Lye's artistic worth flourishes around world

ROGER HORROCKS
Last updated 07:31 08/11/2012

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OPINION: I've been interested to follow the debate about how well- known Len Lye is as an artist.

As someone who has written about Lye's career, I would be grateful for the opportunity to add a few thoughts. I'm a member of the Lye Foundation but am writing here on my own behalf.

In discussing this subject, I believe it's important not to confuse celebrity with reputation.

Few modern artists are actual celebrities - Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol are perhaps the only three that have become household names.

Achieving international recognition in a particular area of the arts is something different and more specialised. Lye is one of the very few New Zealanders who has won that sort of success.

His achievements are particularly striking for a largely self-educated young man who grew up in poverty. He never went to high school, let alone university, yet in 1966 New York University offered him an artist- in-residence position at professorial level. Professor Howard Conant, chairman of NYU's Department of Art, described Lye as "a master artist" and as "one of the most creative men I've ever met". Not bad for someone who started out as a rugby-mad street kid in Wellington.

In 1979 (the year before Lye died), his overseas successes were still largely unknown in New Zealand, and Wystan Curnow and I approached Auckland University Press (AUP) with the idea of publishing a book of his essays.

The academics on the board had never heard of him and asked for proof that he really was a "well- known artist". We did a rapid library search and were able to provide a list of about 500 stories about him in overseas magazines and newspapers, including profiles in well-known periodicals such as Time magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times, Sight and Sound, Film Culture, Film Quarterly, Films and Filming, Art International, Art in America, Art and Australia, and so on. (Our list was published in 1980 by the Bulletin of New Zealand Art History.) AUP apologised for having ever doubted Lye's reputation, and subsequently published three books about him, one of which became a bestseller.

Thirty years later, I find it strange that there are still people questioning whether Lye is a "well-known artist". If the 1980 list of stories about him was updated today, it would be twice as long.

Lye's work continues to enjoy international interest. This year, for example, it was exhibited at two major museums in New York - the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.

Lye is, to my knowledge, the only New Zealander to have received a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which also published a book about him, with essays by noted critics from France, Britain and the United States.

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Australians are seldom in a hurry to celebrate New Zealand art, yet the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne recently hosted a huge Lye exhibition, and also co-published a book about him. There have also been Lye shows at the Art Gallery of NSW, the Queensland Art Gallery, and other venues.

Territorium Artis, the opening exhibition of the new national museum devoted to modern art in Bonn, Germany, included Lye among its prestigious selection of the 100 artists who had created masterpieces or seminal works of the 20th century (putting Lye alongside Picasso, Dali and Warhol, among others). He was represented both by his sculpture and his films.

It is remarkable that Lye earned an international reputation in not one but two areas of art - kinetic sculpture and film-making. In New Zealand he is better known for his kinetic sculpture, but overseas he is better known for his films, which continue to be screened in festivals, art museums, film schools, and film archives around the world. They even turn up in pop culture contexts such as MTV Europe, which has celebrated Lye as one of the fathers of "the music video" genre.

Lye's decision to leave his collection to the people of New Zealand has meant that his sculpture, now resident in this country, has a somewhat lower profile in the art world overseas. But it is a privilege for us to have such an important art collection on our doorstep. New Plymouth can be particularly proud that Lye's decision to gift his work owed much to the excellent working relationship he established during the 1970s with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and with John Matthews, who provided him with engineering backup for his sculpture.

Anyone who visits Europe can witness the great pride that each town and city takes in artists who are associated with their area. New Plymouth is doing an excellent job of developing that kind of appeal, through Puke Ariki, Womad, and the Govett- Brewster Art Gallery. The addition of a Len Lye Centre will confirm that reputation.

On a personal note, I worked as Lye's assistant in 1980, which left me in no doubt that he was an extraordinary creative artist.

Of course, he was not a celebrity who attracted as much media attention as an artist like Andy Warhol. Indeed, he was suspicious of celebrity, and often avoided opportunities for publicity. He was well aware of the nonsense associated with celebrity in New York; and in New Zealand he knew there was a reverse problem - the tall poppy syndrome. He sought to avoid both of these problems and simply to focus on the serious business of art.

How "famous" was Lye? Certainly famous enough - he is clearly a very special figure among New Zealand-born artists. If evidence counts for anything, then all the poorly informed arguments about his status have long ago passed their use-by date.

Roger Horrocks is Emeritus Professor at University of Auckland and a noted New Zealand film-maker and art commentator.

- Taranaki Daily News

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