A man committed to art and experiment throughout a long life-time; a great individualist with his own style of dress and his own way of talking and writing as well as his own type of art; a New Zealander who 'went native' in Samoa then made a bohemian style of life for himself in London; a friend of both 'cat burglars' and experimental artists, thoroughly discarding the conservative attitudes towards life and art that his own country had given him, Len Lye in 1930 wrote (at the beginning of No Trouble): 'The marvel just now is to know now and yet feel good. I don't want to go home, I was dragged up among the tomb-stones and had an early deceit until I learned that the most the monuments stand for is to be found at the foot of any lamp-post and if it's spit then there's the gutter'.

From London Len Lye moved to New York in the mid-'forties, and became part of an art scene that was warming up to become the world's best. He took out American citizenship (simplifying his name from Leonard Charles Huia Lye to Len Lye) and built reputations for himself as a major sculptor and film-maker.

Finally, in the last years of his life, Len Lye's art began to appear in New Zealand. The Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth commissioned two major kinetic sculptures. Now his paintings are on display in Auckland, more of his films keep arriving; and his papers and manuscripts will soon be sent from New York. He has bequeathed to us the results of a lifetime of exploring. Lye's death leaves a great sense of loss: but his influence will continue to be felt through his work.

Before we start to take the presence of Lye's work in New Zealand for granted, however, and certainly before we feel too much national pride at having added a major figure to our line-up of artists, there are a few awkward questions we should ask ourselves. To begin with: why has it taken New Zealanders so long to discover Lye? The first documentary on his work to be made by New Zealand television was appropriately called 'Len Who?' This useful film (directed by Tony Rimmer and narrated by Hamish Keith) pointed out that Lye's name was absent from all the local reference books - and this was in 1973, by which time his work had already been discussed overseas in hundreds of books and essays on film-making or kinetic sculpture. Until the last couple of years, anyone who mentioned his work in New Zealand was likely to receive blank looks even from people interested in the arts.

To develop into a major artist and filmmaker it was essential for Lye to go overseas. This was sixty years ago. The local scene has certainly become more sophisticated since then: but how much? Knowledge of modernism, particularly of those areas of experimental art in which Lye was involved, still remains sketchy. If he had been equally successful in a more conservative type of art, he would have been recognized and claimed by this country years ago. I raise these points not to produce a flurry of breast-beating but to suggest that the case of this artist offers us an opportunity to examine our local culture, to see how it responds to something unfamiliar.

Len Lye on the 'Contemporary Voices in the Arts' lecture tour at the YM-YWHA, New York, February 1967. At the table, starting with Stan Van Der Beek (film-maker, standing in background left) continuing clockwise, are Jack Tworkov (painter), Billy Kluver (engineer with EAT), Merce Cunningham (choreographer/dancer), John Cage (composer) and Robert Creeley (poet). At left, in tweed coat, John B. Hightower, director of the New York State Council on the Arts, asks a question of Len Lye (sunglasses on forehead).

Whether we understand Lye's work or not, whether we deserve it or not, we need it because it brings us important news. The arrival of his bequest presents this country with the kind of challenge that seldom comes its way. His art has deep roots in New Zealand (through a boyhood familiarity with sea and bush, and a close study of Maori art) but at the same time it is very different from the art made in this country then or now. Those differences - which I am going to examine more closely in the second part of this essay - suggest new ways for our own art to grow.

What Lye added to the territories opened up by other New Zealanders - both residents and expatriates - were his explorations in kinetic sculpture, experimental or 'abstract' film-making, mixed media activities, and experimental writing. These areas are seldom cultivated in New Zealand even today: although there have been some interesting developments in the last two. Lye broke new ground not only by being the first New Zealander to work seriously in these fields but also by being so thoroughly a man of the avant-garde. To discover that in 1928 a New Zealand-born writer and artist had a painting reproduced in transition (in the company of Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Andre Breton, etc.) and in 1930 a volume of experimental writing published by Laura Riding (following a volume by Gertrude Stein) should give a jolt to our sense of history. It is even more startling to hear of Lye's attempts to make kinetic sculpture in New Zealand in 1917 or 1918, and of his 'scratch film' experiments in Sydney in 1922: but unfortunately this work appears to have been lost.

Throughout his life, Lye's involvement with vanguard art was extensive: including magazines such as The Tiger's Eye (New York), publishers such as The Hours Press of Paris, galleries such as The Museum of Modern Art, and many individuals such as Dylan Thomas, Robert Creeley, Joan Miro, Merce Cunningham and John Cage - an extremely rich career for an artist of any nationality.

It could be argued that the diversity of Lye's work is a New Zealand characteristic. Because our culture has breadth rather than depth, it tends to produce artistic jacks-of-all-trades, all-rounders and do-it-yourself-men rather than specialists. This situation has its advantages, and it is pleasant to think of our artists as Renaissance types: but in almost every case the New Zealand jack-of-all-arts ends up master of none.

A portrait of Len Lye (left) and his brother Phil (right) taken at The Electric Studio, Wellington, 1918

Lye managed to bring it off - he was both diverse and specialised, achieving highly original work in four different media (sculpture, firm, painting and writing). We could learn a great deal from his example. Obviously there are many factors involved: but the main one seems to be his thorough, specialised training in the 'Old Brain', which provided a strong foundation for all his later work. It is rare for a New Zealand artist or writer to prepare to do his or her own thing in such a thorough and extreme way. As Lye remarked in the Spleen interview: 'most young artists are in a hurry to get going and - this is where they fall flat on their faces'.

The term 'Old Brain', as used in biology, refers to the area of the brain that developed first in the course of human evolution. Lye associated this area with the mental powers that lay outside rationality - it was his conception of the 'unconscious'. He saw it as closely connected also to the processes of the body. Lye's attempt to get more of the body and the Old Brain into art gave direction and energy to his work in each of the media.

Frames from Len Lye's Tusalava 1928
black and white film (The Len Lye Foundation)

New Zealand writers and artists have seldom done more with the Old Brain than peered in at the door and recognized its darkness. Only a few writers such as James K. Baxter and Janet Frame have stayed long enough for their eyes to adjust: long enough to glimpse what American poets call 'deep image'. Our young rebels seem to tire after a few visits, satisfied by a brief encounter with 'shadow energy' or a whiff of 'dragon smoke'. Russell Haley and Michael Harlow (both born overseas) deserve credit for searching patiently in the dark. Appropriately, Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was one of Lye's favourite novels. To see how much he fished up during his sixty year career is not merely to recover a part of our history but to recover a part of ourselves, a part of our potential.

It may be a lucky accident that the first examples of Lye's work that many New Zealanders will encounter are the paintings. These are uncompromising examples of Lye's commitment to the Old Brain. His search for 'hypnotic' primal images. The paintings tend to lack the immediate appeal of the films or the sculpture: but for that very reason they force us to consider the differences between lye's view of art and our own.

One critic categorized Lye's talk of the Old Brain as 'Surrealism', trying to put it in its place as an outworn fashion of the 1920s and '30s. Despite put-downs of this kind, Surrealism refuses to die: the best of it is still vital enough to take seriously today. Lye took it seriously when It first appeared and was shrewd enough to distinguish its real energies from its pretentious 'literary' elements (which he attacked, for example, in a 1936 essay for Life and Letters Today), Ultimately, Lye was not a 'Surrealist' since he was not much interested in dreams and disIiked the idea of joining movements: but he continued to admire the most innovative Surrealists such as Miro (who were later to have a major influence on the New York school).

LEN LYE Snowbirds Making Snow 1936
oil on hardboard 943 x 1448 mm. (The Len Lye Foundation)

Lye developed his own theoretical understanding of the Old Brain, as an alternative to Surrealist or Freudian notions of the Unconscious. He was very quick to see how modern genetic biology would transform our thinking on this subject. The Lye collection coming to New Zealand includes a rich array of unpublished manuscripts and slide-tape lectures. His theories about the artist-tapping information from his or her gene-pattern may strike some people as too strange to be taken seriously: but today it is essential to keep an open mind in this area. As Lewis Thomas remarked in The Lives of a Cell: 'In just the past decade, [the biological sciences] have uncovered a mass of brand-new information, and there is plenty more ahead..: There are fascinating ideas all over the place. . . But every new move is unpredictable, every outcome uncertain. It is a puzzling time, but a very good time'. Thomas argued in this same book that a new 'biomythology' was needed - a need which Lye had already recognized and answered.

The essays and slide lectures coming to New Zealand also present Lye's ideas about the education of young artists. The sensory exercises ('models' or 'ways of practising art') which he had developed in Christchurch as a boy provided the basis for his teaching at New York University in the late 'sixties; and they seem equally relevant to New Zealand today. Lye's university classes had a high drop-out rate because they were so unorthodox: but the students who survived the first shock were deeply influenced. He was interested not in imposing ideas but in helping the 'student to develop his or her own sensibility. The exercises strengthened the ability to remember sensations, to concentrate on one sense throughout the day, to 'empathize' with motion, to sketch movements and to relate them to particular parts of the body, etc. The general aim was to learn to 'see with your own eyes' and to feel with your whole body.

LEN LYE Helium 1978
acrylic on canvas, 2185 x 3370 mm (The Len Lye Foundation)

Some of the exercises were aimed more specifically at developing the Old Brain - such as visual and verbal 'doodling'. Doodling - which was the starting-point for much of Lye's art - opens up an area of imagery seldom used by New Zealand artists. Our art audience still favours recognizable subject-matter and smooth, ostentatious craftsmanship. Lye's teaching challenged these criteria and encouraged an interest in doodling and also in children's art, tribal art, prehistoric cave art, graffiti, cracks and stains and other types of raw texture and bold calligraphy.

As a teenager, Lye immersed himself in tribal art as a corrective to the Western ideas of craftsmanship he received from his art teachers. His interpretation of tribal art as Old Brain art and his methods of understanding it by learning to make it himself provide us with useful ways to deepen our own response to this area of art. His admiration for tribal cultures is not merely a revival of the 'noble savage' idea but part of a more complex attempt by modern artists to become 'civilised first men'. As Clark Coolidge has said of the painter Philip Guston:

'One of the things Guston likes to talk about most is cave art: the first painters, who are incredible if you look at their work. I'm not sure that anyone is more sophisticated. The mark, the first mark. Of course Guston talks about it like Mallarme's statement, "being a civilised first man". In other words, you're in the cave and you've got your stick, but you know all about art, you've been to the Louvre. You're both of these. That's the way he thinks of his condition as an artist now.' (Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute)

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

Coolidge is an American poet, Lye's concerns (Old Brain, myth, tribal art, body empathy) have also been the concerns of many American poets since Olson. They have touched New Zealand poetry occasionally (through the influence of Jerome Rothenberg, for example): but not yet deeply enough. If we want these qualities to inform our poetry and art we could learn from the ways in which Lye set out to tap the energies of tribal art.

In one form or another, artists have been combining modernism with tribal art since the beginnings of Cubism (or even earlier, since the time of Gauguin). One of the distinctive features of Lye's combination was his emphasis on tribal art from the countries in which he lived - New Zealand, Australia, Samoa and Tonga. He was also deeply influenced by African art and the Altamira cave drawings: but in at least some of his work there is a distinctive local emphasis - for example the Maori elements in the paintings Polynesian Connection and Fern People; or the various Polynesian elements in the film Tusalava. Lye's dialogue with Aboriginal art was particularly intense and the results seem highly original.

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

The combination of elements varies from work to work and sometimes Lye produced what he called 'clinkers'. Any artist who is prepared to take chances and to push himself hard is bound to trip over at times. What counts is the artist's best work and what his work adds up to as a whole. Lye has passed on to us some superb paintings (such as The King of Plants Meets The First Man and Rain Tree); sculpture (such as Flip and Two Twisters); films such as Free Radicals, Color Cry and Particles In Space); and writing (such as parts of No Trouble and his sequence of myth prose-poems). These individual items make a very strong case for Lye's importance as an artist: but equally impressive is the scope of his work as a whole - its coherence, energy and originality (the qualities I have tried to indicate in this article).

Now we have an opportunity to live with this work, and much could come from the encounter. In his later years Lye had very positive feelings about New Zealand. He had always kept a deep interest in the landscape and in Maori art, and he admired our conservationists. As an artist he was pleased with the support he received from the Arts Council and the Film Commission, and above all from John Matthews and the Govett-Brewster Gallery, who somehow managed to accomplish the artist's hair-raising proposals for larger works of sculpture. Lye was far from being a nationalist and he was not naively optimistic about New Zealand: however, he could see the possibility of 'utopian experiments' here if we used our resources wisely. Now Lye's work has become part of those resources and it is up to us to make good use of it.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 17 Spring 1980