Len Lye: A Biography

Roger Horrocks,
Len Lye: A Biography.
Auckland University Press, 2001 (reprinted 2002)
(Review copy obtained from author)

Referring to Len Lye’s “singularity”, this book opens with a quote from painter Julian Trevelyan: “He was like a man from mars who saw everything from a different viewpoint, and it was this that made him original”. The rest of the book demonstrates this singularity and originality – in life as much as in art. The portrait of Lye on the front cover – standing confidently facing the camera, with one hand on hip and laughing uproariously – introduces the reader to a subject who is always, even in his early and less confident years, larger than life.

Part One starts with his birth in New Zealand in 1901, and describes his early life there till his move to Sydney, Australia, in 1922, then to Samoa. Part Two takes him to England in 1926, and Part Three to USA in 1944 where he died in 1980. His story is barely contained within the 436 pages of this biography, so it is far too complex to reproduce in a few sentences. The book covers his relationships – with his parents, particularly his mother, with his two wives and many other women friends, with fellow artists (male and female, some as eclectic and eccentric as himself), with his children… It discusses his work – the paintings, the sculpture, the films, the poetry, the kinetic constructions… It addresses his theories – IDN (Individual Happiness Now) and IDA (Identity -Degree-Act), though this reader had just as much difficulty understanding these as many people did at the time. Through all this shines the personality – a man who could not enter a room without being noticed, who inspired great affection and utter exasperation (sometimes at the same time), who remained happy and refused to compromise his ideals even while repeatedly being overlooked for sponsorship and constantly finding galleries and collectors reluctant to pay what a work was worth. It must have been a great relief to the artist (as it is to a reader of his biography) that at the end of his life his native country re-discovered him, and provided the resources for a major solo exhibition in which some of his kinetic sculptures were produced full size for the first time, and later still for a Foundation to preserve and continue to show and promote his work.

The writing style of this book is matter-of-fact (fortunately, far more so than Lye’s own idiosyncratic writing style), backing up descriptions of events and claims about works with liberal use of quotation. It is easy to read – which is also fortunate, considering the size of the volume. Photographs, of people and events and works, are interspersed, to bring the written word further to life. It has already gone into a second print run, suggesting that Lye is now accepted as a national hero (a New Zealander who “made it” in the outside world), as well as a major figure in twentieth century art.

Lye would have loved the World Wide Web – both as technology and as communication medium. He was always looking for new ways to express ideas, always ahead of his time. As well as reminding those of us who saw his films back in the 1950s why we were so impressed, I hope this book encourages a new generation to seek out his work and perhaps to find inspiration there.

Ina Bertrand

Created on: Wednesday, 25 June 2003 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June 2003

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →