The Len Lye Centre, which opens in New Plymouth today, is a world-class building dedicated to our most innovative, versatile artist. Adam Gifford reports

If Len Lye didn't exist, you couldn't have invented him. Born at the dawn of the 20th century, he was the inquisitive kid from the wrong side of the tracks who got thrown out of Samoa for being too friendly, then shovelled coal on a steamer to get to London where he hung out with poets and painters and looked for ways to make art that moved.

In England it was film. In the United States, after he was head-hunted in 1944 to work for the March of Time newsreel service, he made sculpture. He became one of the pioneers of what was dubbed kinetic sculpture, making some works and planning many others beyond the technology of the day.

A visit back to his homeland, New Zealand, brought him into contact with engineers immersed in working steel for the dairy and oil industries, who embraced his vision and set about realising his designs. In the workshops of Taranaki he found not underlings but fellow explorers who strove to understand the properties of the metal.

It was to Taranaki that he left his life's work on his death in 1980 and it is there, in New Zealand's first gallery dedicated to the work of a single artist, that the work will continue to cement his position as an artist of influence.

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Architect Andrew Patterson describes his stainless steel-clad cast concrete creation as an "antipodean temple" comparable to the great halls of the classical world that fascinated the artist. And just as ancient temples and medieval cathedrals served to offer spiritual sustenance in return for pilgrims' coins, so too do our modern galleries.

"Enter through the gift shop," says director Simon Rees at the start of the Herald's tour, in a nod to another fringe artist of legendary status. Step beyond the books and cards and you find yourself looking up a long ramp flanked by a concrete colonnade, with the ceiling three floors above and daylight filtering in from the street, if the black-out screens are open.

The entrance to a 62-seat theatre where Lye's films will be shown is off the ramp. At the top is the Large Works Gallery, with a 10m stud. A ramp on the other side of the building leads to a second gallery, with a bridge crossing the gap to the upper storey of the Govett-Brewster.

Len Lye Centre, New Plymouth. Photo / Govett-Brewster Art Gallery
Len Lye Centre, New Plymouth. Photo / Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

That bridge also connects to galleries around the world, Rees says, with the world-class Lye collection giving New Plymouth the power to construct extraordinary shows through loans and exchanges.

Len Lye curator Paul Brobbel agrees, saying Lye's importance to New Zealand lies in the fact that through him we can touch almost anything in 20th century art.

"As a modernist he connects us to things we wouldn't otherwise have the connection to. British cinema, he had a small part in that but it was in an important part of it, the British socialist documentary tradition. That area of interest will always be there and people interested in the development of cinema in Britain will always trip over Len Lye, and that will bring attention to his other work."

For most of the audience internationally, Lye is either a film- maker or a kinetic sculptor, but the centre can weave together both and all strands of his work.

"Lye takes us to the Surrealist movement. He wasn't a card-carrying member of the group but he was relevant enough and happy enough to be included," Brobbel says.

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Lye was in the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition - the one at which Dali almost suffocated delivering a lecture in a deep-sea diving suit until rescued by a spanner-wielding poet.

He was also invited to join the Seven and Five Society, with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and other leading British modernists.

"He was credible," says Brobbel. "The few works he created here, the sketch books, the marble work, he carried those works to London and he was a credible person to include in the very elite of British art. If he settled on one thing he could have been huge but he deliberately travelled his own path, he didn't capitalise on the positions he had, but that allowed him to be on the edge of so many things.

"You can say he was a fringe artist, but when you put him on the edge of everything happening at the time, he suddenly becomes very central. Everything he did he did so well and so credibly, that's where that notion of the artist's artist comes from, he impressed his peers. Very few people he worked with had a negative thing to say about him."

New Zealand artist Len Lye.
New Zealand artist Len Lye.

Brobbel says the fact few people collected Lye's kinetic sculptures in his lifetime turned out to be a bonus.

"Because he was reluctant to sell beneath his value, a lot of the material stayed with him and ended up with us. So his time as a kinetic sculptor is coming again because the material is well-maintained here. With his film-making, because of the digital revolution it is easier to disseminate, it is more accessible, so there are these happy accidents that limited his fame in his own lifetime but make him a very important figure now because he makes kinetic art that is still interesting, his films still thrill new generations."

Because Lye worked in so many media in unique ways, he will be rediscovered in different contexts.

Textiles? One of his first commissions in London was designing textiles, drawing on the pattern-making and layering he had observed with tapa making in the Pacific.

Photography? Lye not only made films without a camera, he made photos without one as well. His photograms, including portraits of fellow artists Joan Miro and Georgia O'Keeffe and musicians such as Baby Dodds, will form the basis of the third show in the new centre's calendar, the first major international survey of photograms.

"Lye will never be a Picasso or a Warhol, but there will always be a new medium that comes along and Lye touched on it," Brobbel says.

Because Lye expected many of his works could not be made with the technology available to him, he endowed the Len Lye Foundation with a licence to create unrealised work or reconstruct existing work.

Thus a large Fountain has been created for the opening show, where it is displayed alongside a small Lye original, a reconstruction, and a mid-sized fountain he created in collaboration with Taranaki engineer John Matthews, who now chairs the foundation.

The works are spotlit in keeping with the colour scheme Lye used when he demonstrated Fountain at New York's Museum of Modern Art on April 5, 1961, and they are soundtracked by the same Pierre Boulez composition he used then.

Len Lye Curator Paul Brobbel. Photo / Supplied
Len Lye Curator Paul Brobbel. Photo / Supplied

Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters)

, which will anchor the first show, Our Hearts of Darkness, has also been rebuilt with new generation motors.

Jam Session focuses on the sound aspects of Lye's work, so members of the Auckland Philharmonia will play accompaniment to sculptures and films.

As well as photographs and drawings, the show also features Universe, a curved loop of steel that flexes until it hits a ball suspended from the ceiling, and Grass, which consists of wires stuck into a board that rocks up and down.

The show that opens at the end of the year will focus on Lye's interest in fauna and flora and include the popular Fire Bush. "I'm trying to keep some of the big hits for each show and to always have something new because I want to give the local audience who grew up with Len Lye something special," Brobbel says.

Len Lye Centre-Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, opens today