Len Lye (1901-1980) is a hero for serious aficionados of pioneering animated films and this is the first retrospective to be devoted to him in the UK, with work across a range of media spanning from 1924 to 1976.
His career falls into three broad geographical areas, starting in his native New Zealand, moving to London in 1926 and New York in 1944.
As a young man he travelled in the South Pacific, living in Samoa and Australia, and the influence of Polynesian and aboriginal art is apparent in two batiks, Geometric Composition and Polynesian Connection, from 1928-29.
Arriving in the circle of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in mid-1920s London, Lye was described as “a man from Mars who saw everything from a different viewpoint”.
Particularly interesting among the early works is his first animated film, Tusalava (1929). I suppose this study in black-and-white graphics, suggestive of micro-organisms viewed through a microscope, could have been given a conventional projection, but presenting it on a wall-mounted flat screen emphasises its connection with the batiks and photograms which surround it.
In the 1930s Lye was adopted by that unlikely patron of the between-the-wars British avant-garde, the GPO Film Unit. His earliest production for it, Colour Box (1935) is basically an abstract animation made by painting directly on to celluloid. This lends itself awkwardly to putting across a GPO message, some words having to be integrated with the images to point out the very reasonable rates then on offer for sending packages. In Rainbow Dance (1936) Lye integrates more abstraction with various figures dancing in silhouette, including that 1930s stereotype, the hiker.
Beautifully presented in continuous projections, these films have a naive visual exuberance which anticipates 1960s psychedelia.
The final section of the exhibition is devoted to the kinetic sculptures Lye started making from the late 1950s. Though kinetic art was an international movement in the 1960s, Lye’s take on it was typically idiosyncratic.
Whatever you make of these works, Lye’s pioneering films would seem to guarantee him a place in the history of 20th century art. He is one of those interesting artists who tests the cultural mainstream by coming at it from the outside, and it makes for an unusually entertaining exhibition.
* Until February 13 (Tue-Sun, 11am-6pm; admission free).