Len Lye's Sculpture and the Body of His Work


So through the persistence of all these people at long last hanging from the ceiling is the 18 foot strip of steel, I call it a piece of sperm, and on the other side is an equivalent spermatozoa wriggling and waggling around and in the middle is a great female loop kind of shape, a vulva shape, and so you've got the male-female symbolism going. And you've got what I prefer, the symbolic level where we have the symbol of energy. That's the item Trilogy, which is quite arresting; that item Trilogy is really a gang of energy.
Len Lye, 'In Arcadia People Are Talking About... Len Lye', Spleen, 7, 1977

Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters), Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth. The largest, the latest made, latest exhibited of Lye's sculptures. Fifty years earlier (1927), Beaux Arts Gallery, London, the seventh exhibition of the Seven and Five Society included Lye's first exhibited work, also sculpture. Called Unit, it was carved in marble, before he landed in London. It depicted a man and a woman in the grip of each other. That same year, 1927, he painted a work now called Polynesian Connection (Man-Woman), the central motif of which was derived from Unit.

LEN LYE Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters) 1977
stainless steel, installation approximately 7m x 9m (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery)

Lye reckoned he must've had Brancusi's The Kiss (1910) somewhat in mind when he carved Unit. But, he says, 'whereas I portray a tight-like-that embrace, Brancusi portrays his embrace in a babes-in-the-wood, hold-me-tight manner'. Point taken; Lye's piece has the more sexual energy. (Brancusi's light embrace does emerge from a pretty tight-like-that block of stone, though.) Both artists were after some deep image of sexual embrace. A lino-cut bookplate of this period makes of the Unit image a human head, a mind made up of male and female clinched, like that. Whereas Brancusi made, for The Gate, one image from the two heads of The Kiss, suggestive at once of a vagina, and the head of a penis.

In 1928, along with Polynesian Connection, Lye exhibited three 'constructions'; one called Eve, and another, untitled, having a pipe just where Adam had his. By this time sculpture was taking second place to painting, painting that was however rich in images of sperm, seeds, wombs - of primordial generation and metamorphosis. When, much later, he returned to sculpture, Lye made works consisting largely of agitated, excited, verticals and loops. And his visionary project, named Sun, Land and Sea, is dominated by The Temple of Lightning which houses an enormous steel loop, known as the Cave Goddess, through which a 150 foot long stainless-steel Sea God spits, when he has come to that point, 25 million volts of electricity. Lye's work from first to last, the sculpture in particular, is shall I say sexually charged?

This will happen again. With the twisters now coiling up in a double-S to half their height and crashing down from there. In the aftermath of that, the loop will begin to twist from the top. It is not loud, it is not wild, but slow. In silence it strains, bends, buckles some, pushes out and up like it would open itself wider and wider. And when the 'Flip' comes, it puts a stop to nothing; this crash being a release and some kind of shout for ecstasy and breakthrough. This, too, will happen again. Twisters and Flip, each have soloed, now they will move together.. . The mechanics of the thing are quite forgotten as the twisters express directly the force of that urge in the loop, opening mouth, whatever, between them to satisfy itself and/or flip out in the attempt.
Wystan Curnow, Art New Zealand, April/May 1977.

LEN LYE Bookplate 1924

Lye's 'Tangible Motion Sculptures' were first shown in 1961. Since then more than a dozen such have been widely and prominently displayed. Even including an equal number of sculptures left unfinished on his death, that adds up to a very small body of work. It is, however, the basis for a considerable international reputation. It includes, that is, works chosen for major European and American exhibitions of kinetic art, for major museum collections in New York, Chicago, Tel Aviv, San Francisco, and for illustration and discussion in several standard texts on modern sculpture.

His work has been much written about. Usually by way of review, whether of some exhibition or some aspect of modern sculpture. Or, by way of a brief introduction to the work. However, Lye began his career as a kinetic sculptor aged almost sixty, and the world of his art is far larger than most of this writing manages to suggest, let alone account for. That is, I suppose, because Lye had behind him careers in other media and art critics are normally specialists. The artist who sticks to a single medium can expect anyone part of his work to be seen in relation to the whole of it. This is less likely to be the case with the artist who spreads himself, however, particularly if it is across the fields of sculpture and experimental film, two areas normally well fenced off from one another. My aim here, therefore, is to get more of the whole world of Lye's work into a discussion of his sculpture. To make that sort of beginning.

It so happened Lye took up sculpture again just before a dramatic upsurge of kinetic work, mostly from Europe. An upsurge .Lye did welcome. He exhibited and was discussed in connection with these artists. Most of them were, however, twenty to thirty years his junior. And their intentions were rather different. The fact that American critics have tended to praise his work at the expense of the Europeans gives some clue to this difference.

LEN LYE Unit 1924

Lye showed his films at The Club and was pleased to claim, and rightly, the kinship of his own paintings of the 1930s with the New American painting of the 1940s and '30s. On the other hand, the European kinetic movement was conceived in repudiation of this Abstract Expressionism, or Tachisme as they called it. Lye's work has been described as Constructivist. Yet when Naum Gabo, a founder of Constructivism and a prophet of kineticism, arrived in London - that was also when Lye's friend Ben Nicholson opted for geometric abstraction - Lye moved into closer orbit with the Surrealists. The kineticists have made a point of sinking their individuality into groups, such as GRAV and GROUP T, whereas Lye was pleased to call himself a 'maverick's maverick.' Gianni Columbo, a member of GROUP T, has spoken of the transformation of the observer, from a spectator to a technician. 'This transformation, on as wide a scale as possible. . . is one of the objectives to which our work consistently aspires.' (1965) Len Lye, on the other hand, was pleased to say he had never learnt to drive a car. 'Personally I have no aptitude for mechanics, no knowledge of motors, relay systems, or servo devices. Perhaps I'm for magic carpets over flying saucers, and would rather be an heir to the Australian aboriginal with his boomerang and bullroarer than an heir to constructivism and mechanics.' (1965) Lye appears to be an odd man out, his co-incidence with European kineticism but an accident of art history.

LEN LYE Untitled 1940

Lye took up sculpture again at the same time as he went 'on strike' as an experimental film-maker because of the lack of financial support. (See 'Is Film Art?' Film Culture, Summer 1963.) Most of his ideas about, ideas for 'Tangible Motion Sculptures' came quickly, between 1959 and 1962-3. Thereafter it was mostly refining, tuning, getting the works built. All of which suggests that his sculpture was above all a product of his own art history and hardly at all a sign of the times.

Besides these highly developed peoples there lived on the world other races inhabiting Africa and the Ocean Islands.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 'Vortex', Blast, 1914

At that time. . .I thought the primitive imagery of South Sea islands art was much more vital than western art.
'Interview with Len Lye', Gretchen Weinberg, Film Culture, Summer 1963

. . . and one of the 'sound poems' that Tristan Tzara read at the Cabaret Voltaire was a transcription, simply a transliteration of a Maori poem from New Zealand.
Jerome Rothenberg, 'Changing the Present, Changing the Past', Talking Poetics at Naropa, 1979

I was right there among the very best Polynesians.
'Ray Thorburn Interviews Len Lye', Studio International, April, 1975

LEN LYE Untitled 1940

Len Lye was a 15 year old art student in Wellington when he decided he wanted to be a kinetic artist. In fact, this was less a decision, more a revelation, a something suddenly known. Which accounts somewhat for the precocity of it - and the single-mindedness that led to his indeed becoming such an artist. For it was one thing to decide, quite another, in 1916, to know what to do about it, even what it meant.

He did build some hand-operated wooden constructions, did experiment with 'flip books', did know that film had to matter - while picking up basic firm-making know-how in Sydney, he did experiment some. But exhibited nothing. And not till much later did these early, undoubtedly serious, experiments come to seem central, not peripheral to art-making. Meantime, he sought images of energy and movement in the static and conventional media of sculpture and painting. Two kinds made sense: machine imagery the Vorticists and Futurists had used to capture contemporary urban energy, and tribal art images strong with bodily and psychic energies. Those, combined, suited the man, 'wild colonial boy', fresh out of the boiler-room of the S.S.Euripedes, out from Samoa, head full of antipodean collections of tribal art. The man who knew about Epstein's Rock-drill (1913-15), Gaudier-Brzeska's Carved Toothbrush Handle and Toy/Ornament (both 1914), with their combinations of the two kinds of imagery. He brought with him his Vorticist Tiki, and his Unit held together by strong spanner-like arms, the subsequent 'constructions', the book-plate, and Tusalava's left-hand figure were, like those British works, all machine totems.

Frames from Len Lye's Free Radicals 1958
black and white film (The Len Lye Foundation)

The early sculpture looks back, not forward. Back to the western art which had seemed to matter most before he got to London, back to styles that had run their course. So Lye soon abandoned sculpture and, shortly after, the mechanical and the tribal as sources of constitutive imagery. That's not to say they ceased to matter. Throughout this century, combining present energies with those of art culturally and/or historically remote has, after all, remained a way of 'making it new.' (In New Zealand we have Gordon Walters, Andrew Drummond, Phil Dadson, for examples.) Lye in fact went on haunting museums and libraries all his life; he kept his eye out for links between current knowledge and myth knowledge and, more to my point, came back eventually to sculpting by taking actual machines, having them move, waggle and wiggle, lengths of metal in ways which had reviewers calling his sculptures 'primitive' and 'barbaric'. Works not comprising images of the world, but works for themselves in the world.

LEN LYE Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters) 1977
stainless steel, installation approximately 7m x 9m (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery)

Movement is unpremeditated being; it is the uncritical expression of life. As we begin to meditate we begin to stop living. . . First comes life; and if we meditate prematurely, if we lend to physical things a critical self-consciousness, we are substituting imagination for movement and sentimentalizing the physical past. Up to a certain point we must leave things alone and let them speak for themselves, in movement. We must understand the physical physically.
Len Lye and Laura Riding, 'Film-making', Epilogue, 1938.

The reader knows himself as he was twenty years ago and he has in mind a vision of what he would be, someday. Oh, someday! But the thing he never knows is what he is at the exact moment that he is. And this moment is the only thing in which I am at all interested. . .
Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it - it affirms reality most powerfully and therefore since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action. .. it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but -
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, 1923.

I myself eventually came to look at the way things moved mainly to try to feel movement and only feel it. This is what dancers do, but instead I wanted to put the feeling of a figure of motion outside of myself to see what I'd got. I came to realise that this feeling had to come out of myself; not out of streams, swaying grasses, soaring birds; so instead of sketching lines and accents described by things in motion, I now tried to tie and plait their particular motion characteristics into my sinews - to attach an inner echo of them to my bones.
Len Lye, The Practice, from The Art That Moves, unpublished MSS, 1964.

LEN LYE Rain Tree and Earth 1978
acrylic on canvas 2756 x 1851 mm and 628 x 1851 mm (The Len Lye Foundation)

Lye arrived at last at his art of motion when he stopped looking for the right kind of imagery for energy and movement and looked instead to the figures motion did make when applied to the medium at hand. Publicly, that medium was first of all film; the result: Colour Box (1935), the world's first 'direct' film. Next was painting; the results emerging in works Lye contributed to various surrealist group shows in the later 1930s. The third was sculpture, kinetic sculpture. In the studio, however, the first and crucial medium was drawing.

The little or nothing that is known, even now, of the meaning of tribal objects enhances their power and mystery. When drawing them in the 1920s, Lye took care to cover up what information there was. When, later, he began to draw his own pseudo-tribal images, that mystery, that lost or buried meaning, became a thing of his own making He got to recognise the look of it. And, given the influence of Surrealism, the step to locating the mystery fully within himself was a short one. Once taken, the tribal was internalized and ready to return as news from the 'Old Brain'. As changes in his drawings show, what made these steps possible was his discovery of doodling. Thenceforward most of his major works either had their origins in or were themselves doodles.

I always do doodle-type images when I'm fishing for something to kind of feel at most one with myself. I doodle with pen and pencil, or bits of steel I waggle; film I scratch. When I was twenty to over forty my doodles looked like the start of a myth; and this, the doodle, was how the myth was; then with metal and film work their imagery got the ultimate look of energy. . .
letter to the author, September 2,1979.

LEN LYE Blade 1965
1829 mm. high (The Len Lye Foundation)

Doodling made possible Lye's art of motion. For it is not a conscious searching for figuring out of, imagery but an unpremeditated act of mind. Mind, said Allen Ginsberg, is shapely. And doodling involves kinds of attention meant to catch consciousness napping so that the mind can freely take its shapes. These shapes constitute knowledge of what one is at the exact moment that one is.

Or, come at it this way: long before he took to doodling, Lye worked at understanding the physical physically, trying to 'tie and plait' movement around him into his sinews, attending to his own 'body English'. Like his careful copying of tribal objects, this was a kind of training which involved deliberate attending to a mystery: that of the body. How to describe the experiences that result from a practised attention of this kind? They can't be said to be entirely conscious or unconscious. Certainly, they are the reception for, the placement in oneself of, events that are nevertheless for themselves. Equally, that reception is also an event, a feeling, that is for itself. That is like a gift. And, for that reason, it is to be projected outside of oneself. Lye spoke of his sculptures giving energy back to the sun, with thanks. But until he discovered doodling, Lye knew no way to project that feeling as an event.

Frames from Len Lye's Colour Box 1935
colour film (The Len Lye Foundation)

Through the 1930s Lye's doodling became increasingly calligraphic. So that thenceforth, in much of his best work, we have figures of the hand, his hand, making its marks on paper, wood, canvas, or film. A comparison of some wood-cuts of 1940, with stills from Free Radicals (1958) and with shots of light patterns made by Trilogy (1977) is less misleading than it seems. Stills do misrepresent films or moving sculptures, and they do so differently; yet the comparison points to the calligraphic at work somewhere in the making process, whatever the medium. Doodling was a way to get the body into the act of art-making. Especially sculpture-making. In drawing or painting, the artist's energy is dispersed across a surface, leaving marks which say where it went. In 'direct' film-making it is the same, except the marks do recapture their energy when projected, and the hand has to keep that in mind when making them. Lye's wife said he looked spastic when scratching film for Free Radicals. In sculpture-making, however, the energy flows directly from his body into that of the rod or strip of metal with which he is doodling, so that he has his figure of motion moving right there at the end of his arm. For, regardless of scale, or of the capacities of the motors which drive Lye's completed works, it is clear to us they had their origins in materials that had first been taken in hand and thereby made to move.

LEN LYE Universe 1976
steel on wood and formica base, 2090 x 2700 x 280 mm (The Len Lye Foundation)

Lye's sculptures are not ostensibly complicated. They consist of lengths or hoops of more or less flexible metal to which energy is, variously, applied by means of motors so that they move and make a sound. Where more than one length, as with Grass or Fountain, or circle, as with Roundhead, is involved, the arrangement is simple. Similarly, when length and circle are combined, as with Trilogy. In two works (Universe and Blade) a striker is added to introduce a further sound element. Lye has always liked the association of sound and movement; with the sculptures, sound is less an accompaniment and more an integral part of the work than is the case with the films. Sound speaks for the movement and for what is being moved: the material, the body of the work. That speech has a lot to do with the eerie or barbaric quality the sculptures have, for the distance that obtains between our bodies and those of the sculptures. Donald Judd (Art International, May, 1965) was a bit bothered by the strikers, and the 'imagistic' look of Trilogy when at rest. These suggested to him that Lye thought motion was 'not sufficient': It could be said Trilogy is not meant to be seen at rest, but the point really is that Judd is of a later generation, one for whom works have to be more decisively 'for themselves' than Lye meant his to be. Lye set himself against imagery, and for figures of motion. And a comparison of a still from Colour Box (1935), with the sculpture Blade (1959) and the painting, Rain Tree (1978), points up the persistence of the human figure in his work, regardless of medium. It is a reminder that all his sculptures are to be received in some sense as performers, actors, and that they are imagistic in the same way abstract expressionist paintings are. They contain what Lawrence Alloway (Artforum, November, 1973) called residual sign systems. Some real free play is desired.

LEN LYE Day and Night 1978
acrylic on linen, 2138 x 2419 mm. (The Len Lye Foundation)

In free wild life, each touch brings about an intense recoil, and each recoil causes an intense sympathetic attraction. So goes on the strange battle of desire, until consummation is reached.
It is the precise parallel of what happens in a thunderstorm when the dynamic forces of the moon and the sun come into collision. The result is three-fold: first, the electric flash, then the birth of pure water, new water.
So it is in sex relation. There is a three-fold result. First, the flash of pure sensation, and of real electricity. Then there is the birth of an entirely new state of blood in each partner. And then there is the liberation.
D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious, 1923

So there's three sea-serpents here and three more here and the cave-goddess in the middle and she's lifted up. There's a 25,000 volt arc of electricity passing from the head of the sea serpent through the cave-goddess to the sun ball. And if you ever had a Freudian fertilizing the egg thing, well, that's it. But there's more to it than that. What it really symbolizes is the artist's returning a bit of the energy he's got from the sun, back to the sun, with thanks.
Len Lye, 'In Arcadia People are Talking about... Len Lye', Spleen, 7,1977.

Frames from Len Lye's Colour Box 1935
colour film (The Len Lye Foundation)

Originally published in Art New Zealand 17 Spring 1980