Len Lye with his Fountain, 1959. © Len Lye Foundation Archive.

Len Lye with his Fountain, 1959. © Len Lye Foundation Archive.

Len Lye

Len Lye with his Fountain, 1959. © Len Lye Foundation Archive.

IN 1935, the British General Post Office commissioned an advertisement from the New Zealand–born artist Len Lye, who was based in London at the time. The resulting film is a mere four minutes long, a small gem of an animation titled A Colour Box that sends a joyful riot of dots and lines dancing across the screen to a festive soundtrack of beguine, a jazz-inflected type of West Indian dance music. It’s hard to imagine just how gratifying the protopsychedelic film would have been to watch in the midst of the Depression, but it enjoyed a wide run as a preview reel that played before commercial features. To produce the film, Lye forwent the camera and instead used metal mesh grills or stencils to apply paint directly onto strips of clear celluloid. Extremely economic in its means, this technique would prove extraordinarily influential to future experimental filmmakers. Watching it now, in its stunning, newly digitized format at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, the film seems as innovative as ever, and more prescient than many early critics might have realized.

Len Lye, Free Radicals, 1958/1979, 35 mm transferred to 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 4 minutes. © Len Lye Foundation Archive.

A Colour Box is a milestone in animation history and remains one of Lye’s best-known films, a raw and vivacious counterpoint to Oskar Fischinger’s studious “optical poems” from the same period. In the wake of its success, Lye was invited to make special effects for the train-crash scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936). He designed an animation that would give the impression that the flames of the collision were so hot that the celluloid in the projector itself had caught fire. Allegedly, the effect was so realistic that at a preview screening, the projectionist panicked. Hitchcock cut Lye’s effects, fearing that they would cause uproar in commercial cinemas. Is all this true? It is difficult to say, but the tenor of the story, of an almost-triumph undercut by chance misfortune, characterizes much of Lye’s life.

Len Lye, A Colour Box, 1935, 35 mm, color, sound, 4 minutes. © Len Lye Foundation Archive.

The outbreak of World War II brought an end to the modest commissions that Lye received. To get by financially during the war, he made a couple of truly awful propaganda films (which this exhibition, perhaps unwisely, included). Destitute, homeless, and physically sick, Lye became convinced that it was not enough to fight against fascism. One had to fight for something. And so was born his manifesto, “Individual Happiness Now” (or IHN). Mobilizing his own feelings of personal helplessness, Lye demanded that the full resources of industrial society be dedicated to the sustained cultivation of each individual. He would go on to formulate versions of this initiative in collaboration with his friend the poet Robert Graves. The cheerful hubris of IHN—which, among other oddities, advocated for the British government to establish a “Ministry of Happiness”—would find both its fulfillment and its frustration in later consumer society, but at the time it was mostly met with polite indifference. Lye thought he had persuaded Wendell Willkie, a failed US presidential candidate, to support a film about IHN, but before any explicit agreement could be made, Willkie died of a heart attack. So it went.

A Colour Box is a milestone in animation history, a raw and vivacious counterpoint to Oskar Fischinger’s studious “optical poems” from the same period.

By the time Lye made the four-minute film Free Radicals (1958), John and James Whitney had already begun reconfiguring the M5 antiaircraft-gun director with which they would famously make their own pre-digital computer animations. Thus, while the film might have been perfectly in sync with the emerging hipster counterculture, technically speaking, the artist was no longer ahead of any curves. Just before his death, Lye would revisit the techniques of Free Radicals to create Particles in Space (1979). Both presented here in digital versions adapted from 16mm, the animations are extraordinary, spare yet energetic, scratched into black film stock and set to ethnographic recordings of African drumming. Poetically, they are his most mature work.

This retrospective at the Museum Tinguely placed Lye’s most famous films in the context of his entire oeuvre, beginning with his primitivist experiments in New Zealand and Australia in the ’20s and ending with his kinetic sculptures, which were constructed posthumously according to the artist’s plans. The generosity and thoroughness of the exhibition were its undoing. Not all of the work was of the same deftness. The exhibition made much of Lye’s first full animation, Tusalava (1929), a creation myth supposedly drawing from his study of Polynesian cosmology. The film itself is an overly ambitious mess, an imaginative pastiche of scraps of anthropological literature, drawn in a style influenced by Australian desert paintings, vested with a Samoan title, and yoked to a narrative arc taken from a belabored reading of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Likewise, although his animations are rightfully hailed as pioneering, Lye was in his other work often a little late: late to Vorticism, late to Surrealism, and, frustratingly, even a little late to kinetic sculpture, for which he had a deep aptitude. By presenting minor and unrealized works, the exhibition neither illuminated the history of those art movements nor did much to increase Lye’s stature as an artist. If anything, it created a sense of pathos around him, as an indomitably optimistic, energetic adventurer who spent most of his life drowning, but briefly managed to get a little ahead of the wave. 

Adam Jasper is a writer and researcher at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture at the ETH Zürich.