Len Lye, born Leonard Charles Huia Lye (5 July 1901, Christchurch, New Zealand - 15 May 1980, Warwick, New York), was a 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, British Film Institute, Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Berkeley Art Museum|Pacific Film Archive at University of California, Berkeley. Lye's sculptures are found in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Berkeley Art Museum. Although he became a naturalized citizen of the United States 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.
Career 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 Pakeha artists to appreciate the art of Maori, 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 aboard a steam ship, Lye moved to London in 1926. There he joined the Seven and Five Society, 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. 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 was also in the top 50).
Lye also worked for the GPO Film Unit's successor, the Crown Film Unit 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 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.'Cinematic Classics, Legendary Stars, Comedic Legends and Novice Filmmakers Showcase the 2008 Film Registry' News from the Library of Congress (30 December 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.
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, and of Laura Riding and Robert Graves (their Seizin Press 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. 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 Lye's kinetic works can be found at the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth, Taranaki including a 45-metre high Wind Wand near the sea. The Water Whirler, designed by Lye but never realised in his lifetime, was installed on Wellington's waterfront in 2006. http://www.wellingtonwaterfront.co.nz/experience/art_and_design/
Lye was a maverick, never fitting any of the usual art historical labels. Although he did not 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 for three years).
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 Chiswick, London)
He married his second wife, Annette 'Ann' Zeiss (born 1910, Minnesota), in Las Vegas in May 1948 on the same day he obtained a divorce from Jane. Ann was formerly married to Tommy Hindle, a British journalist.
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''.