because, for him, if you were an artist, you were free. When I found them, their faces would burst into smiles. They'd have good memories of Len and they'd usually have a painting over the mantelpiece. The only exception being if they'd married they were a little more discreet and I'd have to meet them down the road at a cafe."

Lye's girlfriends had to accept he was a "free man". In 1934, while living in London, he got married for the first time, to Jane Thompson, with whom he had two children, Bix and Yancy. But the marriage fell apart when he moved to New York in 1944 and fell in love with Ann, an American woman he married in 1948 and remained with for the rest of his life.

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Horrocks met Jane Lye. "She was not very sympathetic to that kind of open marriage," he says. "She was a wonderful woman but she was bitter."

Ann Lye, who'd been married with two children before she hooked up with Lye, was more relaxed altogether. "She was a thorough-going bohemian like Len," says Horrocks. "They were incredibly romantic - as you see from the book, he wrote lovely love poems to Ann all his life and they never fell out. But Ann also took advantage of the open marriage. I don't know how they did it but somehow they remained deeply in love and yet they had affairs."

Ann and Len Lye in a photo booth on Coney Island, New York, in the 1950s.
Ann and Len Lye in a photo booth on Coney Island, New York, in the 1950s.

The montage of photos of the couple taken in a booth on Coney Island in the early 50s had a caption: "I'm making a love potion. See, it works!"

"Those photos could have been taken at any time in their marriage," says Horrocks. "They were like that their whole lives, playing little jokes and having romantic times after 30 years."

Right at the end of his life, Lye had a fling with a young woman in her 20s ("a well-known film-maker, actually," says Horrocks), an encounter he wrote about with great amazement and joy which is reproduced in the book. "When the young woman emerged from the apartment early in the morning - Ann wasn't there - the neighbours were shocked," says Horrocks. "When he told Ann about it, she said, 'How marvellous. I'm proud of you.' You would have to find an exceptional woman to really blend with a guy like Len, and she was the one."

Horrocks first encountered Lye's work when he was a student in the United States doing graduate work. "I saw his art and was amazed by it but I had no idea he was from New Zealand. In the US his work was described as American. Then I came across his films - this was a period in New Zealand when we didn't really have a film industry - and I realised then the New Zealand connection because I read about it in an encyclopedia."

Horrocks contacted Lye and they began corresponding. By the time they first met, in 1979, Lye had been diagnosed with leukaemia. "I went to New York and met him," recalls Horrocks. "He was initially suspicious of me a little bit because I was an academic and he'd had some bad experiences with academics. He thought they often didn't really know what was going on. But we hit it off to the point where he said, 'Look, I don't have very much longer to go.' He was desperately trying to finish lots of things. He was finishing two films and trying to get his work sorted out. I ended up becoming his assistant and I worked for him for the last year of his life. That confirmed for me what an astounding person he was."

Lye had travelled back to New Zealand in 1968, his first return since leaving in the 1920s, because Auckland Art Gallery director Peter Tomory visited him in New York and told him "New Zealand is going modern in its culture". While there, he revisited his childhood home at the lighthouse on Cape Campbell at the top of the South Island (the location for Michael Fassbender's film, The Light Between Oceans) and the place where his lighthouse keeper stepfather had developed a "violent mental illness" and was committed to a mental hospital.

During his visit back home, Lye lamented the lack of film-making here: "The young artists have to get off their arses and agitate and picket to say they want bread, and space to work ... if not, vibrate some walls 'til the glass quakes."

He returned again in 1977 because the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery expressed interest in funding a sculpture. "Yes," he said, "but it'll need a very clever engineer."

He found one, in John Matthews and his team, and the relationship between Len Lye and New Plymouth was born with the creation of Fountain and a trilogy, Flip & Two Twisters. The gallery's support of Lye led to him bequeathing his collection to the people of New Zealand, at the Govett-Brewster, a partnership which will be cemented on July 24 when the revamped gallery and the brand new Len Lye Centre open.

Lye died as he had lived, with courage and humour. "In Ann's words, 'Len died in a special way. It all went exactly as he wanted to go.' He was cracking jokes up to the last minute," writes Horrocks.

Zizz!

ends with Lye's writing shortly before his death: "All these happy moments, I've been so lucky. I've just gone along, meandering here, tributary there, this, that and the other, getting on down to the big old ocean. Boy! And I'm almost there; it's terrific ... the greatest thing about life is its magic. The greatest thing to do about it is get some of it while the going's good. The greatest way to give thanks is to add to it. Art is a way not only to feel the magic but to add to it permanently."

Zizz! (Awa Press $30) is out now. The Len Lye Centre and the revamped Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth opens to the public on July 25.