Real Life

Len Lye laid bare

Inside the artist’s exceptional life.
Shirley Horrocks - a friend of the late Kiwi artist Len Lye

Christchurch-born Len Lye was one of New Zealand’s most celebrated and eccentric artists, and it was his love of the unorthodox – including his open marriage – which is the basis of a new opera. A friend of the late sculptor, and the opera’s moving image maker, Shirley Horrocks, says Len’s passion for life was infectious, but it was his love of freedom – and free love – which people find fascinating.

Shirley, a documentary maker, became friends with Len and his second wife, Ann, during the last year of his life when her husband, Roger Horrocks, worked as his assistant. She remembers how the four spent hours at a New York bar called the Bistro, listening to jazz and Len’s unconventional views. She was also impressed at how close and loving Ann and Len were as a married couple.

Married to Len for 30 years, Shirley adds that Ann – who passed away in 2000 – was able to tolerate his appeal to the opposite sex. She took advantage of their open marriage, but less often than Len. “Women loved Len and I think Ann coped with that better than Jane [his first wife] did.”

Len’s kinetic sculptures can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and other major museums.

When Len died of leukaemia in 1980 at age 79, he donated his body to science. Instead of a funeral, a wake was held at his Greenwich Village apartment in New York where friends and family celebrated his life in style. “He was so full of life, even when he knew he was dying,” Shirley recalls.

“He never let things get him down or if he did it didn’t show. He introduced me to 80-year-old friends who were doing amazing things. It changed my attitude about ageing.”

Len Lye: The Opera includes Shirley’s film clips of Len’s sculptures, samples of his films and scenes from the lighthouse at Cape Campbell, Marlborough where Len lived as a child. “It’s more than just an opera,” says Shirley, “it’s a multimedia show.”

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