In the 1960s, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, wrote to a number of artists behind the artworks in the Gallery’s collection asking for statements regarding their works. Len Lye responded with comments about the work Grass, a version of which was acquired by the Albright-Knox in 1965.
Grass is one of Lye’s most gentle sculptures, an array of thin steel wire sitting upon a wooden bed that rocks slowly back and forth on its axis. There are two extant versions of Grass, the x metre, free-standing Grass in the Len Lye Foundation Collection at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, and a smaller “table-top” Grass at the Albright Knox.
In his response to the Albright-Knox, Lye noted that,
“Grass came about without any preconceived ideas about its imagery. It came from watching a single rodswaying and then doubling up to emphasize the accelerating stroke of its oscillation. It was the ‘lurch’ part of the sway that I liked.”
This reminds us of Lye’s interest in 'figures of motion', how he would shake a strip of steel or something similar and see “what he got”. Like many of his kinetic sculptures, Grass took this figure of motion and automated the movement with the aid of mechanical and programmed motion.
What interests me most about Lye’s response to the Albright-Knox’s then-Director Gordon M. Smith is a note that Grass “should be timed to slow music”. While Lye likened his composition with motion to the practice of composing with music it’s not always clear to audiences how close some of his works are to the realm of music. Some, such as the crashing Trilogy or the riotous Bell Wand, are noted for their dominating sound. Others, such as the sonorous Universe, are close to operating as musical instruments. Fountain and Grass perform a bit like dancers, gently swaying under the most subtle of mechanical motivations. If you find the right tempo the effect can be magic.
For Grass, Lye made particular mention of the jazz standard These Foolish Things or, preferably, something “similar tempo in the style of Satie”. These Foolish Things is interesting because Lye identified a version performed by Miles Davis. As I haven’t yet been able to identify a recording featuring Davis, I wonder if Lye made an error in identification, either a different Davis performance or a different version of the tune?
A little direction on this matter arrives in a note in the Len Lye Foundation Archives relating to the exhibition of Grass at the Museum of Modern Art. During Lye’s Evening of Tangible Motion Sculpture on 5 April 1961, several works performed with musical accompaniment: Fountain with Pierre Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maitre, Fire Bush with a recording of Afro-American drums from the Folkways recording library. On this night Grass performed with alternative jazz tune, My Funny Valentine from the 1956 recording, Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet. Perhaps Lye meant My Funny Valentine but quoted These Foolish Things in his letter to the Albright-Knox? Or maybe My Funny Valentine didn’t impress and These Foolish Things was a revised choice?
In 2014 the Govett-Brewster hosted an afternoon of live jazz to support the exhibition Len Lye: The New Yorker. This was an opportunity to exhibit Grass with musical accompaniment for the first time since 1961 and the first time at all with live accompaniment. The band performed My Funny Valentine, initially unsure of the tempo but the performance between band and sculpture resolved into a beautiful harmony.
The opening of the Len Lye Centre this year has been an opportunity to celebrate Lye’s work with experiments like this in mind. We return to the union of Lye’s Fountains with Blouez’ Le Marteau sans Maitre in Len Lye: Four Fountains, a homage to Lye’s performance at MOMA in 1961 but also a kind of sequel to Len Lye: Five Fountains and a Fire Bush, our 2007 exhibition (curated by Tyler Cann) that remains my personal favourite exhibition of Lye’s sculpture. You can also see Grass from the Len Lye Foundation Collection in the exhibition Len Lye’s Jam Session, with a choice of musical accompaniment.
Len Lye Curator
*Lye’s letter to the Albright-Knox Art Museum was published in Letters from 31 Artists to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo: The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, 1970). It is also quoted in Contemporary Art 1942-72: Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo: Praeger, 1972)