Len Lye

Lye is a clear example of that very rare type of artist who is equally at home in different media. As a young man he was one of the first sculptors in the world to work with movement; and the sculpture he made during the 1960s and 70s (in the collection of the Whitney Museum, the Chicago Art Institute, the Albright-Knox Gallery and other major museums) is among the best kinetic art of any period. He was also a highly original painter and writer.

From the breadth of his experience he was able to approach each art from an unusual angle, and so he came up with such radical ideas in the 1930's as making films without a camera ("direct films"), or using Technicolor to transform footage into colour patterns as brilliant and unexpected as those of modern painting. His range of talents and inventiveness, combined with a lively personality and a remarkable life story, make Len Lye a compelling subject.

Lye was the pioneer of many film-making techniques, including 'direct animation', the process of drawing and scratching designs directly onto film. He made his first animated film in 1929 and continued experimenting with new film-making techniques to the end of his life in 1980. Throughout his 50 year career as a film-maker, Lye saw animated film as a perfect medium for experiment. He wanted animators to be "free radicals". He once wrote: "There has never been a great film unless it was created in the spirit of the experimental film-maker. All great films contribute something original in manner or treatment".


Lye was interested not in objects moving but in what he called, "pure figures of motion". He came closest to this idea in his film, Free Radicals (1958, revised 1979) with its black patterns etched into black film and also in startling kinetic sculptures such as Flip and Two Twisters.

Lye was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1901. When he heard about the Futurists in overseas art magazines he was excited to learn that other artists were engaged in experiments similar to his. In his early years Lye made a close study of the art of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. In the early 1920s he spent several years in Australia and the islands of the South Pacific such as Samoa. He studied the dance rituals of Polynesia and the Australian Aborigines. In Australia he became involved with film-making which he saw as an ideal medium for his "art of motion". His first film, Tusalava, which he completed in London in 1929, was unique in style - as a semi-abstract animated film influenced not only by modernism but also by Maori, Aboriginal and Samoan art. The film was partly funded by his friends, Robert Graves and Laura Riding.


In 1944 he moved to New York and contributed to an upsurge in experimental film-making in the U.S.A. In the 1940s and 50s he came to know many of the abstract expressionist artists, screened his films at their parties, and felt an affinity between their paintings and his films. Despite his failure to find sponsorship he continued to make films. In Color Cry he extended the 'rayogramme' method in new directions, using everything from strips of film to patterned fabric to accompany a spine-tingling blues song by Sonny Terry. In Free Radicals and Particles in Space he gave up colour to concentrate on the most basic elements of the film medium - light and movement. He developed new symbols of "energy" scratched onto black film with a variety of tools ranging from ancient Indian arrowheads to modern dental tools.

Many animators have picked up the idea of direct film-making and used it in their own way. Norman McLaren, a fellow member of the G.P.O. Film Unit was deeply impressed by Colour Box. After Grierson gave him a job at the Canadian Film Unit, McLaren had a long and notable career as a direct film animator, and to this day many viewers confuse Lye's films with McLaren's. The two film makers were friends and always spoke generously about each others work. Lye's influence has also been acknowledged by many avant-garde film makers in the United States.

Biography courtesy Len Lye Foundation, http://www.govettbrewster.com/LenLye/foundation/