Features Published 18 October 2015

Len Lye: The Dynamism of the Present Moment

Scott Anthony on the kinetic genius of the wildly ambitious late sculptor Len Lye, and his collaborator John Brodie Matthews' dream of bringing his grand designs to the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.
Scott Anthony

len lyeJohn Brodie Matthews has a dream. The industrialist, engineer and philanthropist wants to place a 100 foot high sculpture that spits lightning into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

The sculpture is called Sun, Land and Sea and was designed, although not fully realised in his lifetime, by the artist Len Lye. It consists of seven strips of steel lying across the floor, which are linked to a free standing looped ‘cave goddess’ by a further strip of highly polished steel.

It sounds outlandish but bringing Sun, Land and Sea to Southwark would be entirely in keeping with the tenor of the extraordinary relationship that engineer Matthews and his fellow New Zealander Lye struck up over dark rum and orange juice in Greenwich Village in 1975.

Presumably of pensionable age (he doesn’t talk numbers, either age or the substantial amounts he has ploughed into the arts in New Zealand) but dressed in a natty electric blue hat and suit, Matthews is lithe, impatient and attentive. He crackles with conspiratorial energy as he explains how engineers from the University of Cambridge are going to help him realise Lye’s vision. ‘I want to bring WOW,’ he says.

The pair first met forty years ago after Matthews had been dispatched to the States to discuss the installation of Trilogy: A Flip and Two Twisters. The piece was one of the first commissions by the Govett-Brewster Gallery for contemporary art, which had opened in New Plymouth in 1970. It was a controversial choice.

Trilogy consists of two long narrow thin strips of stainless steel (Twisters) that hang either side of a loop (Flip). Electric motors power the ‘performance’ of the two twisters moving frenetically alongside the writhing flip. As with all of Lye’s kinetic sculptures it is both a sensual overload, an interplay of movement, light and shadow, and an unambiguous primal statement.

‘As far as I’m concerned it’s spermatozoa and a beautiful vagina, all doing their own thing’, says Matthews. ‘Flip starts having orgasms, and the whole thing’s going crazy, and finally we have this great climax.’

Before adding, ‘(But) it depends on how you want to read it.’

Controversial, of course, was precisely what New Zealand’s first gallery dedicated to contemporary art wanted and needed. But the construction of Trilogy simply proved convoluted. And isolating. And arduous.

Matthews remembers Lye’s reaction upon first seeing an eight-feet working model Matthews had constructed. ‘It’s absolutely terrific, fantastic what you have done,’ Lye said, ‘But to have the right impact on people we have to have the right scale, and to have the right scale it has got to be bigger than what you’ve done. The twisters have to be 25 feet long.’

Lye was notoriously particular about his sculptures; their scale and mathematical complexity (in a pre-computer age) both appealed to enormous would be super-patrons – Ford, Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum in New York – and ultimately repelled them.

‘I sobered up very quickly,’ remembered Matthews, ‘and I’m thinking “bugger this man”’.

‘I knew he’d done it before. (And) I thought to myself “Do I really want to go through this nonsense? Do I really want to have all this crap?” The point about scaling up that particular work was you just didn’t double everything. It’s all to do with kinetic energy and rotating masses. It’s factors of four, or more. It’s like starting again. I just thought “can I really be bothered?”’

He could and a lasting partnership was born. Although it took Matthews, who made his fortune refining processes to seal pavements and tarmac, a further two years to complete Trilogy.

‘It wasn’t very enjoyable, I must say. It was a helluva job, a helluva time. I was incredibly tired in those days. It was quite a lonely experience.’

It was also a dangerous one. The right grade of stainless steel – razor sharp and most often used for surgical instruments – had to be imported. Later gallery directors worried about how to protect the public should something go wrong.

There was no need for anxiety. Trilogy slotted perfectly into Govett-Brewster, which in its first incarnation was based in the high ceilings an old flea pit cinema.  The success of the collaboration saw Lye bequest his archive to the gallery on his death in 1980.

Fast forward to 2015, Matthews is now Chairman of the Len Lye Foundation and one of the driving forces of the new Len Lye Centre which opened in New Plymouth this July. It’s a venture that Matthews has poured significant time, money and resources into.

One of the ambitions of the Centre is to change the perception of Len Lye as being something of an artist’s artist. Of someone whose work turns up under almost every significant rock of 20th Century culture, but who remains on the critical margins because his work fits almost nowhere. It’s a label that has stuck despite the storming Pompidou retrospective of 2000. Narrating the basic contours of Lye’s career gives you a sense of why this might be.

Born in New Zealand in 1901, Lye worked his passage to London, exhibiting with the Seven and Five Society in the late 1920s, then at the seminal Surrealist exhibition of 1936. He was briefly lauded as ‘the English Disney’ for his experiments in colour film at the GPO before assignments for The March of Time newsreels took him across the Atlantic. Post-war he settled in Greenwich Village and began working in kinetic sculpture before his films enjoyed a resurgence in the 1960s as progenitors of first psychedelia, and then digital art.


But although Lye shed many skins he did so out of adherence to an aesthetic creed that stressed the dynamism of the present moment. His pursuit of this vision led him to experiment relentlessly with form. In London he made films without a camera, in New York he took photograms of the culturally great and the good: among them Miro, Georgia O’Keeffe and W H Auden. He finally appeared to settle on the construction of ‘performing’ kinetic sculptures – a way of conducting motion the way others conducted music, he quipped – although with trademark singularity having appeared to settle on a form, he then spent years producing designs that were all but unbuildable. Until now.

It’s this last point that provides the Len Lye Centre with a real point of interest. Substantial single-artist museums always seem a risky proposition, hostages to critical fortune, at risk of setting both art and artist in aspic.

‘The swingiest art gallery of the Antipodes,’ wrote Lye towards the end of his life, ‘the Govett-Brewster of New Plymouth, NZ, enlarged Trilogy, it’s goddam mecca stuff. John Matthews who sat on its tail for two years is an engineering genius. John is my one and only patron.’

It would certainly be possible to paint a portrait of Matthews as something of Maecenas in the guise of a New Zealand jazz aficionado. Great patrons have often been collaborators and Matthews’ contribution to Lye’s work has been substantial. He has funded students in the engineering faculty at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand to study Lye’s unrealised designs.

In the last 35 years, around two dozen of Lye’s biggest and most significant sculptures have been produced. Paradoxically, the fact that Lye spent his entire life determined not to be pinned down, or pigeonholed, and was engaged in a constant struggle to devise forms through which to bring his creative ‘old brain’ energies to life might ensure the new Centre’s longevity. His archive is a succession of gauntlets tossed towards the future as much as a record of achievement. It’s apt that some of his greatest work has only been completed after his death.

In the 1960s, Lye declared himself an artist of the 21st Century. Matthews aims to make this declaration a physical reality by planting Sun, Land and Sea on London’s South Bank.

You can watch more of Lye’s kinetic sculptures in action on YouTube here, or find out more about his work on the Len Lye foundation website here.

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Scott Anthony is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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