In the Presence


Sitting at my table in the studio I face into the west light. Over there, through the forest of buildings, along the gridded streets, is hallowed ground. Len Lye's turf in the west village. Mana.

Len died five weeks today. His transformation is pure and clear and sweet. We are in the presence of a master.

Len and Ann Lye in New York, 1948

My last visit to Len was five days before his death. I had travelled to Warwick with john Maynard. As Ann was treating us to fresh raw asparagus from her garden, and sherry, Len told us his First Man dream. My version of it goes that years and years before, in a dream, Len took one of his fine art pieces, one of his objects, to his father and asked him if it had some of the original essence. His father replied, 'You will have to ask my father'. Len asked his grandfather: 'Gramp, has this piece of mine got some of the original essence?' His grandfather referred him to his father and so on along the line of father and son until Len came to the First Man. The First Man took the piece, weighed it in his hands, looked at it from every angle, felt it at great length, finally handed it back to Len and said: 'Yes, it's got it, it's got the original essence, it's the real thing'.

Len Lye and Max Gimblett in Lye's studio, New York, 1980

Full on light. Lighthouse beaming naked. Intense sparkling water, sunlight. Light inside out. Before John and I entered the house, before the screen door opened, I saw the quiet, strong, steady light. From the back of the house came the kimono master, ablaze with light. Concentric circled golden cadmium yellow. His light drawing the landscape afresh for us as Ann drove us to lunch. Len placed his hand under her on the car seat so that part of her weight rested on him. His light merged with the hills, the sun, the grass, the animals. He was the tree. Len was nearing completion, he was at one. Later, after he died, Ann shared his final body light with me. She told me: 'He was so beautiful lying there'.

Images of the colors he wore. Orange cardigan, blue-violet and red-violet trousers, high-pitched and utterly clear and pure cadmium red beret, cobalt, sky-blue and cadmium grass-green and white rugby shirt and bee-buzzing gold and black socks. The colors of royalty.

Len Lye's New York studio

There was an evening when I had been invited to the loft for supper. Len came down into the street, as was his way, to see me off, and have a cup of fine Italian coffee and a sweet together on Bleecker Street. It was raining hard. Len stood under a canvas canopy while I looked for a cab. The canopy of an apartment complex, 'The Cezanne'. A cab pulled over, and as I opened the door I glanced back at Len. The entire space under the canopy was filled to overflowing with a glowing, piercing yellow/golden light; Len's eyes were flashing white/silver lightning; there were crashing, booming, twanging, crackling kinetic metal universe birthing sounds vibrating in the air, and his radiant Buddha smile filled me completely. Len had given me a drink from the source.

Len's presence peaked for me, these weeks, at his wake. Bernard Childs, an old friend of Len's, was telling me the story of himself and his wife Judith and Len and Ann at the Sea Shell Exhibition in Paris, the summer of '75, at the Jardin des Plantes. Finding themselves, at one point, alone, with this magnificent sea shell exhibition, and with Verdi's The Slave Song of Nabucco playing, they waltzed and waltzed about the great hall. As I told Bernard of the plans of the Len Lye Foundation he began to rub his bearded cheeks along mine, just as Len had, in a dream, a week before he died. I felt Len's presence. We all drank champagne and our memories of Len were flowers about his body.

LEN LYE The King of the Plants Meets the First Man 1936
oil on canvas (The Len Lye Foundation)

In the studio, surrounded by his vision alive in doodles, paintings, films, kinetic sculptures, writings, photographs, postcards, studio tools and equipment and clippings from the New York Times with Len's notations, Roger Horrocks showed a film clip of Len at 66. Immediately, it was crystal clear. This artist for the twenty-first century has a perfect pace, a perfect inner and outer harmony match. His future projected vision is unfolding and taking hold. The scale he envisaged for his sculptures is being realised right now. The temples are planned. The World Conference on Values is in the planning stage. School art curriculum is ready. His writings are being published now and his films distributed. And, so, so much more!

We are and always will be in the presence of Len Lye. Len Lye felt the first sign of life in the oceans in his shoulder blades. Len Lye is a First Man. He is our ancestor. He didn't say goodbye, he said: 'I am forever. I mean it'.

New York City June 19, 1980

Originally published in Art New Zealand 17 Spring 1980