Profile image for Len Lye

Len Lye

Director, Innovator

Leonard Charles Huia Lye was born on 5 July 1901 in Christchurch. A year earlier the marriage of his parents, Rose Ann Cole and Harry Lye, a hairdresser, had caused conflict between his father’s Anglican and his mother’s Irish Catholic associates. Len grew up opposed to what he saw as the intolerance of all religions.

After Harry died in July 1904, Rose struggled to make a living as a housekeeper and cleaner. She was forced to board out Len and his younger brother Phillip with a succession of relatives. Despite an insecure and needy childhood, Len developed an exuberant and independent personality. 

His happiest time was a year at Cape Campbell lighthouse after his mother married the assistant keeper, Frederick Powell, in 1908. The idyll ended when Powell became violent and was committed to a mental hospital. The boys never saw him again, but the lighthouse, the waves and the marine life at the Cape would reappear constantly in Lye’s art.

In 1912, after a further separation, he was reunited with his mother in Wellington, where he attended Mitchelltown and Te Aro schools, leaving in 1914. He then worked in a warehouse and studied at Wellington Technical College, taking commercial subjects before switching to art. Lye was excited to read about futurism, vorticism and other modern art movements. Around 1921 he began a serious study of Māori and other forms of tribal art. Lye was also fascinated by the writings of Sigmund Freud, and this combination of interests was to provide the basis for much of his subsequent art.

By the time he left New Zealand in 1925 he had filled several sketchbooks with tribal and modernist images, and made a wooden ‘Tiki’ and a marble sculpture, Unit, that combined Māori motifs with the influence of overseas sculptors such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Constantin Brancusi.

Other milestones were a trip back to Christchurch (1922), where he studied with Archibald Nicoll, and a spell in Sydney (1922–24), where he worked briefly as an animator for the company Filmads, and experimented with kinetic sculpture (after reading about a ‘perpetual motion machine’ made by a patient in a mental hospital). 

In 1924 Lye spent about six months in Auckland, followed by a similar period in Samoa in 1924–25. Living in a village near Apia, he studied tapa design, which would strongly influence his later hand-painted films. He was ordered to leave by Samoa’s administrator George Richardson, who supposedly disapproved of the way he had ‘gone native’. Lye spent most of the next year in Sydney, then bought ship’s papers from a stoker, using his name to join the crew of the Euripides.

After disembarking at London in November 1926, Lye settled in Hammersmith, where his work caught the attention of local artists and writers who were intrigued by this working class artist in a lava-lava producing abstract paintings, batiks and sculptures. Becoming known as the ‘stoker sculptor’, he lived in a barge on the Thames. In 1928 British reviews of his controversial work came to the notice of New Zealand newspapers, which published stories about this "Futurist New Zealander" who had "caused a sensation" in London with his "mechanised art".

Lye formed a close friendship with writers Robert Graves and Laura Riding (who in 1930 published No Trouble, a book of his experimental prose). He began filmmaking in 1929 with Tusalava, an animated film combining Māori, Aboriginal, Samoan and modernist influences. This mix of elements gives a unique, regional character to Lye’s modernism.

His most important innovation, inspired by his inability to afford a camera, was hand-painted or ‘direct’ filmmaking. His first example, Colour Box, sponsored in 1935 by John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, won a medal of honour at the Brussels International Cinema Festival and went on to influence filmmakers in many countries. Len continued to make direct films for the rest of his life (including 1939's Swinging the Lambeth Walk), each exploring new techniques. For his contributions to animation he was described as "the English Disney". 

On 4 April 1933, in Hammersmith, Lye had married Florence Winifred (Jane) Keeling (née Thompson), an English dance instructor; they would have a son and a daughter. During the Second World War Lye made documentary films, working for the Realist Film Unit alongside New Zealander Margaret Thomson.

In 1944 he travelled to the United States after being invited by American politician Wendell Willkie, who had read one of his essays on individuality. Lye was so impressed with New York and its art scene, he decided to stay on. He became involved in the abstract expressionist movement, and made a living as a director for film series The March of Time. In December 1950 he gained American citizenship, officially changing his name to Len Lye, dropping his other forenames.

On 4 June 1948 in Reno, Nevada, Len divorced Jane and married Ann Hindle (née Zeiss), an American. The Lyes lived in the West Village, New York, where Ann became a real estate agent and the main breadwinner. Len produced a series of uncompromising avant-garde films, including Free Radicals (1958), which won the $US5000 second prize from 400 entries in an important experimental film-making competition associated with the Brussels World Fair. In the same year, tired of the money struggles associated with films, he returned to his early interest in kinetic sculpture.

Over the next decade he earned an international reputation as one of the major artists in this field. New York University gave him a professorship as artist in residence from 1966 to 1969, but he had difficulty financing his complex work and by 1970 had gone back to writing. He developed theories about the ‘old brain’, or collective unconscious, seeing it as the most important source for art and linking it with recent discoveries about inherited genetic information.

Lye had left New Zealand in 1925 because he was completely isolated in his artistic interests, but had continued to write about early experiences. During the 1960s he received visits from New Zealanders who urged him to return. New Zealand art was entering a new phase in which Len was being seen as an important ancestor. He made his first return visit in December 1968 and his second in February 1977.

The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand and the NZ Film Commission helped to fund new versions of his films Free Radicals and Particles in Space. Most importantly, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth offered to build large-scale versions of his sculptures, which Lye had long planned but never been able to realise. When John Matthews solved the engineering problems involved in building a seven by nine-metre version of Trilogy, the artist was so impressed he decided to bequeath all his major works to the gallery.

The negotiations to establish a Len Lye Foundation as a central collection and research venue for Lye’s work were completed by producer John Maynard in 1980. Lye liked to think his work had "come full circle". Although hostile to narrow forms of nationalism, he believed his early years had strongly influenced his work, and was optimistic about Aotearoa as a centre for art. He dreamed of a huge cluster of his sculptures, Steelhenge, being built one day in a remote New Zealand landscape. 

Len Lye died on 15 May 1980 in Warwick, New York. In August the Auckland City Art Gallery held a major exhibition of his paintings. In 2015 the Len Lye Centre was opened on a site adjoining the Govett-Brewster. Roger Horrocks' book Len Lye - A Biography was published in 2001. Lye's work and ideas are also explored in documentaries Len Who? (1972), Doodlin'- Impressions of Len Lye (1987) and Flip & Two Twisters (1995).

Lye is seen by supporters of experimental work as an important role model, and his films and sculptures continue to have a presence in varied exhibitions. In 1992 he was included in Territorium Artis, a major German exhibition of the 100 most innovative artists of the twentieth century. In 2008 the Library of Congress selected Free Radicals for preservation as one of the most important films ever made in the United States.

Published on NZ On Screen on 30 April 2018
This profile is an updated version of the profile originally written by Roger Horrocks for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and found on Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Sources include
Len Lye, Figures of Motion: Selected Writings (Edited by Roger Horrocks and Wystan Curnow)(Auckland University Press, 1984)
Roger Horrocks, 'Len Lye - A Biography' (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001)
Roger Horrocks, Len Lye, Cecile Starr and Robert Leonard, Composing Motion: Len Lye and experimental film-making (Exhibition Catalogue) (Wellington, National Art Gallery, 1981)
Roger Horrocks and Wystan Curnow,'The Len Lye Lists' - Bulletin of New Zealand Art History issue 8, 1980
Wystan Curnow, 'Len Lye's Sculpture and the Body of His Work' - Art New Zealand issue 17, Spring 1980