Len Lye
motion composer

Performance with petals, around 1970, Len Lye Foundation Archive, photo: Ann Lye

Museum Tinguely, 23 October 2019 - 26 January 2020

Len Lye (1901–1980), born in Christchurch, New Zealand, was one of the most important experimental film-makers of the 1930s to 1950s, and in his later years created a fascinating, multidisciplinary body of work, large parts of which have yet to be fully explored. Being self-taught, he soon developed a highly idiosyncratic approach to art.

After living in Wellington for a while, Lye spent 1923–26 in Sydney, where he studied the art of the indigenous peoples of Samoa, New Guinea and Africa, Aboriginal Australian and the Maori familiar to him from his native New Zealand, recording what he saw in sketchbooks. These not only juxtapose drawings of masks and ornaments from different cultures with works of the Russian Constructivists and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, but in one of the books in this visual compendium flank them with a transcription of Sigmund Freud’s essay Totem and Taboo (first published in German in 1913, and in Abraham Brill’s English translation in 1918), as well as texts by and about Gaudier-Brzeska (published in an anthology by Ezra Pound in 1916) and by Oskar Pfister (Expressionism in Art, published in English in 1922).

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Len Lye, Totem and Taboo Sketchbook, ca. 1925-35

In 1926, after several months on Samoa, Lye went to London, where he lived and worked until 1944. It was there that he painted and began to explore the medium of film. He also became part of the Seven and Five Society, an artists’ group centred on Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Frances Hodgkins, and exhibited himself with the British Surrealists, taking part in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London of 1936. His early film Tusalava of 1929 translates the abstract picture worlds of the transcultural studies of his early sketchbooks into radical filmic experiments, while A Colour Box of 1935 pioneered what Lye called the ‘direct film’ (drawn-on-film) animation method.

Filmstills (1929-79)

Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929

Len Lye, A colour Box, 1935

Len Lye, Kaleidoscope, 1935

Len Lye, Rainbow Dance, 1936

Len Lye, The Birth of the Robot, 1936

Len Lye, Trade Tattoo, 1937

Len Lye, Colour Flight, 1938

Len Lye, N or NW, 1938

Len Lye, Swinging the Lambeth Walk, 1939

Len Lye, Musical Poster #1, 1940

Len Lye, Color Cry, 1952

Len Lye, All Souls Carnival, 1957

Len Lye, Rhythm, 1957

Len Lye, Free Radicals, 1958

Len Lye, Fountain of Hope, 1960

Len Lye, Particles in Space, 1979

Lye worked as a film-maker for the British post office and other governmental commercial organisations and made commercial films of great artistic merit. Just as he believed there to be no barriers between cultures, between «Western» and «primitive» art, so, to his mind, there was no distinction to be drawn between «high-brow» and «low-brow» culture.


Even early on in his career, Lye was anxious to broaden the reception of his films, which as commercials were to be screened in cinemas, too. The idea of television fascinated him, and he pondered the question of how music might be visualised on colour television in a text written as early as 1939! He also made films to accompany specific pieces of music and always took as much care with his soundtracks as with his films. It is therefore not by chance that the TV channel MTV has hailed Len Lye as the father of the music video.


Len Lye lived in New York City from 1944 until his death in 1980. In the late 1950s, finding it increasingly difficult to market his films commercially, he turned to kinetic sculpture and created a series of sculptures that he would continue working on right up to his death, playing through ever new variations in size, material and use. They were intended as much for museums as for amusement parks, cultural barriers being non-existent for Lye.


In addition to his sculptures and films, he also produced paintings, photograms, drawings, photographs or audio tapes. Lye, in other words, worked in all the media that he could lay his hands on, always taking a spontaneous and highly idiosyncratic approach. At the same time, he wrote texts for both publications and lectures in which he reflected on what he was doing.

Len Lyes Skulptur Sky snake

Len Lye, Sky Snake, 1965
(2019 reconstruction)
stainless steel, electric motor, H: c. 600 cm
Courtesy Len Lye Foundation Collection,
Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/ Len Lye Centre

The exhibition

The aim of this project is to take the unique status of Lye’s filmic oeuvre as a starting point for an exploration of the full breadth of his output in a range of media and media combinations. Len Lye’s ‘unprejudiced’ view of the cultures of this world will also be subjected to critical scrutiny.


For the research and critical inquiry demanded by the project we will be able to draw on the archive of the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth , which houses many as yet unpublished documents and works of his, and on the collaboration and input of scholars and cultural historians specialised in the relevant fields. Since Lye’s early preoccupation with psychoanalytical texts also warrants critical reading, textual criticism and the cross-fertilisation of both theoretical and practical work will be of immense importance to the project – not least to the catalogue.

Some 18 films (among them some made during the war as well as several commercial films) are to be screened as far as possible in their entirety as digital projections or screenings.

Three original sculptures that are currently housed in various museums in the USA have in some instances been be restored by the Len Lye Foundation. They form another highlight of the show. To demonstrate the kinetic principle, we will at any rate have recourse to more recent «reconstructions» built by the Foundation.

The aesthetic framework will be provided by paintings and photograms, while a large documentary section will showcase Len Lye’s work as a theorist and designer of large installations.

International Symposium on  motion composing
Wednesday to Thursday, 23-24 October 2019

After the opening of the exhibition Len Lye – motion composer at Museum Tinguely (22 October), an international symposium will examine Len Lye's oeuvre, which includes experimental, documentary and advertising films as well as kinetic sculptures and buildings. Speakers from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Germany and Switzerland will discuss Lye’s impact on 20th century avant-gardes. In cooperation with the Seminar for Media Studies of the University of Basel.

The conference, held in English, is open to the public, admission is free.
Venues: Eikones Forum and Seminar for Media Studies, Basel

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