12 Jul 2015
By Awa Press.
The astonishing story of New Zealand artist Len Lye.
Len Lye started life in Christchurch at the turn of the century in a family so poor they could not afford to send him to high school. His father died, his mother struggled to raise Len and his brother, and later his stepfather was committed to an asylum.
Despite this tragic background, Lye went on to become one of the most inspiring artists and innovative film-makers of the 20th century, with works and exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and many other notable art museums.
In a remarkable new book Zizz! (Awa Press, NZ$30) Lye’s biographer Roger Horrocks tells the story in Lye’s own words, compiled from the artist’s many writings. Lye was driven by a lifelong passion for motion and energy, and how to depict them in art. As a young man he moved to Sydney and then London, where he exhibited with artists such as Frances Hodgkins and Henry Moore, became involved in Surrealism, and made short films, including for the General Post Office Film Unit, pioneering a technique of scratching directly on celluloid. Today these are seen as forerunners of music videos.
In the Second World War, disillusioned with the British government’s messages to its citizens about the war, he moved to New York, where he would live for most of the rest of his life. He worked for US cinema series The March of Time and produced wartime documentaries before returning to his true love, the ‘muse of motion’.
Many of Lye’s brilliant and exciting kinetic sculptures were deemed too difficult to construct, until in 1977 he made a visit to New Zealand for the first exhibition of his work in his homeland – at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery – and met engineer John Matthews, who successfully took on the challenge.
Before Lye died three years later, he gratefully bequeathed his entire collection to a new Len Lye Foundation, based in New Plymouth. July 25, 2015 marks the opening of a stunning new building, the Len Lye Centre, in the city, designed by Auckland architects Patterson Associates and dedicated to Lye’s art and ideas.
Zizz! editor Roger Horrocks was Len Lye’s assistant in New York and was given the job of organising his written works. He became an expert on Lye’s life and art, and wrote an acclaimed biography that was shortlisted for the 2002 New Zealand Book Award. He has curated exhibitions of Lye’s work, directed a film about him, and written the libretto for Len Lye: The Opera.