Len Lye: A Biography
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
Len Lye himself ensures his biography is a ripper of a read. While biographer Roger Horrocks studiously clocks and chronicles the events and years of a long, ever-colourful lifeline (1901-1980), Lye’s remarkable personality and writing mean we’re in no doubt that, as his wife Ann remarks, “Len’s greatest creation was himself.”
Read this biography and also feel beyond doubt that, on the world’s cultural stage, Lye was New Zealand’s 20th century man. You’re also left concluding that the man judged by his peers as forever ahead of his time will be our leading inspirational creative force in the 21st century. As cultural adventurer, Lye touches on great moments and lives of the 20th century with all of the gusto but none of the gormlessness of an antipodean Forrest Gump.
Here’s the skimpy screenplay version. His journey begins like Gauguin’s in reverse, finding inspiration in the indigenous artefacts of museums in Wellington and Sydney before heading for Samoa. There he clashes with the colonials, who fear he is identifying too closely with the natives and want him on the next boat out. On to London, Lye dances through the cultural milieu of the late 1920s and ’30s. Unboxable, this “wild man’s” sculpture, batiks, paintings are embraced by the Seven and Five Society and the Surrealists before his experiments with scratching and painting directly onto film (amongst an eclectic array of other activities) draw him even further into a territory all of his own.
After working as a documentary film-maker in Britain during World War 2, Lye moves on to New York at its height as new Art capital of the world, mixing with the more like-minded abstract expressionists. After working as a director on the influential documentary series March of Time, Lye starts creating his mesmerising kinetic sculpture, and while still struggling to the last to see his ambitious visions realised, he belatedly starts to get art-world recognition. Lye returns to New Zealand towards the end of his life, his work finally receiving recognition and exhibition, and after his death his reputation is sealed by a retrospective in the last year of the century at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Horrocks sums it up beautifully: “Lye was a non-stop innovator who lacked the right sort of support group.” Lye inspired and impressed practically everyone he met who mattered (with the exception, it seems, of George Bernard Shaw); but – seemingly by virtue of his unpeggable personality and “kooky far-out” ideas – he remained an outsider, on whom only a few visionaries were prepared to take a risk. The body of the biography leaves a trail of projects and sponsorships that might have been, Lye at every turn trying everyone from American presidential candidates to corporations to gain support for his visions. These visions, the way they continued to burn and feed Lye’s journey forward and his determination to find means of support, make this biography a truly inspirational read.
Lye remains something of a godfather to contemporary New Zealand art: in particular, to the flow of intermedia work that, unbound from the enforced boundaries of painting, printmaking and sculpture, sees ideas realised in new animated forms. Lye’s energy, vision and do-it-yourself spirit, with its attendant feelings of isolation and distance from the art world, still strikes one as quintessentially Kiwi. Lye carried that spirit on our behalf out into the world. As a teenager, experiencing the shake, shimmer and bounce of Lye’s kinetic sculpture in the company of his international peers in the 1985 Auckland City Art Gallery Chance and Change (a century of the avant-garde) exhibition sent a warm shiver through me that opened up for good my thinking on art-making in New Zealand.
A collection of Lye’s work and writings was brought together in Figures in Motion by Horrocks and Wystan Curnow in 1984 (reprint please!). Although their impact is usually underestimated, Lye’s work and example have proved, I believe, more influential to many artists and writers of my generation than the sterner, over-subscribed “prophetics” of the likes of McCahon and Baxter. While discouraging imitation, Lye gives you a charge-up to work hard at intuitively flexing your own energy in a way which results in determinedly following an individual path.
Lye’s story, however, is also one that should inspire all. Horrocks’ biography is firmly aimed at the general reader, wisely aiming for an understanding of Lye’s life in the context of his wide social network rather than within the narrower confines of the Art History canon. Driven by Lye’s own seemingly unflappable self-propulsion, we are presented with an immense wealth of detail – but what glorious detail! Lye’s ideas run like mercury into every crack and crevice they can find on their journey. In 400 or so pages, you get the impression that Horrocks has only been able to scratch the surface of this vein’s main arterial routes – with Lye always pulling him onwards – leaving behind a potted landscape, full of rich pickings for others. In terms of Lye’s reputation with the public, this biography should prove a new beginning rather than an ending.
Horrocks writes plainly. As the teller of such a terrific story, his role sensibly is one of strong steerage, dotting every “i” to give context to the energy and colour of Lye’s own voice. Even so, you sometimes long for the author to “jazz it up a little” (to borrow a phrase from Lye), to enter into more of a dialogue with the artist by providing a more energetic, intuitive and poetic response to both Lye’s artwork and the cultural eras through which he passed. There is some similarity here with Michael King’s recent biography of Janet Frame, Wrestling with the Angel. While King’s subject is, of course, still very much alive, both he and Horrocks have been able to draw extensively from interviews and from the subjects’ more poetic autobiographical writings.
In a recent excellent essay on the Frame biography in Landfall, Damien Wilkins was critical of King’s allegiance to Frame’s own interpretation of events, and found the work “a bit unsatisfactory and dull” in its workmanlike non-critical approach. “That [King’s] subject has written three extraordinary volumes of autobiography,” writes Wilkins, “helps us see not only the obvious – that Frame’s language is alive to a degree that King’s is not – but also that biography can reduce the potency of a life.”
Lye’s writings, with all their cryptic, sensual and jazzy turns, are alive to a degree few others are, sizzling with the crackles of energy that infuse his work. By way of counterpoint, Horrocks supplies sobriety in the framing. He describes his as an “over the shoulder” approach, akin to documentary film, and sees his role as providing a structure, as filling in the gaps of a career, which has been “fragmentary and under-researched”. As he says in his introduction:
Some readers may be disappointed that I have not done more of the work for them by supplying more generalisations and judgements. Certainly I have formed a number of opinions but I am keeping most of that material for a later, more technical book. I decided that writing an accessible biography was the first priority.
I suspect that, with its attention to what Wilkins describes as the “flame of reasonableness”, this biography may well be judged the more technical of the two books. I also challenge the conclusion to be drawn from Horrocks’ comments that the critical and subjective somehow make a biography less accessible to a general readership. In a country still nervous of criticism and judgement, I for one welcome these qualities, believing that, when used well, they encourage readers to engage their own faculties rather than alienating their sympathy.
Like Wrestling with the Angel, Horrocks’ biography raises interesting questions about the formal relationship between biography and autobiography. For all its reasonableness, his perspective (like King’s) seems largely at the beck and call of his subject. “I was pleased when a reader said the book at times felt more like an autobiography than a biography,” writes Horrocks tellingly. From beyond the grave, Lye continues to play art director in all proceedings, leaving this reader at least wishing to hear some different and more discriminating takes on both events and on Lye himself. As a result (particularly in regard to Lye’s early years in New Zealand), the biography sometimes feels sketchy in its fleshing out of events.
There’s a cracker of a film here. One that brings out into his life the abstract dance of light and colour always in motion in Lye’s work. One that captures everything from Lye’s early memories of the quiver of light off a kerosene can as he kicks it, and of his stepfather playing the violin at night as he walks around the balcony of the Cape Campbell lighthouse, to digitally-enabled visualisations of Lye’s visions of a temple full of giant kinetic work in some epic natural setting. Then there are the triumphs and adversities, the complexities of two open marriages, not to mention the stellar cast of 20th century icons (Thomas, Graves, Gielgud, Disney, Hitchcock, Cage & Co). Perhaps we can expect Jane Campion home any day.
Mark Amery is an arts curator, journalist and reviewer.