Rep Diary: Len Lye
Despite the roots of experimental cinema in the European avant-gardes of the early 20th century, there hasn’t always been much attention paid to the work of filmmakers in other media. Much of this oversight can be ascribed to historians and filmmakers’ efforts to establish the autonomy of film as an art. The avant-garde has long pursued an interest in “pure” expressions of film form, and when consideration is given to sister arts like painting and sculpture, they’re usually cast in supporting roles.
The New Zealand–born filmmaker Len Lye knots these tidy historical strands, being both “a filmmaker’s filmmaker”—since the animation techniques he created exploit the unique qualities of film—and “an artist’s artist,” a kind way of saying that his drawings and sculptures remained relatively unknown for his 50-year career. But to describe Lye either as a filmmaker or as an artist only partially accounts for his wide and varied output. As a corrective, then, “Len Lye: Motion Sketch,” currently on view at The Drawing Center and the Lab, attempts to bridge the divide between the artist’s works on paper, many of which have never before been exhibited in the United States, and his body of experimental films, for which he is better known.
Lye’s central concern was with movement. In his theoretical writings, he advanced an idea that motion could be experienced as directly and powerfully as any of the senses. This “bodily empathy,” as he called it, was evident in his manner of composition, and what he strove to impart to his viewers. “The way I practiced it,” he wrote in 1964, “I could levitate with the curling smoke, scud with the wind-blown leaf, sashay with the reflections of masts on water, shimmy with the flapping flag, glide with the snake.” He gives as much attention to evoking these states as he does in rendering them in a more pictorial way. In a few drawings described as Untitled (Sea) (circa 1930s), for example, what comes through more than the sketches of microbial-like organisms are the jittery movements of the hand that composed them. Similarly forceful and hasty markings could be found in Sketch for Motion Composition (38)—14 small drawings, that, mounted in a sequence, show the penciled arc of a star over several frames, as well as heavy hash marks that crowd the bottom of others. It’s easy to picture Lye hovering in intense concentration before these sheets, conjuring with his hand, and indeed his entire body, the swaying rhythms of the ocean or the darting rain of his imagination.
The cinematic, frame-by-frame logic of Sketch for Motion Composition suggests the degree to which Lye’s exploration of motion, regardless of medium, was influenced by film. The reverse is also true, in that his drawing techniques, particularly the erratic and vigorous movements of the hand, profoundly affected the way he made his films. The improvisatory “doodles,” the term he used to describe his drawing method generally, animate his first film Tusalava (29). This black-and-white short depicts a dance between two semi-abstract creatures that resemble, in their various transformations, a bulbous tapeworm and an Egyptian scarab. Free Radicals (58-79), meanwhile, bears the mark of the hand directly on the filmstrip, with its scratched white lines twitching to the drumming of the Baguirmi people on the soundtrack. Prefiguring Stan Brakhage’s signature script for the titles of his own films, the handwritten text that appears in white across the photographic image in The Long Dream of Waking (47) is echoed in the handwritten animated titles of Free Radicals and Particles in Space (80).
Another method Lye cultivated, the use of silhouettes, appears in numerous photograms. These oblique portraits conceal their subjects as much as they reveal other aspects of the image. With Georgia O’Keefe (47), presented in both photographic negative and positive versions, a branch of leaves are clustered in the background, while in the foreground an abstract orb juts out and, nestled within it like the pit of a peach, we can make out O’Keefe’s photogrammed face in profile. The multiple moments of exposure in Self-Portrait (with Night Tree) (47) are particularly complex. Along with two strips of 35mm film lining the bottom border, a photogram of Lye’s opaque black profile contains the image of yet another photogram, the blocky tree in the title. The uses of silhouette extend to film as well. In Rainbow Dance (36), the silhouette of a live actor is made abstract, multiplied, and colorized, lending his body a kineticism in lively sync with the animated backgrounds and the dot and dash patterns pinwheeling over the image.
The exhibition gives careful attention to the range of materials on which Lye doodled. In a large display case in the middle of the room, 90 of his drawings adorn legal paper, postcards, index cards, and a torn receipt. The marginalia of a college student’s notebook would not have been out of place among the assorted scraps of paper; Lye seemingly scribbled on any surface that presented itself. In one example, columns of curlicues descend idly, as if the artist had been bored or daydreaming, from under the name of art critic and curator Katharine Kuh. In another, hanging on the wall next to the case, the wild lines of a 1960s sketch for Water Whirler, a sculpture Lye never realized, seem to have been drawn as Lye was also explaining the project aloud, undoubtedly with gusto.
Regretfully, the films, exhibited one floor below the drawings, do not receive the same care. The selection of films does offer a comprehensive view of Lye’s practice, including direct animation techniques in A Colour Box (35), Free Radicals, and Particles in Space, stenciling in Rainbow Dance and Colour Flight (38), found-footage manipulation in Trade Tattoo (37), and musical accompaniment in Tal Farlow (80) and All Souls Carnival (57). The presentation of the work, however, is alarmingly thoughtless. Whether by mistake or through a misunderstanding of film viewing contexts, the Lab gallery is not only painted white, but bathed in bright fluorescent lights, several of which are hung directly above the gray-painted wall that serves as screen. It is hard to imagine conditions less suited to the viewing of film. All the vibrancy and richness of the various color techniques Lye employed in his film are washed out, and the provocative uses of music, particularly jazz, in his soundtracks are nearly inaudible. If Lye’s films are meant to produce for their viewers a “motion consciousness” that is otherwise evident in his drawings, then their immersive, synesthetic effects could only be vaguely implied.
To be clear, the problem is not one of medium. The looped exhibition of 35mm and 16mm film can wear on fragile prints, and digital transfers, done properly, can approximate the luster of their original films. But the poor quality of projection—which would be aided considerably by simply turning off the lights—gives the unfortunate impression that the drawings portion of the exhibition, with every scrap of ephemera carefully arranged, matter far more than the film works, which are presented less to be watched than to be referenced. Rather than making productive connections among Lye’s various types of “motion sketches,” the show reinforces the division between Lye’s art objects and his experimental films. As the exhibition is part of a more extensive series at The Drawing Center examining the relationship between drawing and film, one can only hope this type of critical reevaluation prompts serious reconsideration of exhibition practices as well. (The museum has said the lighting in the cinema gallery was a one-off occurrence, but the sound still left much to be desired.)
It is to the credit of Lye’s films that, even in such poor viewing conditions, they managed to delight visitors. During my visit, I observed one family sit down, agreeing to stay for one film, then lingering for another, and another. They smiled at the playful inventiveness of A Colour Box, and laughed when the logo of the GPO (General Post Office) appeared toward the end. The film, which Lye made for the John Grierson–led GPO Film Unit while living in London, is considered a classic of British cinema, and—like a national hero in its own right—will soon appear on a commemorative postage stamp.
“Len Lye: Motion Sketch” runs through June 8 at The Drawing Center and the Lab. Tusalava, A Colour Box, Free Radicals, and other Len Lye films screened at Anthology Film Archives on May 25.