The New Zealand–born Len Lye (1901–1980) remains one of the most enigmatic of modernist artists. Leaving his homeland in his mid-twenties to seek out less provincial pastures, Lye traveled between Australia and Samoa, becoming familiar with aboriginal and Pacific cultures before arriving in London in 1926, where he was immediately welcomed by the British avant-garde. Several years exhibiting sculpture, painting, and photography with the Seven and Five Society,1 followed by an off-kilter relationship with the British Surrealists, are secondary to his career at the vanguard of experimental cinema. A series of films produced during the 1930s established Lye internationally as one of the most innovative filmmakers of the time. He developed the direct method of animation: painting, drawing, or otherwise applying imagery directly onto celluloid. Lye’s most acclaimed film work would be a series of scratch films produced after his move to New York in the mid-1940s (fig. 15.1). Reengaging with experimental cinema in the 1950s, Lye began a series of experiments whereby he scratched away black emulsion from 16mm film leader. As light passed through the clear portions of film as it was projected, zigzag figures danced and jerked on screen. With works such as Free Radicals (1957), Lye reduced film to its essential elements—light and motion.
Lye’s practice was driven by this interest in motion, a pursuit he ascribed to a realization he had as a young man watching clouds roll over Wellington:
As I was looking at those clouds I was thinking, wasn’t it John Constable, the early English landscape painter, who sketched clouds to try and convey their motions? That’s right! Well, I thought, why clouds, why not just motion? Why pretend they are moving, why not just move something? All of a sudden it hit me why not just movement? If there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion. After all, there are melodic figures, why can’t there be figures of motion? Like the figure eight, for instance, and various other figures. So Christ, I start running around wagging my tail, thinking I have a nice idea! Anyway, I have stuck with it ever since (Citation: Lye 1984 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.]).
Early and unproductive experiments with motion (hand-turned sculptural mechanisms) were followed by experimental sketches of the flight of birds or rolling waves drawn as swirls and strokes on paper. Lye’s interest in movement was, in a truer sense, an interest in the body, developing along kinesthetic lines, less a matter of transposing movement and more concerned with empathetic experience:
I, myself, eventually came to look at the way things moved mainly to try to feel movement, and only feel it. This is what dancers do; but instead, I wanted to put the feeling of a figure of motion outside myself to see what I’d got (Citation: Lye 1984 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.]).
Lye used terms like “body English” to describe the reciprocal feeling we have in our bodies when observing another object in motion, and he described one of his later scratch films as “pin[ning] down a kinetic figure on film to make a feeling I feel at the back of my head,” one of the “endless ways that energy can be depicted unconsciously as if by doodling” (Citation: Lye 1984 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.]).
In 1959 Lye abandoned experimental cinema (in principle, if not entirely in practice) to focus on kinetic sculpture. The kinesthetic scratches in Free Radicals were an end point for that particular medium, but a point for Lye to reengage with sculpture some thirty years after his first experiments. Lye’s new sculptural works were profiled in an August 1959 piece in Time magazine; however, a more substantial unveiling came in An Evening of Tangible Motion Sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on April 5, 1961. Lye’s terminology signaled an “emphasis on motion rather than the object describing it” (Citation: Lye 1984 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.]).
Lye presented ten of his tangibles (including the now popular works Fountain, 1960, Roundhead, 1961, and Grass, 1961–1965) in the museum’s auditorium alongside a screening of Free Radicals (emphasizing the conceptual continuity between his various modes). Some of his works were performed under colored lighting and some with musical accompaniment (Béla Bartók, Miles Davis, African drumming). Others provided their own audible soundtrack. Each was performed as one element in a meticulously sequenced order. The evening offered a very clear statement of intent from Lye: his works were performances above and beyond sculptural objects.
Lye’s MoMA presentation had none of the impact of Jean Tinguely’s destructive performance of Homage to New York at the same venue just a year earlier, in 1960.2 However, Lye steadily developed a body of tangibles, comprehensively exhibited in contemporary surveys of the kinetic medium such as Directions in Kinetic Sculpture curated by Peter Selz at Berkeley Art Museum in 1966, regular exhibitions with New York’s Howard Wise Gallery, and Pontus Hulten’s Bewogen Beweging (Moving movement) at the Stedelijk Museum in 1961. The Berkeley exhibition involved a remarkable work, A Flip and Two Twisters (Trilogy), 1966, sublimely attesting to Lye’s interest in empathy. Two 3m strips of stainless steel are suspended from the ceiling, spun from a motor, and snake into a dance until the braking of the motor forces a sudden, violent, and noisy stop. Between the Twisters is Flip, a loop of steel slowly twisted by a ceiling-mounted motor until the loop turns inside out, rises in and up, and collapses under its own weight with a crashing tumble into its original position. Lye described the effect as “a bucket of iced water and icicles tumbling down the spine” (Citation: Lye 1966:1 [Lye, Len. 1966. “Sounds of Len Lye Sculpture.” Unpublished manuscript, Len Lye Foundation Collection and Archive, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, NZ.]) (fig. 15.2).
Free Radicals is typically considered Lye’s greatest achievement in film, and his most acclaimed sculptural work is A Flip and Two Twisters (Trilogy), singled out by Philip Leider in his Artforum review of Selz’s exhibition:
The single artist in Dr. Selz’s exhibition who seems to transcend all the confusion—esthetic, mechanical, rhetorical—of kinetic sculpture is Len Lye, whose work manages to compress so ferocious an energy that the viewer stands paralyzed, gripped by an emotion almost of terror. Lye’s elements are supremely simple: hanging strips of stainless steel, six or seven feet long, are set to spinning around at very high speeds. The whiplash strain on the steel produces a series of frightening, unearthly sounds in perfect accord with the mood of the barbaric energy that seems to have been released. Installed by itself in a black-painted room, the viewer comes upon Lye’s “Trilogy” as he would upon a volcano. The effect is beautiful, frightening, utterly beyond the petty limitations of the other artists in the exhibition (Citation: Leider 1966:45 [Leider, Philip. 1966. “Kinetic Sculptures at Berkeley.” Artforum (May 1966): 40–44.]).
Leider’s criticism of the artists in this exhibition anticipated the clear decline of the movement during the mid-1960s; however, Lye’s ambitions for his artwork developed considerably. In a 1967 television documentary, Art of the Sixties, Lye, surrounded by a cacophonous medley of his sculptures in action, said that his work would be “pretty good for the 21st century.” Although a somewhat sardonic statement, Lye followed it with, “why the 21st, it’s simply that there won’t be the means to have what I want, which is enlarged versions of my work.”
In the late 1960s Lye returned to New Zealand briefly for the first time since leaving when he was in his mid-twenties. The visit sparked interest in the works of this maverick expatriate artist who had connections to Surrealism, British Modernism, and the postwar New York avant-garde. A decade later, Lye would make a remarkable artist’s return to his homeland with a 1977 survey at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The Kinetic Works exhibition, the first survey of Lye’s practice mounted anywhere in the world, was an endeavor overdue but complicated by the artist’s reluctance to work with museums and their directors and curators. Lye’s disgruntlement at the treatment of experimental film in the 1950s became a distaste for the treatment his sculptural works received from institutions, especially after a disastrous experience with the 1967 Toronto International Sculpture Symposium.3
Adamant that he would only work with a museum in New Zealand that could supply a skilled and sympathetic engineer, Lye agreed to the Kinetic Works exhibition and a relationship with New Plymouth–based mechanical engineer John Matthews, whom he had met in New York. Traveling between New Plymouth and New York, Matthews was set the task of building new versions of Lye’s sculpture for the exhibition. Principal among these was a new, scaled-up Trilogy (1977), more than twice the size of the Berkeley version, making it a site-specific fixture for Govett-Brewster’s top-floor gallery.
Lye died in 1980 in Upstate New York while making preparations for another survey exhibition, Personal Mythology, at Auckland Art Gallery (New Zealand’s largest metropolitan museum). Aware of his failing health, Lye established a foundation to take over his estate just three weeks before his passing. The Len Lye Foundation came into being on April 24, 1980, a charitable trust with a constitution outlining the following principal objective: “The acquisition, conservation, reproduction, and promotion of the works including the copyright therein of Len Lye.”4 The final objective notes this “shall be carried out for the public benefit of the people of New Zealand.” John Matthews became chairman of the foundation, and Lye’s wife, Ann, became one of six trustees. Writing in a memorial issue of the Art New Zealand Journal, Matthews announced the foundation’s mandate:
The Foundation is empowered to issue prints of the films (insofar as copyright allows), reproduce limited editions of the kinetic work (including newly conceived work), publish written works and promulgate Len’s various theories (Citation: Matthews 1980:32–33 [Matthews, John. 1980. “The New Zealand Collection.” Art New Zealand, 32–33. Auckland.]).
A deed of trust between the artist, the foundation, and New Plymouth City Council (now named New Plymouth District Council, owners and operators of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery) set the terms for the care of Lye’s works, with Govett-Brewster to be the principal site for their care and exhibition.
Since its formation, the Len Lye Foundation has undertaken numerous activities to maintain, conserve, and reconstruct Lye’s sculpture. Perhaps the most illustrative example is also the most recent, a 2016 restoration of Trilogy. The Trilogy completed in 1977 for Kinetic Works has been exhibited regularly, and it developed close to forty years of wear and tear. The 7.6m steel bands routinely fatigue and break, rendering them consumable components of the work. Similarly, the motors and electrics have an undetermined but limited life span. Following the display of Trilogy in Govett-Brewster’s 2011 exhibition All Souls Carnival and the development of the Len Lye Centre, a restoration of the work was necessary to keep it operational. In late 2016 Govett-Brewster presented Trilogy in the new Large Works gallery, a sculpture-focused space within the newly launched (July 2015) Len Lye Centre. The work is composed of several original components of 1977 vintage but with the requisite new steel bands and, crucially, a new programmable-logic computer (PLC) directing the performance rather than the previous twenty-two rotary switches. Not upgrading mechanics and control units to reliable contemporary methods would have resigned the work to nonoperational, archival status. Archiving of original works and motors is an important and complementary concern.
Prior to the conservation of Trilogy, the Len Lye Foundation completed a two-year project to conserve Loop, a 1965 work in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 15.3). In Loop, a band of steel bounces and rolls back and forward across a thin, trestle-like table, motivated by the activation of electromagnets at each end of the table. This seminal work was also featured with the early Trilogy in Directions in Kinetic Sculpture and was renamed Universe by Lye in subsequent larger iterations. Essential in the conservation of Loop were new magnets and electrical components to replace unsafe and expired originals. The work’s steel band was tarnished with extensive rust that seemed unlikely to be remedied. A second steel band was commissioned to replace the original, should it have been beyond reconditioning; however, linishing (polishing and smoothing the surface of a material by grinding or sanding) provided suitable results. The table did not require treatment.
Of serious concern was the method of controlling Loop’s performance. With the original control unit missing and undocumented (neither in Art Institute records nor the foundation’s), we decided not to attempt to replicate a vintage-style control system but rather to develop a modern PLC unit to direct the operation of the magnets and the choreography of the performance. There was only limited footage of Loop performing during the 1960s to reference, so the program was adapted from the foundation’s 1998 reconstruction of Lye’s 1976 Universe (a circular relationship, given the Loop to Universe genealogy).
Loop returned to Chicago with its original, expired components marked for archiving. Its updated electrics and programming allow the Art Institute to exhibit the work, and, externally, it is entirely original in material. The new steel band offers the Art Institute a substitute to use should future conservation of the original band be impossible. The PLC unit allows easy fine-tuning of the work’s programming, if necessary (for example, if historical footage of the performance surfaces) (fig. 15.4).
The conservation work undertaken on Trilogy and Loop stands in contrast to the foundation’s projects to reconstruct nonoperational works in its collection and archive, or to complete unrealized projects. Even after Lye’s engineering studio relocated to the Govett-Brewster in 1980, the artist’s complete oeuvre of kinetic sculpture has been an evasive proposition. Disassembled works may share common components, such as control units or motors, and some components fatigue and expire. It’s possible that dozens of sculptures conceptually and physically exist within the collection that cannot be exhibited unless a replica is fabricated.
Nonetheless, working from complete or nearly complete vintage components, the foundation has engineered several exhibition-grade reconstructions. Their performances and sonic qualities have been gauged against still operational models in the collection and against archival footage and recordings of original performances. In each example, the work is acknowledged as a reconstruction, with both the original and the reconstructed dates provided on gallery labels and in credit lines.
The question of authenticity—the touch of the artist’s hand, or “contagion” (Citation: Newman and Bloom 2011:1–12 [Newman, George, and Paul Bloom. 2011. “Art and Authenticity: The Importance of Originals in Judgments of Value.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 141, no. 3: 1–12.])—was directly addressed in the 2007 exhibition Five Fountains and a Firebush at Govett-Brewster. Lye’s seminal work Fountain was presented in varying scales across five iterations alongside a variant work, Firebush (also known as Dancing Fountain) (fig. 15.5). With the Fountains gently swaying under colored lights and with a recording of Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître providing a soundtrack, curator Tyler Cann created an homage to Lye’s Evening of Tangible Motion Sculpture of 1961. The theatrical presentation (interpreted from the artist’s original performance notes held in the foundation’s archive) emphasized the performative element in the artist’s conception of his tangibles rather than their material quality.
Cann created a proposition in this exhibition: which of these is authentic? Toying with the audience’s perception of authorship, the exhibition presented two vintage works in Fountain I (both ca. 1960), a reconstructed Fountain I (2007), reconstructions of Fountain II (1995), Firebush (2007 reconstruction), and Fountain III (1977) (engineered in New Plymouth by Matthews for the Kinetic Works exhibition). In asking the audience to think of one of these as the most authentic Fountain, Cann posited that none of these Fountains was quite Lye’s (Citation: Cann 2007:12 [Cann, Tyler. 2007. Len Lye: Five Fountains and a Firebush. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.]).
The Fountain that most “captivated” Lye’s mind, designed in 1962 as a 9m outdoor work, and eventually envisioned as sublime 45m version, does not yet exist (Citation: Cann 2007:12 [Cann, Tyler. 2007. Len Lye: Five Fountains and a Firebush. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.]). Yet the launch of the Len Lye Centre in 2015 included a sequel of sorts to Five Fountains and a Firebush titled Four Fountains, here displaying four iterations of the work, including an 8m version newly engineered by the foundation in 2015. Cann’s proposition stands—this is still not Lye’s Fountain, and there is a platonic Fountain out there that the foundation is still striving for (Citation: Brobbel 2015:12 [Brobbel, Paul. 2015. Len Lye: Four Fountains. New Plymouth, NZ: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.]).
In looking at Lye’s practice through a single work in Fountain, we encounter his interest in scale. In conceiving of his tangibles as a way “to feel movement, and only feel it” (Citation: Lye 1984 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.]), Lye struck upon scale as the means to amplify that feeling:
Our Muse also increases empathetic tension through an increase of scale in an image of motion. For example, the falling motion of a small shrub in contrast to that of a giant redwood tree, or the tiny wavelet on the beach and the big comber, have distinctly different effects on the degree of our empathetic response (Citation: Lye 1984 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.]).
Through the remaining years of his life, Lye’s energies as a sculptor were spent conceptualizing large-scale applications for his works, rendering his kinetic oeuvre (as witnessed in Art of the Sixties) as models for a more vividly empathetic vision.
Lye’s ambitions were for large environmental settings for scaled-up, monumental versions of his tangibles—sculpture parks, for want of a better term—or, in Lye’s vision, projects such as Universe Walk (ca. 1960), a giant gateway version of Universe (or Loop) through which the audience entered a walkway between an avenue of multiple spinning Twisters. The notion of composition is apparent here, with various artworks being combined into a new sculptural arrangement. The most ambitious of Lye’s large-scale endeavors was the Temple complex, a theoretical composition in which his artworks (including Wind Wands) were each located in the “leaf” of a clover-shaped lake. In the center of the lake would stand the Temple, a cloud-shaped home to Sun, Land, and Sea—a composed work in which a 46m Sea Serpent performed a rucking motion and fired a bolt of lightning through an undulating Flip (fig. 15.6). Lye demonstrated a model Sea Serpent and Flip at the conclusion of Art of the Sixties, proving his concept as far as he was capable in his lifetime.
The foundation’s success in honoring Lye’s instructions is best illustrated in Wind Wand (2000), a now iconic 45m work erected on the New Plymouth foreshore to commemorate the millennium celebrations. Lye first produced Wind Wands in 1960 (fig. 15.7), testing a 12m aluminum version in New York’s West Village, followed by an installation of similarly scaled Wands at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in 1962. The posthumous Wind Wand required the use of modern fiberglass technology to achieve Lye’s desired scale, a material not widely associated with the artist yet familiar to him through a 25m fiberglass Wand in Toronto in 1967.
Another posthumously realized work is Water Whirler (2006), commissioned by New Zealand’s Wellington Sculpture Trust (fig. 15.8), which involves a spinning rod, 10.6m high, that projects numerous streams of water outward as it spins. Unlike Wind Wand (2000), no direct antecedent was built by Lye. He instead designed the Whirler as a conceptual adaptation of one of his prototypical works, Rotating Harmonic (1959), which he had adapted into various works such as Zebra (1965), Moon Bead (1968), and Bell Wand (1965), creating the frame with which the foundation could deliver on this conceptual addendum.
Recent projects completed by the foundation include a group of 12m Wind Wands, exhibited at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis in 2013, and a second, similar group titled Waving Wands, installed in New Plymouth in 2017. A partnership between the foundation and the University of Canterbury’s College of Engineering in Christchurch supports the development of a number of unrealized works, most notably a 10m (or one-quarter scale) model of Sun, Land, and Sea.
Cann’s 2007 Five Fountains exhibition recognized the anxiety that the Len Lye Foundation and Govett-Brewster had experienced in the process of engineering and exhibiting the artist’s kinetic sculpture. While the public is rarely antagonistic to the works on display or challenges the ethics of their creation, the judgment of other artists and colleagues is an occasional issue.
Sustained censure comes from critics Jim and Mary Barr, who have described the foundation as a “ouija board” of governors behind Lye’s “ghost-written works” (Citation: Barr and Barr 2016 [Barr, Jim, and Mary Barr. 2016. “12 Cool Things Kiwi (Visual) Artists Have Achieved in the Past Year.” Over the Net (blog). May 17, 2016. http://overthenet.blogspot.co.nz/2016/05/12-cool-things-kiwi-visual-artists-have.html.]). In reference to a reconstructed group of Wind Wands (as exhibited in St. Louis), the Barrs asked “do you think Len Lye would have ever done something like that?” (Citation: Barr and Barr 2014 [Barr, Jim, and Mary Barr. 2014. “One Day in New Plymouth Art in Public Places Trust Boardroom.” Over the Net (blog). November 18, 2014. http://overthenet.blogspot.co.nz/2014/11/one-day-in-len-lye-trust-boardroom.html.]). The most pointed questioning of the foundation’s activities came in a 2006 article by journalist Sally Blundell. In “Whose Lye Is It Anyway?,” notable figures in the New Zealand art world took the foundation to task over the posthumous realization of the artist’s work. Ian Wedde, curator at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, took issue with the interpretation of Lye’s archives:
He may even have anticipated the engineering and metallurgic progress that would make this happen, but this doesn’t answer the critical question of when an artist’s concepts, preliminary drawings and sometimes doodles are actually indications of final intention. Lye was a compulsive and highly creative doodler and dreamer-on-paper, and much of this material should perhaps be left in that condition. Without the artist being present to advance concepts or critically test the ways in which they are installed, it’s not easy to benchmark the moments when Lye’s vision stops and institutional ambitions take over (Citation: Blundell 2006 [Blundell, Sally. 2006. “Whose Lye Is It Anyway?” The Listener, July 22. Accessed March 16, 2018. http://www.noted.co.nz/archive/listener-nz-2006/whose-lye-is-it-anyway/.]).
Wedde’s comments demonstrate a tendency of some critics of the foundation’s work to assume familiarity with Lye’s research and design notes that, in practice, they do not have. This concern is undermined by a limited understanding of the artist’s practice, relying on a superficial yet persistent impression of Lye as a fantastical doodler distracted from serious design by whimsy. His sculptural designs ranged in detail but do not necessarily equate to his kinesthetic doodling in the way that Wedde suggests. Conflating the two diminishes the richness of Lye’s practice and provides a means to disengage with him as an artist involved in conceptual thought.
A more serious opposition to the foundation’s practice comes from sculptor Andrew Drummond, who teaches at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts and is familiar with the College of Engineering’s labors. He addresses the idea that any decision made by someone other than the artist himself is fraudulent:
But how do you know that the decisions made are the decisions the artist would have made? It’s a moral issue as much as an aesthetic issue—it’s about the morality of someone making someone else’s work (Citation: Blundell 2006 [Blundell, Sally. 2006. “Whose Lye Is It Anyway?” The Listener, July 22. Accessed March 16, 2018. http://www.noted.co.nz/archive/listener-nz-2006/whose-lye-is-it-anyway/.]).
Drummond’s position denies Lye’s agency in creating the foundation, and he takes the position that the foundation trustees are tasked with an unethical mandate regardless of the artist’s instructions. Writing in 1975 (and conscious of his limited years ahead), Lye noted the challenge in his large-scale and unrealized works:
It took six months of sorting out the size on the serpent’s best size, to halt at one hundred and fifty feet—yet no one can really tell until the mock-up stage (Citation: Lye 1984 [Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.]).
Importantly, he anticipated that he would be relinquishing the decisions to others, and the possibility that they might deviate from what he would have done:
I work on what looks best and you could do it—your judgement would be almost as good as mine, although you wouldn’t be as familiar with it as I am, so that’s where I would edge you out of getting the better effect. But anybody once they have tried the whole range of possibilities, then go back and pick out the one that they liked the best, then settle for that as the program and if they got tired of that in a week’s time they could just invent another program.5
When Lye maneuvered his practice toward kinetic sculpture, he felt he was on the crest of a new and radical movement, and he likely expected more people to learn about the specificities of the field and about his work in particular. When movements like Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art hit the art historical mainstream, they produce sustained and endorsing research cultures, supported through universities, that in turn produce experts in the field. Sadly for Lye, this didn’t happen for the kinetic “moment,” and its main protagonists and their works are often overlooked. For now (and in the future), the foundation staff is likely the only group capable of making informed decisions about the artworks. By shifting midcareer from London to New York and then changing the nature of his practice from British experimental filmmaker to American kinetic sculptor, Lye himself unfortunately aggravated the situation. The totality of Lye’s body of work is scattered between two seemingly disparate practices and between two times and places.
Art historians, curators, and conservators wholly appreciate the democratizing benefits of technological advances in moving-image media through the digital realm and the longevity it lends the moving image first made on celluloid. Moreover, they are content to witness the proliferation of “historical” film through social media such as YouTube and Facebook. One wonders, therefore, at the antagonism of Blundell and Wedde toward Lye’s sculpture (when no argument is mounted against the film work) and the consequent lag of knowledge about it internationally. For most Northern Hemisphere observers, Lye’s sculpture is known through limited magazine and textbook documentation of the 1960s kinetic art scene. Few have experienced the work firsthand, as Guy Brett notes:
For one thing, there is very little kinetic art on show in museums. Museums, on the whole, have not cared to meet the challenge of this sort of work—which is only partly a technical and conservational challenge. And it is obviously only a static image which survives in photographic reproduction, still the normal form of information dissemination in art books, catalogues and magazines (Citation: Brett and Cotter 2000:9 [Brett, Guy, and Suzanne Cotter. 2000. Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic. Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.]).
It was a sentiment the artist expressed himself during the 1960s, frustrated at collectors refusing to invest in the maintenance of an acquisition. Writing to his dealer Howard Wise, he suggested that he “charge them 10 times as much, to get replacement and maintenance fund out of it. They maintain budgets, don’t they, for doors etc.”6
Lye’s claim to be “pretty good for the 21st century” became more than a realization that his work could only be partially executed under his own watch but also a rejection of the environment he was required to work in. Anticipating what could be achieved in the future, he was similarly invested in the value of kinetic art and reticent to rely on his contemporaries to maintain that value. The development of the Len Lye Foundation and, thirty-five years later, the Len Lye Centre falls short of his hopes for a temple of motion, but they are an active and essential part of Lye’s vision … for inventing another program.
- The Seven and Five Society formed in London in 1919, gradually departing from a traditional aesthetic style toward abstraction under the leadership of Ben Nicholson. The group featured Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, with Lye active with the group from 1927 to 1934. The Seven and Five Society ceased in 1935. ↩
- Homage to New York was a self-destroying kinetic sculpture, created by Jean Tinguely with assistance from Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg. On March 17, 1960, in a public presentation at the Sculpture Garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the work performed for twenty-seven minutes before the fire department intervened. ↩
- The symposium would place Lye’s largest work to date, Swing Wand, alongside works by eleven other artists in the city’s High Park. The 27 m work failed to meet with Lye’s satisfaction because the fabricators ignored his directions, introducing tapering to his wand despite his instructions to do otherwise. Lye noted, “I don’t want it [the wand] to go up unless it is to my specifications.… The aesthetic value was destroyed. It is now a work of engineering and not a work of art.” The work was ultimately deinstalled under unclear circumstances. See Citation: Webb 1996 [Webb, Evan. 1996. “Wind Wand: The Magic of Len Lye and the Toronto Affair.” Art New Zealand 78 (Autumn): 61–63.]. ↩
- Constitution of Len Lye Foundation 1980. ↩
- Len Lye, interview by John Matthews and Paul Fiondella, New York, November 9, 1978. Unpublished transcript, p. 1. Len Lye Foundation Collection and Archive, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. ↩
- Len Lye, note on letter from Howard Wise to Len Lye, October 3, 1969. Len Lye Foundation Collection and Archive, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. ↩
- Barr and Barr 2014
- Barr, Jim, and Mary Barr. 2014. “One Day in New Plymouth Art in Public Places Trust Boardroom.” Over the Net (blog). November 18, 2014. http://overthenet.blogspot.co.nz/2014/11/one-day-in-len-lye-trust-boardroom.html.
- Barr and Barr 2016
- Barr, Jim, and Mary Barr. 2016. “12 Cool Things Kiwi (Visual) Artists Have Achieved in the Past Year.” Over the Net (blog). May 17, 2016. http://overthenet.blogspot.co.nz/2016/05/12-cool-things-kiwi-visual-artists-have.html.
- Blundell 2006
- Blundell, Sally. 2006. “Whose Lye Is It Anyway?” The Listener, July 22. Accessed March 16, 2018. http://www.noted.co.nz/archive/listener-nz-2006/whose-lye-is-it-anyway/.
- Brett and Cotter 2000
- Brett, Guy, and Suzanne Cotter. 2000. Force Fields: Phases of the Kinetic. Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.
- Brobbel 2015
- Brobbel, Paul. 2015. Len Lye: Four Fountains. New Plymouth, NZ: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.
- Cann 2007
- Cann, Tyler. 2007. Len Lye: Five Fountains and a Firebush. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.
- Leider 1966
- Leider, Philip. 1966. “Kinetic Sculptures at Berkeley.” Artforum (May 1966): 40–44.
- Lye 1965
- Lye, Len. 1965. “Notes on Programmed Sculpture.” Unpublished manuscript, Len Lye Foundation Collection and Archive, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, NZ.
- Lye 1966
- Lye, Len. 1966. “Sounds of Len Lye Sculpture.” Unpublished manuscript, Len Lye Foundation Collection and Archive, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, NZ.
- Lye 1984
- Lye, Len. 1984. “Art That Moves,” 78–87; “Considering a Temple,” 87–90; “Tangible Motion Sculpture,” 75–78; and “Why I Scratch, or How I Got to Particles,” 94–96. In Figures of Motion: Len Lye, Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Auckland: Auckland University Press.
- Lye and Thorburn 1975
- Lye, Len, and Ray Thorburn. 1975. “Ray Thorburn Interviews Len Lye.” Art International, 64–68.
- Matthews 1980
- Matthews, John. 1980. “The New Zealand Collection.” Art New Zealand, 32–33. Auckland.
- Newman and Bloom 2011
- Newman, George, and Paul Bloom. 2011. “Art and Authenticity: The Importance of Originals in Judgments of Value.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 141, no. 3: 1–12.
- Webb 1996
- Webb, Evan. 1996. “Wind Wand: The Magic of Len Lye and the Toronto Affair.” Art New Zealand 78 (Autumn): 61–63.