LEN LYE, Joan Miró, 1947, photogram, 43 × 35.8 cm. Courtesy the Len Lye Foundation and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth.

Motion Sketch

Len Lye

The Drawing Center
USA New Zealand
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

One of New Zealand’s most celebrated artists, Len Lye (1901–80) is hardly a household name in much of the art world, but is widely recognized for his major contribution to avant-garde film. Credited for having invented the direct filmmaking technique, Lye perfected a style of painting, drawing, scratching and stenciling right onto film stock, producing jittery, abstract animations that were accompanied by collaborative scores, or by jazz and world music. 

While Lye’s films have been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the British Film Institute, London, among others, most of his drawings, paintings, sculptures, photograms (which he called “shadowgrams”) and installations are housed at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth as part of the Len Lye Foundation’s collection. Govett-Brewster was also the primary lender to the Drawing Center’s highly succinct overview of Lye’s work.

“Motion Sketch” was organized by Gregory Burke, director of the Mendel Art Gallery and Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, Canada, and Tyler Cann, associate curator of contemporary art at Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art and former Len Lye curator at Govett-Brewster. On view were abstract doodles, drawings, sketches for sculptural works and films, and shadowgram portraits of Georgia O’Keefe, Joan Miró, the artist himself and his wife Ann Lye. The exhibition also included shadowgrams of cut-out paper abstractions and poetic texts, paintings of wildlife, short animated films and biographical ephemera.

The earliest doodles in the show, drawn with pencil and ink on paper, related to Lye’s 1929 animated film Tusalava, which comprises 4,400 black-and-white drawings of amoeba-like, mutating forms that owe as much to Australian aboriginal art as they do to Automatism and Surrealism. Doodling served as the point of departure for much of Lye’s work. The drawings and resulting film for Tusalava seem inspired by the artist’s island upbringing, as well as his youthful travels in the South Pacific, where the motion of wind and water, and the inhabitants of these environments, were observed daily.

Most likely influenced by American Surrealist Man Ray’s “Rayograms” and German Dadaist Christian Schad’s “Schadograms,” Lye began making his shadowgrams while living in London in 1930. His earliest piece, Marks and Spencer in a Japanese Garden (or Pond People) (1930), which was made by placing objects directly on photosensitive paper and exposing them to light, depicts a mixture of natural and cut-out forms that resembles sea life seen under a microscope. 

In 1947, Lye revisited this photographic technique while he was living in New York, but to different ends. In the two shadowgram portraits of Miró, his head is captured in profile surrounded by floating abstract forms, all silhouetted, solarized and
layered with the Surrealist’s doodles and signature. Likewise, photogram portraits of Georgia O’Keefe find her profiled head encompassed by shadowy forms of branches, vines and leaves, while Lye’s self-portrait depicts the maestro with one of his surreal drawings depicted inside the silhouette of his head.

The paintings chosen for the show portray kinetic abstract forms on plain and painterly fields and have the look of primitive cave paintings with a twist. It is his films, however, that are Lye’s masterworks. It was after Tusalava that he started making marks directly on film stock. The 1935 film A Colour Box combines handpainted abstract designs with Cuban dance music, while Rainbow Dance (1936) features footage of a dancer, which Lye colored with stenciled abstract patterns during the development process.

In later years, Lye continued to experiment with film, scratching onto the head leader (a strip of film attached to the head of a film to assist in threading a projector) of Free Radicals (1958/79)—considered by many to be his greatest piece—and Tal Farlow (1980). The former mingles disparate scribbles with African music, while the latter depicts a dance of rhythmic lines to the composition “Rock ’n’ Rye” by American jazz guitarist Tal Farlow. Interestingly, it may be the music videos of today where Lye’s experimental cinema is most influential, as artists continue to manipulate color and form to achieve new and exciting visual effects.