Free Radical

Len Lye's transcontinental career and his quicksilver art of motion
by Leo Goldsmith  posted August 31, 2009
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Len Lye (1901-1980) created a mercurial and vibrant body of work that spans a wide array of media, from film to sculpture, poetry to painting, photograms to earth art. His model was that of the modernist multimedia art career, with aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations that seemed to spiral out in every direction, touching on many of the major Western art movements of the 20th century: Cubism, Futurism, Primitivism, Abstract Expressionism, action painting, and kinetic sculpture. But it is in the medium of cinema that all of Lye's abilities and interests convened—as a commercial animator, a documentary filmmaker, and especially as an experimental filmmaker, whose tactile manipulations of celluloid itself made him one of the pioneering practitioners of direct, cameraless cinema.

Lye's quixotic, quicksilver attitude was as evident in his choice of media as it was in his itinerant life, a transcontinental saga that reads at times like something out of Melville or Robert Louis Stevenson. Roger Horrocks's intimate, wonderfully detailed (and now sadly out-of-print) biography of Lye charts the artist's fascinating life story: humble beginnings in working-class Christchurch, New Zealand; a tour of the Ocean Islands and eventual deportation from Samoa for consorting with the locals; his passage to interbellum London under the assumed identity of a stoker; and his final splashdown in the hotbed of New York's postwar avant-garde. Along the way, he rubbed elbows with the likes of Robert Graves and Laura Riding, lunched with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, drank with Dylan Thomas, and studied under Sergei Eisenstein and Hans Richter (an experience that left him curiously unimpressed). In Samoa, he crossed paths with Robert and David Flaherty, who were shooting Moana at the time (though Lye preferred the company of locals to American filmmakers he regarded as tourists). In London, he was commissioned by Alfred Hitchcock and his collaborator Ivor Montagu to create fiery hand-painted special effects for the train-crash sequence in 1936's Secret Agent (though these had to be scrapped for fear of alarming projectionists and audiences alike). And in New York, in the late 1960s, he joined a chaotic multimedia campus lecture tour sponsored by NYSCA, along with filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and poet Robert Creeley. Lye seemed to have the remarkable ability to be in the right place at the right time, and his patent eccentricity (or, to some, antipodean exoticism) and his unswerving commitment to often inscrutable artistic ideals and personal philosophies (including a quasi-self-help movement he called "Individual Happiness Now") ensured him the attention and respect of those around him.

But the theme that married all of his aesthetic pursuits and colorful flights of fancy was motion—and particularly how to represent it through art. His moment of revelation, like Blake's youthful vision of a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye, came while observing fast, fluttering seaside clouds over the city of Wellington and thinking of John Constable's experiments in cloud-sketching. As a young man hungry for knowledge but far from the front lines of modernism, Lye scoured foreign magazines in the public library of Christchurch for hints of the goings-on in European art. Here, and through Ezra Pound's highly influential 1916 book on the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Lye learned secondhand of forms of modernism (Cubism, Vorticism) that had not yet breached the shores of New Zealand, where local artists were still grappling with Impressionism. Moving to Sydney in 1922, he took advantage of the city's libraries and museums to study Maori, Aboriginal, African, and Polynesian art, and to copy pages from Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud, whose "points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics" would prove widely influential on a great many modern artists.

In spite of a youthful fascination with Futurism, Lye was less interested in the mechanical motion of the modern world than in the raw kinetics of nature. Much later, in a 1975 essay entitled "The Art That Moves," Lye summarized his interest in motion:

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 of myself to see what I'd got.

His attempt to internalize the movements of things, to align himself with what he called "the body English" of an object in motion, drew upon his early study of tribal art, which he theorized was intended to portray the body not as it looked but as it felt: a sensually, not visually, representational medium. A decade before Lye became immersed in the International Surrealist Movement of the 1930s, these preoccupations led him to develop a process of automatic drawing, an important source of untutored ideas that begat a style of playful, surrealist abstraction similar to that of his contemporary Joan Miró. Once Lye's attentions turned to cinema, this style of "doodling" would provide the ideal medium for abstract animation, which the filmmaker would continue to refine, mutate, and expand upon throughout his major works.

Lye had learned filmmaking while living in Sydney in the early 1920s, when he worked for a company that made animated commercial films. (He even began experimenting with scratching directly onto celluloid at this time, though he would not integrate this method into a finished film until Free Radicals, 30 years later.) But it was only after moving to London that he embarked on his first film, Tusalava. Compared to Lye's later work, Tusalava (whose name derives from a common Samoan phrase meaning, roughly, "just the same") is formally rather conventional, constructed from about 4,400 individually photographed drawings, a cel-animation process that occupied Lye from 1927 to 1929 (and that he would only rarely use again).

But even if the animation methods Lye used were common, his imagery was not: Tusalava represents an abstract, monochrome world of globules and microorganisms, strings of amorphous, pulsating blobs, and a serpentine, segmented "witchetty grub"—the wood-eating moth larva that serves as both an important symbol in the art and folklore of the Australian Aboriginal people and a common source of protein in their diet. (In a 1977 interview with Joseph Kennedy, Lye recalled, "[I] imagined I was myself an Australian Aboriginal who was making this animated tribal dance film.") With the chain of undulating dots rising at left, the grub in the center morphs into a kind of spidery figure with a death's head and forked tongue, which probes an inert mummy-like object on the right, affecting (or infecting) it, changing its structure and shape. Finally, a reaction occurs between the two figures, a kind of electrical storm, sending both spiraling out of their positions into a vortex, or bull's-eye. The screen is left empty: we are back where we started, "just the same."

When the film premiered at the London Film Society in late 1929, audiences were suitably puzzled, and interpretations of its meaning varied. Only later in life did Lye learn, with great satisfaction, how closely his squirmy, biomorphic abstractions resembled microscopic organisms like viruses and antibodies. The British Board of Film Censors was convinced the film was about sex ("If there is a meaning," they averred, "it is doubtless objectionable"). But art critic Roger Fry was an admirer, and Robert Graves and Sidney Bernstein (manager of the Granada cinema chain and later of Granada Television) were private backers, and though the film found little popular support, it effectively positioned Lye among the leading European abstract animators, like Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter, and Walter Ruthmann.

While Tusalava survives as a silent film (its modern dual-piano score, by Lye's longtime friend, collaborator, and fellow New Zealander Jack Ellitt, was never synchronized with the film and is effectively lost), it's interesting to note how indebted many of Lye's films are to music. Even his early experimental puppet film, The Peanut Vendor, was designed to show off not only the loopy mechanics of a fairly ridiculous monkey-puppet but also its incredibly precise lip-synching to Red Nichols's popular jazz title track. Later, while animating his films to prerecorded music, Lye would even use the look of the audio track itself, with its beaded string of peaks and valleys, as visual inspiration for the shifting patterns onscreen.

Having gained some notoriety but no financial success with Tusalava, Lye was increasingly desperate to get a commercial project off the ground. Lacking the funds for expensive camera equipment, he hit upon the idea to work directly on celluloid discarded by his friends at the General Post Office Film Unit. His experiments soon caught the eye of John Grierson, the Film Unit's head, and thus began Lye's three-year affiliation with the GPO, working alongside filmmakers like Alberto Cavalcanti, Humphrey Jennings, Basil Wright, and a quiet young Scotsman named Norman McLaren (who later admitted that he was too awestruck by the Dionysian Lye to even talk to him).

Lye's first film for the GPO, A Colour Box, is a rich and strange amalgamation of advertisement, kaleidoscope, and music video, set to a then popular beguine by Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra. Using a variant on the Javanese textile-dyeing technique known as batiking, Lye layers wavy vertical lines and colorful orbs, dots, diamonds, and triangles, which float across the screen in multilayered rainbow waves. Gradually, rougher, quivering splotches and quick jabs of color are introduced, and crosshatched lines and squiggles match the song's guitar strums (a motif Lye would return to much later in 1980's Tal Farlow, a film named for the jazz guitarist and completed after Lye's death). Finally, stenciled lettering delineating the rates for "cheaper parcel post" drifts across the screen—an addition so bizarre and out of the blue that it seems less like a craven message from our sponsor than a surrealist non sequitur.

In contrast to the painstaking process of animating Tusalava, Lye's animation of A Colour Box took a mere two months of headlong motion, and the film conveys this in its dizzying speed and hyperkinetic energy. David Curtis, describing his study of Lye's work-print in his book Experimental Cinema, registers his surprise that "the film [print] was almost entirely splice-less; there were perhaps two. In other words, Len had composed the whole film as he went along, without second thoughts." The sheer exuberance of this breakneck exercise in direct cinema won over audiences and critics alike. And in Kaleidoscope, made later the same year as an ad for Churchman's Cigarettes, Lye mastered this form, with a film more precisely keyed to its soundtrack, featuring more-geometric figures: spiraling suns, yin-yangs, jacks, and asterisks.

With only one or two GPO commissions each year, Lye next made a whimsical yet slightly macabre puppet film for Shell Oil called The Birth of a Robot, which displayed many similarities to the work of Eastern European puppet filmmakers like Ladislas Starewicz, Bretislav Pojar, and Jiri Trnka, as well as the puppet circus of Alexander Calder (as later noted by J. Hoberman). But Lye's next two films, Rainbow Dance and Trade Tattoo, returned him to the techniques of direct cinema in even more extreme and experimental forms, incorporating both original and found live-action footage into his usual color-box of playful abstraction.

In Rainbow Dance Lye abjured the unreliable Dufaycolor process for Gasparcolor, a subtractive three-color process developed by a Hungarian chemist in conjunction with Oskar Fischinger, devising a complex, multiexposure system. Starting with high-contrast black-and-white footage of the dancer Rupert Doone, Lye used multiple color exposures in the background and foreground to create a complex, multicolored dance film. Unlike Lye's previous animated films, Rainbow Dance follows a recognizable (if hallucinatory) narrative that transports Doone's elegant silhouette from a rainy city street to a tropical locale and then to a De Chirico-esque traffic intersection where he plays tennis. The film is remarkable for its prefiguring of later avant-garde dance films, like those of Maya Deren, and even the video art of Nam June Paik.

Even more striking than the complex integration of Rainbow Dance's live-action and animation is Lye's combination of intricate three-color Technicolor processing with discarded documentary footage in 1937's Trade Tattoo, a film whose very title suggests the bizarre mixture of musical, commercial, ethnographic, and decorative interests in the filmmaker's GPO films. Partly inspired by Ruthmann's city symphony Berlin, Lye reprocessed "the rhythm of work-a-day Britain" into a psychedelic play of shapes and surface textures, overlaying colorful patterns of blobs, squares, grids, and even the planet Saturn over found images of planes, cargo boats, and office workers. The film combines the ghostly grittiness of GPO films like Night Mail with Eisensteinian montage and bold stabs of abstract color whose movements suggest the felt rhythms of modern industrialism. (Lye would return to the theme in a rather more subdued fashion in the 1957 film Rhythm, which he made for the Chrysler corporation.) A pioneering use of found footage, Trade Tattoo is roughly contemporary with Joseph Cornell's own similar experiments, like 1936's Rose Hobart and the enigmatic By Night With Torch and Spear (recently released on the National Film Preservation Foundation's Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film DVD set), albeit in a more populist, if apolitical format.

Lye continued to innovate and challenge himself in his work with the GPO right up until the outset of the Second World War, as evidenced by his experimental live-action short, N. or N.W. and more animated films—an advertisement for Imperial Airways called Colour Flight and a quasi-music video (or "colour accompaniment"), Swinging the Lambeth Walk—which demonstrated his increasing precision in matching action and animation to soundtrack. But the filmmaker's whimsical tendencies were put to more practical purposes during the war, and he spent the early 1940s in the service of the Realist Film Unit, making wartime public service films for Britain's Ministry of Information. Moving to New York in 1944, he produced a series of films on language with literary critic I.A. Richards, worked regularly for the newsreel series The March of Time, and became absorbed in the milieu of post-war American art, focusing much of his artistic energy on his poetry, paintings, and Man Ray-esque photogram portraiture. He only made occasional forays into filmmaking for pleasure, as in 1953's Color Cry, or commerce, like Rhythm, his film for Chrysler.

Despite contributing "abstract color effects" to Ian Hugo's 1952 avant-garde film Bells of Atlantis, and largely lacking financial support for his films, Lye did not fully return to his own work in experimental cinema until 1957, when he was formally invited to submit to the International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, part of the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. The result was Free Radicals, his masterpiece, a four-minute film that drew upon a technique of emulsion-scratching animation he had been dabbling in informally since his first film job in Sydney in the 1920s. Experimental filmmaker and famed D-day cinematographer Francis Lee helped Lye locate cheap 16mm black leader, and soon Lye set to work on an intensive animation method that involved holding the film stock in place with Scotch tape, spitting on it to soften the emulsion, and scratching shapes into it with a needle while using the sprocket holes as a guide to maintain registration.

The result of eight months of intensive labor, Free Radicals is a ballet of "little zig-zags of electricity," dancing jagged lightning bolts set to a found percussion track by the Bagirmi Tribe of Africa (whom Lye credits twice, for emphasis). Compared to Stan Brakhage's more volatile, expressionistic scratch films, Lye's herds of dots and matchsticks, dancing to tribal rhythms, demonstrate a control and craftsmanship that seems from today's vantage point nearly inconceivable without digital animation technology. The effects Lye achieves by hand are mind-boggling in their illusion of three-dimensional space: awkward, abstract scratches seem to stretch and rotate, and even the opening credits give the illusion of words and letters turning and contorting in fluid, tightly controlled pirouettes. (Lye had honed this technique of three-dimensional, moving text while preparing a never realized poetry film with Dylan Thomas, who drank himself to death before the project went anywhere.) Even in its monochromatic abstraction, it is, like all of Lye's films, approachable and seductive, with an undeniable sense of rhythm that forces the viewer to feel the film's movement and—as it were—only feel it.

But even though the film won $5,000 from the film competition in Belgium, this prize barely covered the cost of production. Lye grew increasingly bitter about the opportunities for sponsorship for experimental cinema in America, and in 1959 he declared himself "on strike" from filmmaking, withdrawing from the experimental film community in New York, and choosing instead to focus on the then more saleable medium of kinetic sculpture. In 1961, Lye exhibited the first of what he called his "tangible motion sculptures" at MoMA—massive, yet elegant contraptions of motorized steel, often intended for massive scales (as in his never fully realized "temple of lightning," entitled Sun, Land & Sea) and outfitted with strikers that would create loud, clattering crashes of sound. (See Lye's own demonstrations of some of these works in the documentary excerpt below.) This work in sculpture proved the most prominent and satisfying of the remainder of his career, but he never fully abandoned film. Working with assistant Steve Jones, he completed the long-dormant scratch film Particles in Space and a refined version of Free Radicals just before his death from leukemia in 1980. A final film, Tal Farlow, was subsequently finished by Jones and Lye's wife, Ann.

In spite of the range of Lye's work in experimental animation, it remains difficult to calculate his influence on contemporary and subsequent filmmakers. Norman McLaren was always careful to cite him as an influence, though he arrived at many techniques, like direct scratching on celluloid, independently and somewhat earlier than Lye. Harry Smith, too, seems to have been deeply impressed by Lye's pioneering work, but it remains unclear whether Smith had actually seen his work before making his "Early Abstractions." (Smith claimed to P. Adams Sitney that he had not, but William Moritz asserts that Smith would almost certainly have seen Lye's films when they screened in Frank Stauffacher's "Art in Cinema" series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the late 1940s.) Whatever the degree of influence, Smith's work is unmistakably his own, just as the work of other Lye contemporaries (the "synchromies" of Mary Ellen Bute, the early computer animation of John and James Whitney) arrives at vaguely similar ends by wildly different techniques and technologies. Even later filmmakers like Brakhage, Stan Vanderbeek, and Robert Breer are more notable for how they depart from Lye’s precedent than how they resemble it. The work of all these filmmakers—in advertising or the avant-garde, in commercial idioms or esoteric ones—represents a parallel history of artisanal filmmakers, and all of their films bear their makers' distinctive styles like the signatures with which they often brand their work. Lye’s films, too, represent a range of preoccupations that he would pursue in every facet of his career, in words, paint, metal, and celluloid. The color dances of his films glide and jitter with their author’s own distinctive “body English,” writ large in dazzling light and motion. 


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The Len Lye Foundation, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the New Zealand Film Archive
Free Radicals, directed by Len Lye
Photo Gallery: Free Radical


July 16-October 11, 2009 Len Lye


Leo Goldsmith co-edits the film section of The Brooklyn Rail and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. He contributes regularly to Not Coming to a Theater Near You and Reverse Shot.

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