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Len Lye

Len Lye

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Len Lye, born Leonard Charles Huia Lye (5 July 1901 - 15 May 1980), was a Christchurch
Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, and the country's second-largest urban area after Auckland. It lies one third of the way down the South Island's east coast, just north of Banks Peninsula which itself, since 2006, lies within the formal limits of...

, New Zealand-born artist known primarily for his experimental films and kinetic sculpture. His films are held in archives such as the New Zealand Film Archive
New Zealand Film Archive
The New Zealand Film Archive is a charitable trust dedicated to the collection, preservation and viewing of mainly New Zealand films and videos made between 1895 to the present day.- Background :...

, British Film Institute
British Film Institute
The British Film Institute is a charitable organisation established by Royal Charter to:-Cinemas:The BFI runs the BFI Southbank and IMAX theatre, both located on the south bank of the River Thames in London...

, Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art is an art museum in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, on 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It has been important in developing and collecting modernist art, and is often identified as the most influential museum of modern art in the world...

 in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, and the Pacific Film Archive at University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

. Lye's sculptures are found in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art
Whitney Museum of American Art
The Whitney Museum of American Art, often referred to simply as "the Whitney", is an art museum with a focus on 20th- and 21st-century American art. Located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street in New York City, the Whitney's permanent collection contains more than 18,000 works in a wide variety of...

, the Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is one of America's largest accredited independent schools of art and design, located in the Loop in Chicago, Illinois. It is associated with the museum of the same name, and "The Art Institute of Chicago" or "Chicago Art Institute" often refers to either...

, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Albright-Knox Art Gallery
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery is an art museum located in Delaware Park in Buffalo, New York. The gallery is a major showplace for modern art and contemporary art. It is located directly across the street from Buffalo State College.-History:...

 and the Berkeley Art Museum. Although he became a naturalized citizen of the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 in 1950, much of his work went to New Zealand after his death, where it is housed at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth
New Plymouth
New Plymouth is the major city of the Taranaki Region on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It is named after Plymouth, Devon, England, from where the first English settlers migrated....



As a student, Lye became convinced that motion could be part of the language of art, leading him to early (and now lost) experiments with kinetic sculpture, as well as a desire to make film. Lye was also one of the first Pākehā
Pākehā is a Māori language word for New Zealanders who are "of European descent". They are mostly descended from British and to a lesser extent Irish settlers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although some Pākehā have Dutch, Scandinavian, German, Yugoslav or other ancestry...

 artists to appreciate the art of Māori, Australian Aboriginal, Pacific Island and African cultures, and this had great influence on his work. In the early 1920s Lye travelled widely in the South Pacific. He spent extended periods in Australia and Samoa, where he was expelled by the New Zealand colonial administration for living within an indigenous community.

Working his way as a coal trimmer
Coal trimmer
A coal trimmer is an occupation involving the positioning of boats to be loaded with coal. It may also involve the spreading of coal evenly using a shovel inside the hold of a ship....

 aboard a steam ship, Lye moved to London in 1926. There he joined the Seven and Five Society
Seven and Five Society
The Seven and Five Society was an art group of seven painters and five sculptors created in 1919 and based in London.The group was originally intended to encompass traditional, conservative artistic sensibilities...

, exhibited in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition and began to make experimental films. Following his first animated film Tusalava, Lye began to make films in association with the British General Post Office, for the GPO Film Unit
GPO Film Unit
The GPO Film Unit was a subdivision of the UK General Post Office. The unit was established in 1933, taking on responsibilities of the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit...

. His 1935 film A Colour Box, an advertisement for "cheaper parcel post", was the first direct film screened to a general audience. It was made by painting vibrant abstract patterns on the film itself, synchronizing them to a popular dance tune by Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra. A panel of animation experts convened in 2005 by the Annecy film festival put this film among the top ten most significant works in the history of animation (his later film Free Radicals
Free Radicals (film)
Free Radicals is a black-and-white animated film short by avant-garde filmmaker Len Lye. Begun in 1958 and completed in 1979, Lye made the film by directly scratching the film stock...

was also in the top 50).

Lye also worked for the GPO Film Unit's successor, the Crown Film Unit
Crown Film Unit
The Crown Film Unit was an organisation within the British Government's Ministry of Information during World War II. Formerly the GPO Film Unit it became the Crown Film Unit in 1940. Its remit was to make films for the general public in Britain and abroad...

 producing wartime information films, such as Musical Poster Number One. On the basis of this work, Lye was later offered work for The March of Time
The March of Time
The March of Time is a radio series, and companion newsreel series, that was broadcast on CBS from 1931 to 1945 and shown in movie theaters from 1935 to 1951. It was created by Time, Inc. executive Roy Edward Larsen, and was produced and written by Louis de Rochemont and his brother Richard de...

newsreel in New York. Leaving his family in England, Lye moved to New York in 1943.

In Free Radicals he used black film stock and scratched designs into the emulsion. The result was a dancing pattern of flashing lines and marks, as dramatic as lightning in the night sky. In 2008, this film was added to the United States National Film Registry
National Film Registry
The National Film Registry is the United States National Film Preservation Board's selection of films for preservation in the Library of Congress. The Board, established by the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, was reauthorized by acts of Congress in 1992, 1996, 2005, and again in October 2008...


Lye continued to experiment with the possibilities of direct film-making to the end of his life. In various films he used a range of dyes, stencils, air-brushes, felt tip pens, stamps, combs and surgical instruments, to create images and textures on celluloid. In Color Cry, he employed the "photogram" method combined with various stencils and fabrics to create abstract patterns. It is a 16mm direct film featuring a searing soundtrack by the blues singer Sonny Terry
Sonny Terry
Saunders Terrell, better known as Sonny Terry was a blind American Piedmont blues musician. He was widely known for his energetic blues harmonica style, which frequently included vocal whoops and hollers, and imitations of trains and fox hunts.-Career:Terry was born in Greensboro, Georgia...


As a writer, Len Lye produced a body of work exploring his theory of IHN (Individual Happiness Now). He also wrote a large number of letters and poems. He was a friend of Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Marlais Thomas was a Welsh poet and writer, Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 11 January 2008. who wrote exclusively in English. In addition to poetry, he wrote short stories and scripts for film and radio, which he often performed himself...

, and of Laura Riding
Laura Riding
Laura Jackson was an American poet, critic, novelist, essayist and short story writer.- Early life :...

 and Robert Graves
Robert Graves
Robert von Ranke Graves 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985 was an English poet, translator and novelist. During his long life he produced more than 140 works...

 (their Seizin Press
Seizin Press
The Seizin Press was a small press, founded in 1927 by Laura Riding and Robert Graves in London. From 1930 to 1937 it operated out of Majorca....

 published No Trouble, a book drawn from Lye's letters to them, his mother, and others, in 1930). The NZEPC (New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre) website contains a selection of Lye's writings, which are just as surprising and experimental as his work in other media. One of his theories was that artists attempt to reproduce themselves in their works, which he exposited in an essay complete with visual examples.

Lye was also an important kinetic sculptor and what he referred to as "Tangibles". He saw film and kinetic sculpture as aspects of the same "art of motion", which he theorised in a highly original way in his essays (collected in the book Figures of Motion).

Many of his kinetic works can be found at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth
New Plymouth
New Plymouth is the major city of the Taranaki Region on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It is named after Plymouth, Devon, England, from where the first English settlers migrated....

, Taranaki including a 45-metre high Wind Wand
Wind Wand
The Wind Wand is a 48-metre kinetic sculpture located in New Plymouth, New Zealand. The sculpture includes a 45-metre tube of red fibreglass, and was made to designs by artist Len Lye. To residents, it is one of the main icons of New Plymouth. Originally installed in December 1999 along with the...

near the sea. The Water Whirler, designed by Lye but never realised in his lifetime, was installed on Wellington
Wellington is the capital city and third most populous urban area of New Zealand, although it is likely to have surpassed Christchurch due to the exodus following the Canterbury Earthquake. It is at the southwestern tip of the North Island, between Cook Strait and the Rimutaka Range...

's waterfront in 2006. http://www.wellingtonwaterfront.co.nz/experience/art_and_design/ His "Tangibles" were shown at MOMA
Moma may refer to:* Moma , an owlet moth genus* Moma Airport, a Russian public airport* Moma District, Nampula, Mozambique* Moma River, a right tributary of the Indigirka River* Google Moma, the Google corporate intranet...

 in New York in 1961 and are now found worldwide. In 1977, Len Lye returned to his homeland to oversee the first New Zealand exhibition of his work at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Shortly before his death in 1980, Lye and his supporters established the Len Lye Foundation, to which he gave his work. The Gallery is the repository for much of this collection, employing a full-time curator to ensure its preservation and appropriate exhibition.

Lye was a maverick, never fitting any of the usual art historical labels. Although he did not become a household name, his work was familiar to many film-makers and kinetic sculptors - he was something of an "artist's artist", and his innovations have had an international influence. He is also remembered for his colourful personality, amazing clothes, and highly unorthodox lecturing style (he taught at New York University
New York University
New York University is a private, nonsectarian research university based in New York City. NYU's main campus is situated in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan...

 for three years).

In 2010 a retrospective of his work was held at Ikon, Birmingham UK.

Personal life

Lye was married twice.
His first wife was Jane (Florence Winifred) Thompson with whom he had two children:
  • Bix Lye, also a sculptor, who lives and works in Williamsburg, New York
  • Yancy Ning Lou Lye (born 20 May 1940, Chiswick, London)

In Las Vegas in May 1948, Lye married his second wife, Annette "Ann" Zeiss (born 1910, Minnesota) on the same day he obtained a divorce from Jane. Ann was formerly married to Tommy Hindle, a British journalist.

He died in Warwick, New York
Warwick, New York
Warwick is a town in Orange County, New York, United States. The population was 30,764 at the 2000 census. The 2007 census population estimate is 32,669.The Town of Warwick is located in the southwest part of the county...


Len Lye Collection

The Len Lye Collection and Archive consists of all non-film works in Lye’s possession at the time of his death in 1980, as well as several items that have been gifted or acquired by the Foundation since. This body of work is extended by Len Lye works in the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The New Zealand Film Archive is the repository of Lye’s film prints that are owned by the Len Lye Foundation, and viewing prints are also in the Collection at the Govett-Brewster.

The relational database of the Len Lye Collection and Archive consists of 3,772 catalogue entries with an estimated total of 18,000 items. An inventory of the collection includes:
  • 24 paintings
  • 52 unique photograms
  • 10 textile works
  • 14 rare books
  • Approximately 1,000 photographs, many documenting his sculpture
  • 33 16mm film prints
  • 12 linear metres of archival material: 120 boxes containing approximately 1,200 individual folders
  • 16 exhibition-standard kinetic sculptures
  • 530 audio tapes
  • Approximately 11,000 slides
  • 1,400 ‘doodles’, drawings and prints
  • Various materials from the artist’s studio
  • Approximately 14 kinetic sculptures to be reconstructed or developed

Further information

There are two documentaries about Lye: Flip and Two Twisters and Doodlin, and a DVD of Lye's talks illustrated with slides: Len Lye Talks about Art.


  • Tusalava (1929)
  • The Peanut Vendor (1933)
  • Kaleidoscope (1935) in Dufaycolor
    Dufaycolor is an early French and British additive color photographic film process for motion pictures and stills photography. It was based on a four-color screen photographic process invented in 1908 by Frenchman Louis Dufay...

  • A Colour Box (1935) in Dufaycolor
  • Rainbow Dance (1936) in Gasparcolor
    Gasparcolor was a color film system, developed in 1933 by the Hungarian chemist Dr. Bela Gaspar. It used a subtractive 3-color process on a single film strip, one of the earliest to do so....

  • The Birth of The Robot (1936) in Gasparcolor
  • Trade Tattoo (1937) in Technicolor
    Technicolor is a color motion picture process invented in 1916 and improved over several decades.It was the second major process, after Britain's Kinemacolor, and the most widely used color process in Hollywood from 1922 to 1952...

  • Full Fathom Five (1937)
  • Colour Flight (1937) in Gasparcolor
  • North or Northwest? (N or NW?) (1938)
  • Swinging the Lambeth Walk] (1939) in Dufaycolor
  • Musical Poster Number One (1940) in Technicolor
  • When the Pie Was Opened (1941)
  • Kill or Be Killed (1942)
  • Color Cry (1952)
  • All Soul's Carnival (1957)
  • Rhythm (1957)
  • The Sign of Plexiglass (collaboration) (1959)
  • Free Radicals
    Free Radicals (film)
    Free Radicals is a black-and-white animated film short by avant-garde filmmaker Len Lye. Begun in 1958 and completed in 1979, Lye made the film by directly scratching the film stock...

    (1958, revised 1979)
  • Particles in Space (1979)
  • Tal Farlow (completed posthumously, 1980)

Further reading

  • Auckland City Art Gallery (1980) Len Lye: A personal mythology (catalogue published in conjunction with an exhibition of his paintings, steel-motion contributions and films). ISBN 0-86463-100-6
  • Bouhours, Jean Michel and Horrocks, Roger (ed) (2000) Len Lye, Paris, Edition Centre Pompidou. ISBN 2-84426-034-9
  • Curnow, Wystan and Horrocks, Roger (1984) Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, Oxford University Press/Auckland University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-19-647996-7
  • Horrocks, Roger (2002) Len Lye: A Biography, Auckland, Auckland Univ Press. ISBN 1-86940-247-2
  • Horrocks, Roger (ed) (2002) Happy Moments: Text and Images By Len Lye, Auckland, The Holloway Press. ISBN 0-9582313-3-8
  • Kashmere, Brett (2007) "Len Lye" in Senses of Cinema (Revised text of an entry first published in The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, 2006)
  • Len Lye in Te Ara online encyclopedia
  • Horrocks, Roger (2009) Art that Moves: The Work of Len Lye, Auckland, Auckland Univ Press. ISBN 978-1-86940-422-2
  • Horrocks, Roger (ed) (2009) Body English: Text and Images By Len Lye, Auckland, The Holloway Press. ISBN 0-9582313-9-7

External links