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Len Lye
“..(I’m) interested in the business of energy and getting a feeling of zizz.”
Len Lye

As an experimental filmmaker, sculptor, photographer and writer, Len Lye was a diverse, original, eccentric and celebrated artist. Commemorating the centennial year of his birth, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has organised an exhibition which showcases the many and varied talents of his distinguished artistic career.

The exhibition, Len Lye, will be on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1 December 2001 to 27 January 2002, before touring to Melbourne, Brisbane and New Zealand.

Len Lye was born in New Zealand in 1901, and left for Australia in 1921. He studied Aboriginal motifs at the Australian Museum, and encountered Sydney artists such as Rayner Hoff, who carved a fine head of Lye that is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Between 1922-23 he lived in Samoa until he was deported back to Sydney for living with the local population. In 1926 he left for London where he became part of the Seven and Five Society (Robert Graves, Laura Riding and Ben Nicholson amongst others). He moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1944 to work on The March of Time films and became a leading figure in the kinetic art movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout the rest of his life he continued to develop both his film and kinetic work, all of which continued his ideas to do with figures in motion. Len Lye died in 1980, at the age of 78.

“Len Lye’s theories and practice remained somewhat peripheral to the various avant-garde movements of the 20th century despite proximity to them and friendships with many of the protagonists. At various times he was close to the Surrealists, Constructivists, the Russian avant-garde, Abstract Expressionism and so on. He was influenced by Futurism, Freud, jazz, Oceanic art, calligraphy, the Meyerhold theatre, but primarily he was an autodidact, and for all his apparent gregariousness, something of a loner and a dreamer. Lye was driven to use whatever means – words, film, music, metal, kinetics, photography, batik – in order to realise a singular vision of a universal life force which he recognised as an appropriate subject for and object of art. For Lye, that force was made manifest in motion,” said Judy Annear, Senior Curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Curator of Len Lye.

Catchy music, saturated colour and organic forms bounce across the surface of Lye’s hand-painted and scratched celluloid. Inventing ways to make films without a camera, he became one of the pioneers of the genre later known as the ‘music video’. A large body of Lye’s experimental filmmaking will screen continuously as part of the exhibition.

His first animated film, Tusalava, (1929) took two years to complete and each frame was painted and shot individually. The original score by Australian composer, Jack Ellitt has been lost, but Lye was happy for the film to be screened with music by Eugene Goossens. The Art Gallery of New South Wales in association with Sydney Festival will present the World Premiere of Len Lye’s animation film Tusalava with Eugene Goossens' Rhythmic Dance performed live by Maryleigh Hand and Erin Helyard on Wednesday 23 January at 6pm. The evening will be presented by prominent film producer and friend of Lye’s, John Maynard.
Tickets $17 adult / $14 concession/members. Bookings (02) 9225 1878.

Len Lye’s work plays with the dynamics of movement through the still and moving image and other mechanical means such as kinetic sculpture. He used movement as both metaphor and tool to convey and represent a ‘life force’. With the combination of constant sound and rhythmic movement, achieved through gently rotating circles (Roundhead) or strips of metal (Grass), Lye’s kinetic sculptures demand attention.

Twenty one of Lye’s photograms have been selected for the exhibition. The earliest in this exhibition is Self Planting at night 1930, exhibited alongside works by Man Ray and Dora Maar in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. Lye, however, was emphatic that his imagery came from beyond the dream and unconscious worlds so beloved by the Surrealists. The majority of the photograms on view are from around 1947 and are of some of his friends – Miró, WH Auden, Georgia O’Keeffe and Le Corbusier. Lye was intrigued by the idea of someone leaving a direct imprint, a physical profile. But then, to complicate this reality, he would flip the image, reverse the positive and negative, or add words and visual symbols.

Major exhibitions of Lye’s work have been held at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the Auckland Art Gallery, both in New Zealand, and more recently a significant survey at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Throughout his life, Lye’s work was included in major exhibitions around the world. A biography, Len Lye, by the Head of Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland, Roger Horrocks, published by Auckland University Press, has just been released.

“Always moving along his own path, Len Lye remained a free spirit throughout his life. The title of one of his most engaging films, Free Radicals (1979) could most easily be applied to him and his personality,” Judy Annear said.

‘the least boring person who ever lived’
poet Alistair Reid


Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne
26 February to 20 April 2002

Queensland Art Gallery
17 May to 28 July 2002

The tour will continue in New Zealand.

The exhibition is presented in association with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, supported by the Len Lye Foundation. The Len Lye Foundation is supported by Technix Group Limited. The exhibition is supported by Creative New Zealand.

A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

On view:Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road
The Domain, Sydney 2000
Telephone:(02) 9225 1744 or recorded information
(02) 9225 1790
Hours:10am to 5pm 7 days a week
(closed Christmas Day and Easter Friday)
Admission:Free of Charge
Media Information and Interviews:Claire Martin
Press Office
telephone 61 2 92251734

Len Lye in Sydney, c.1925 Photo: Mary Brown Courtesy Len Lye Foundation