Len Lye

In 1961 Len Lye wrote, “In tangible sculpture the aesthetic value of objects becomes secondary to that of their motion.” This just about sums up the message of this revelatory exhibition, almost entirely gathered from the encyclopedic holdings of the Len Lye Foundation at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (New Zealand’s most important museum of contemporary art), which, along with the New Zealand Film Archive, was given Lye’s work upon his death in 1980. Densely researched and beautifully installed by curators Alessio Cavallaro and Tyler Cann, this is the first comprehensive overview of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary artistic “free radicals.” That phrase embodied Lye’s own vision of art’s potential and was the title of one of his last works. Lye was an intermedia inventor of unclassifiable forms, images, and colors, rather than an artist interested in objects for themselves. He invented a lexicon to describe his particular mode of abstraction—terms such as direct film, scratch film, body English, figure of motion, and old brain—insisting that his tangible sculptures were different from mobiles or other sculptures that merely moved.

In 1924, Lye lived for a year in a native village in Samoa, from which the New Zealand governor deported him for cohabiting with islanders. Arriving in London as a sailor in 1926, he established himself as a formidable if not entirely complicit figure among the British Surrealists; his widely circulated, handpainted animated films Colour Box, 1935, and Rainbow Dance, 1936, were far wilder and more hyperactive than anything the Surrealists’ London branch produced. After a wartime stint with the famous GPO Film Unit, in 1944 Lye moved permanently to New York, where he seems to have known everyone—producing a gloriously inventive, highly worked series of photogram portraits of figures ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe, W. H. Auden, and Hans Richter to jazz drummer Baby Dodds (jazz sound tracks unforgettably accompany Lye’s films and underline his percussive, rhythmic, relentlessly inventive aesthetic) and Columbia University psychiatric researcher Nina Bull (he sought links with neuroscientists rather than with psychoanalysts).

By the 1960s Lye was perfectly placed as an early exponent of kinetic art: For him it was a seamless move from, in his words, “scratching white ziggle-zag-splutter scratches on black 16mm film in doodling fashion” to “bits of steel I waggle”—fields of stainless-steel rods set in a surprisingly rough-hewn, gently rocking plank of wood in Grass, 1961–65, for example, or gathered sheaves of steel rods splaying like bundled grasses in his several swaying fountains of the same period. It is no coincidence that the artist’s sculptures look like stills from his most famous and stripped-back works, the “scratch films” of the same period. These included Particles in Space, 1957, and the electrifying Free Radicals, drawn in 1958 but dramatically reedited in 1979, a year before his death from leukemia. From the perspective of canonical, medium-specific modernism, Lye is an outlier, a tantalizingly peripheral yet prescient figure. But as the twentieth century fades to black and its art history is rewritten, Lye’s name is likely to outshine that of many better-known moderns. (The curator Pontus Hultén seems to have thought so; he included a Lye in his list of the “100 most influential artworks of the twentieth century” in the 1992 show “Territorium Artis.”) A wider visual field of production in which intermedia will be pivotal may finally crowd out the conceit that painting is synonymous with art. The question naturally follows: Was the best abstract art scratched and moving?

Charles Green