Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Len Lye : A Biography - Roger Horrocks. AUP.

Len Lye (1901–1980) is arguably one of the twentieth century’s most original artists; a one-man art movement spanning several countries and multiple media over a lifetime and beyond. As a New Zealander practising in London during the pre-war years, and then a key figure in the post-war New York avant-garde art scene, Lye mapped a unique course through Modernism.

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.

In Zizz! (Awa Press) 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. This is another bite at that cherry from a more holistic view.

If you ask me, Frizzell, McCahon, Wollaston and Driver are all frauds!  Completely nothing, worthless - well, in comparison to Lye, that is.  It was only a few years ago, thanks to the good people of New Plymouth (some) and the arrogant bloody mindedness of the New Plymouth Council, which sparked a  huge battle over the funding of a special centre for Lye's work that many of us general plebs even got to hear about this great artist.  And what a man, and what a life!  Horrocks should know, too.  As Lye's artistic assistant, Horrocks is obviously the best person to explain the man, the artist and the visionary.  Horrocks, himself is now an Emeritus Professor at Auckland University, and the founder of the Television and Media Studies Programme.  He's also a filmmaker and journalist, so he's the right chap to tell the story of Len Lye.  This particular story is a reprint of the original 2009 biography , with a new chapter on Lye's posthumous career, which includes the final realisation of a number of works that in the day might not have even been possible.  One, the 'Water Whirler', on Wellington's Frank Kidds Park could certainly have never come to fruition until a later date, but remains a beloved landmark.  Of course, the New Plymouth waterfront would not e quite complete without it's own Lye piece either. 

Horrocks presents an unusual but refreshing, and it would be fair to say, extensive approach to art from the last century, navigating Lye in the process.  In the short film 'Art That Moves' (made for his other book 'Art that Moves: The Work of Len Lye') Horrocks features many quotes from Lye that give you a sort of loose manifesto around his artistic philosophy and how it came to light.  It's in this biography that we get the in depth details of how the artist was able to transcend the usual artist's obsessions and afflictions (loss, poverty, war, exile, alienation) and make an incredibly diverse body of work ranging from paintings to films to sculptures and writing.

His biography is inspiring and sometime jaw dropping.  But the narration never sensationalises and I thought was very sympathetic.  While others would choose to refrain from offering opinions or judgments, Horrocks is not afraid to add in his own asides, veiled in facts.  He knew the man after all. 

Layed out here, is the life and work, of probably the best example of a Kiwi made good since Katherine Mansfield.  And underrated, like all Kiwi stories.  It's backed by engaging research and you can really see Lye persistence through enormous adversities.  Like the most efficient soldiers  he seems to thrive on it.  That's Horrocks showing his value in the writing.  I would have liked to understand more about the 'Individual Happiness, Now' theory and a bit more critical evaluation of Lye’s films would have been valuable, too.  Especially, from his peers.

Horrocks, who began his artistic journey in the 1950's, at a time when Kiwis were really starting to explore post-war European, American and South Pacific themes in their art and identity tries to every modernist theme: modernism, primitivism, expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism - and the future of modern sculpture.  And that's where Lye’s story starts.  It's that of an artist taking his vision and inspiration out of his home land to rest it in a new place in the artistic modern world.  That's a world where the crossover o commercialism and art, classical music and jazz clash and collaborate.  The work of Charlie Mingus, for example just goes to illustrate how music became a sort of manifesto.  Today, it's music in video games and product placement in movies.  Lye was sort of already doing that but making his own films set to is own composition choices. 

Lye took it a step further and became an American citizen in 1950, but he was really a Kiwi at heart, despite the defection.  He was born in born in New Zealand in 1901, and we learn, his early in life was marred by the death of his father, resulting in insecurity, foster homes and indifference.  Now that all could have easily could have crushed or twisted young Len but instead it made him tough, and built a really self-sufficient interior life.  Lye, as Horrocks tells us, and his film validates, was inspired by nature, light and especially movement.  He taught himself to draw.  He became interested  in the processes of memory.  Even in his early years, he was experimenting in some ways.  He carried out a series of highly innovative systematic experiments to both strengthen his memory. 

Alienated and underprepared by the New Zealand school system, Lye did what many artists do: he quit early, with minimal qualifications.  He worked as a labourer, gardener, etc.  But it seemed that this work only helped his thought process.  The passion around movement came from his own physicality.  he also studied art through books in the library but by the age of 22 Lye felt that he'd ran out of options, as an artist, here in New Zealand and  relocated to Sydney, to 'join the bohemians'.it was there that Lye discovered psychoanalysis, film animation and discovered early works of  kineticism. 

Horrocks goes into some detail about this subject, almost to the point of obsession.  But, it's important to understand this if only to understand why he moved back to New Zealand in 1924 and his interest in the tribal art of Polynesian culture, which is primal, physical and direct.  Lye later travelled to Fiji, Rarotonga, Tonga and Samoa, remaining for months on end, getting to know locals, immersing himself in the culture and learning about their individual art making processes.  After returning to Sydney, he finally took the plunge in 1926 to feed his restless yearning to see European modernism 'in the flesh'.  So working his way to the UK as a steamship stoker, Lye headed for London.  There he drew on his knowledge of Australian aboriginal and Polynesian art to get in with the artistic vanguard.  He ever made images for the animated film 'Tusalava', a 9 minute long, B&W animated film about the transformation of simple life forms into complex ones that grow, evolve and are ultimately consumed.  This was pretty revolutionary for its time.  Very little was known about Polynesian culture, save for the racist and often inaccurate Victorian 'Cooks and Livingstone' accounts of the day.  This mean Lye could establish himself in London and at some European film festivals as a credible and pioneering film artist.

 'Tusalava' was supposed to be a trilogy but funding issues project meant it never progressed beyond the first picture.  Still, again and again, Lye reinvestigated how to push the artistic and cinematic boundaries through batiks, paintings, writing and theory.  London was good for Lye.  He was accepted by the new and established artistic community; he  explored associative writing and drawing techniques and he made original book covers for writers like Gertrude Stein and Robert Graves.  He also published his own book of letters 'No Trouble' (1931).

An avid member of the London Film Society, Lye saw many ground-breaking European art pictures of the day but he was especially inspired by the work of Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter, and Walter Ruttman.  Horrocks talks again in detail of their influences and reach, and how it seeps into the commercial mainstream.  Lye never had the kind of money needed to make such ambitious work.  So, as a man from the land of no.8 wiring, he began painting and scratching on clear film discards which he horded up from the Ealing Film Studios.  Those early experiments won him a  commission as a film artist by the GPO Film Unit in London.

His first GPO project was in 1935 'A Colour Box' , screened widely in local cinemas and at prestigious European film festivals.  His semi-abstract movies were technically complex, bright, and above all, energetic.  Music was important.  you might say he was New Zealand's first music video producer!  Images, patterns, colours, text were all accompanied by music like jazz or swing -  a natural accompaniment.  And remember, this was before Disney's Fantasia was released in 1940!

The war years were hard.  He was married, but unemployed with two children.  While Orwell looked to the ultimate doom of mass control, Lye was creating a new theory for a post war liberated life, which he labelled 'Individual, Happiness, Now'.

Lye did garner some work in the war years, though, working for the Realist Film Unit to make wartime information films, which led to a six month stint working on segments for the famous  'March of Time' newsreels, based in New York.  Leaving his family back in England, Lye moved to New York in 1943 and was soon enamoured by the liveliness and openness of New York and decided he had to stay.  But wartime travel restrictions made it impossible for Lye to move his family over.  so by the time Lye’s family was able to join him in New York he'd commenced a new and serious relationship with Ann Hindle.  His first marriage to Jane collapsed and he divorced and married Ann.

New York agreed with Lye.  In 1953, he made the remarkable 16mm direct film 'Color Cry' which had a scorching soundtrack by blues singer Sonny Terry.  It was a collage comprised of  photogram strips.  The method 'direct' is a cameraless means of producing photographic images, laying various fabrics and objects on the surface of unexposed colour film in a darkroom.  It's highly risky as overexposure and contamination are imminent.  Lye would place is objects then quickly turn on and off the room light on - therefore printing his shapes directly onto the film.  All this layering is now done with computers and programmes but the three-dimensional effects he made were utterly stunning for the day - they pulsate with vibrancy and this kind of infectious, rhythmic energy.  MTV would be jealous!  Ironically, his works are often screened on MTV Europe during awards shows.  'Color Cry' is another film collected in the 'Art that Moves' book.

It was a technique he used to produce portraits of painter Georgia O’Keefe and poet W.H. Auden.

In 1958 Lye made 'Free Radicals', a scratch film set to a pulsing soundtrack of African drumming, for the 1958 International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium which won Second Prize.  Alas it didn't translate into any further successes or  commissions for Lye.

After years of living in poverty, indifferent receptions to his work and a continuous lack of project funding Lye threw in the towel.  He chose to devote his energies to making 'kinetic sculptures'.  His early work in the 1960s was in steel, sold through the Howard Wise Gallery in New York but exhibited in major museums across Europe and the United States.  His sculptures were expensive to make, ship, exhibit and maintain so he never really made back on the sales. 

Roger Horrocks
Lye’s greatest sculpture is 'Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters)'. These have finally returned to New Plymouth, I believe.  I am looking forward to seeing them when I visit myself in March. 

'Trilogy' is constructed of two nine-foot long strips of polished steel and a steel loop, suspended from overhead electric motors. When the motors are on, each piece performs this terrifying ballet like the wielding knives of a guillotine - strips of steel whip through the air at incredible speeds.  Then the motors suddenly stop, and the two vertical steel strips crash to a halt with a thunderous clap! It's been likened to witnessing the opening of the gates of Heaven, or Hell.

Alas, funding was the main reason why many works never were realised.  But thinking was free. So Lye became interested in genetics, and particularly DNA.  He began to mine the biomorphic images from his earlier paintings and sketches as sources for a new theory called 'The Old Brain'.  Lye called him self "the old brain guy who can't drive a car'. 

Finally, in the late 1960's we Kiwis started to get wind of his achievements.  Various dispatches from the local art community were made and finally the Lyes made it back here in 1968 to visit.  He was still working when his lot his fight to leukaemia in 1980, but Kiwis are lucky that much of his work found its way back to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, and is now in the new Len Lye Centre for all to enjoy. 

I found this book engaging and almost overwhelming.  It's just a shame that the story of the Govett-Brewster connection seems to be a bit lost in the process.  The reason why the collection is really here instead of with Horrocks in Auckland is still an untold mystery.  But that's my conspiracy.  this is an excellent account and belongs in every art book collection. 

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