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 brother Phillip (born in 1903) 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 the Cape Campbell lighthouse after his mother married the assistant keeper, Frederick Powell, in June 1908. This idyll ended within a year as Powell became moody and 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 later reappear constantly in Lye’s art. In 1912, after a further separation, he was reunited with his mother in Wellington, where he attended the Mitchelltown and Te Aro schools, leaving in 1914 with the Certificate of Proficiency. He then worked in a warehouse and studied at the Wellington Technical College, taking commercial subjects until 1918, when he switched to art. He received valuable encouragement from his teacher H. Linley Richardson and his classmate Gordon Tovey.
As a habitué of the Wellington Public Library, Lye was excited to read about futurism, vorticism and other modern art movements. Around 1921 he began a serious study of Maori and other forms of tribal art. He 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 Maori 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 sketched tribal art in the Canterbury Museum, 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). He was disappointed by the lack of avant-garde art but thrived on Sydney’s bohemianism.
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 become a strong influence on his later hand-painted films. He was ordered to leave by Samoa’s administrator, Major General George Richardson, who, according to Lye, disapproved of the way he had ‘gone native’. He spent most of the next year in Sydney, then bought ship’s papers from a stoker, Tom Harris, 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, lent by A. P. Herbert. In 1928 he was elected to the Seven and Five Society, and 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 the writers Robert Graves and Laura Riding (who in 1930 were to publish No trouble , a book of his experimental prose). He began film-making in 1929 with Tusalava , an animated film combining Maori, 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’ film-making. 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 film-makers in many countries. Len continued to make direct films for the rest of his life, each one exploring new techniques. For his contributions to animation he was described as ‘the English Disney’, but he still struggled to make a living from his work.
On 4 April 1933, in Hammersmith, Len 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 receiving an invitation from the American politician Wendell Willkie, who had read one of his theoretical essays about individuality. Lye had only one meeting with Willkie, who died in October that year, but he was so impressed with New York and its art scene that he decided to stay on. He became involved in the movement known as abstract expressionism, and made a living as a director for the film series The march of time. On 4 December 1950 he gained American citizenship, officially changing his name to Len Lye, dropping the use of 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 in the family. Len produced a series of uncompromising avant-garde films, including Free radicals (1958), which won the $US5,000 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 once again he had difficulty financing his complex work and by 1970 he 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 he had continued to write about early experiences. During the 1960s he received visits from New Zealanders such as Peter Tomory and Hamish Keith, 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 New Zealand 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 had 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, display and research venue for Lye’s work were completed by the film producer John Maynard in 1980. Lye liked to think his work had ‘come full circle’. Although hostile to narrow forms of nationalism, he believed that his early years had strongly influenced his work, and he was optimistic about New Zealand 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, survived by his wife and the children of his first marriage. He had arranged for his body to be donated to the medical school at Columbia University. In August that year the Auckland City Art Gallery held a major exhibition of his paintings. In New Plymouth his plans for large-scale sculptures are being gradually realised as funding becomes available. Lye is still a controversial figure in New Zealand art, regarded by some as an outsider whose art has little relevance to the local tradition, but seen by supporters of experimental work as an important role model. His work continues to have a presence overseas and was included in Territorium Artis (1992), a major German exhibition of the 100 most innovative artists of the twentieth century.