Len Lye (1901-1980) was born in New Zealand, lived in Australia, Samoa, London and finally New York. Len Lye was indeed an eccentric and innovative multi-media artist. He is best known for his experimental filmmaking and kinetic sculptures, yet he was also a writer, painter, theorist and a musician. Lye was fascinated by a theory he developed evoked by a question from an art teacher challenging him to find his own art theory. His idea was to compose motion as one would compose sound.
Movement was a life force to Lye. He incorporated movement into all of his work and used film and sculpture to capture light and movement. He was an animator with his films and sculptures. Lye was one of the first to scratch, paint and stencil directly on celluloid thus making a film without a camera. Lye began finding advertising sponsors to finance his films such as Shell Oil, Imperial Airways and the British General Post Office, who were looking for innovative ways to convey messages to vast audiences.
His films were groundbreaking, deemed masterpieces, organic and sometimes controversial. His 1929 film Tusalava, meaning 'things go full circle' in Samoan (Sitney, 233), was thought by the British Board of Censors to be about sex and was almost refused a certificate (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery). Major corporations sponsored many of Lye's films for financial support. For example, When the Pie was Opened 1941, was sponsored by the Ministry of Information as a wartime film used to inform people how to prepare a pie in an interesting way during the food shortage of the time (Govett-Brewster).
Rhythm and sound were important to Lye's work. He combined jazz, African drums, Cuban music, and piano scores with his animations and visual journeys.
During the latter part of his life, although he continued with film, he worked on motorized metal sculptures called Tangibles. They are tangible motion sculptures. He used such things as pieces of music wire rods representing individual blades of grass clinking against each other creating a unique movement and sound as though it were a dance piece.
He wanted to make light and sculpture tangible. Lye focused mainly on his kinetic sculptures up until his death in 1980.
Lye's numerous influences that ranged from Freud to Polynesian ritual dances to Jazz and his methods of expressing his visions made him an eccentric and captivating artist that has inspired many artists of his generation and today.
Rhythm (1957) was commissioned to Lye by an advertising agency in New York for the Chrysler Corporation. The objective was for Lye to take an existing 90-minute stock film of the assembly of a Ford vehicle and edit it down to one minute while conveying the same message to an audience as in the 90-minute version. Rhythm was created by using hundreds of jump cuts synchronized with African drumming. The numerous cuts create a high density in this one-minute film thus intensifying it. P. Adams Sitney says Lye "created a film purely exploiting the jump-cut (Sitney, 233)." The drums along with the beat and rhythm of the motion create a fantastic montage. Each beat of the drum seems to fall perfectly with each beat and rhythm of motion. Although this is a montage of existing footage, Lye incorporated some of his trademark direct filmmaking techniques. In the beginning and the end of the film, Lye scratched words, lines and punched holes in the film adding a unique visual to the film.
Rhythm won first prize in 1957 at the New York Art Directors' Festival, but was disqualified because it was never used for broadcast as Chrysler rejected it. Lye did win an award for this film in 1958 in an Experimental Film Festival in Brussels.
Jonas Mekas said of Lye's film Rhythm, "It's filled with some kind of secret action of cinema."
--Jessica Lewis, 2003