Len Lye, born Leonard Charles Huia Lye (5 July 1901 - 15 May 1980), was a Christchurch, 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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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:
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
The Peanut Vendor (1933)
Kaleidoscope (1935) in Dufaycolor
A Colour Box (1935) in Dufaycolor
Rainbow Dance (1936) in Gasparcolor
The Birth of The Robot (1936) in Gasparcolor
Trade Tattoo (1937) in Technicolor
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)
The Sign of Plexiglass (collaboration) (1959)
Free Radicals (1958, revised 1979)
Particles in Space (1979)
Tal Farlow (completed posthumously, 1980)