Look Closer

Introducing Liliane Lijn

Meet the American artist who pioneered the use of technology to make moving art

Well, you know, all children make art, and I just simply continued.

I grew up in the States, I was born in New York, until I was 14.

And at that point my parents decided to leave and they went to Europe and so I went to school.

I went to a normal grammar school in Lugano, Ticino, Switzerland.

After about three and a half years I decided I wanted to go to Paris and be an artist in Paris, that was my idea.

Well I was a very rebellious person, I didn't want to be told what to do, you see.

So I didn't study art.

Paris was the exact opposite of what I thought it would be like.

I mean, firstly, they were all men. There were very few women actually practicing or visibly practicing.

And it was very, very difficult as a young 18 year old girl who wanted to be an artist to actually be taken in any way seriously.

Being a woman was... the sense is installed so totally within your body that you could do two things.


You could say, 'yes, I am body and I'm proud of it'. Or you could say, 'I'm mind, forget the body'.

The cone itself is a very important female symbol. It's not male, it's feminine.

When the cones osculate, the more you look at them the less you see the volume and that was what interested me at the time, is that I was very interested in de-materialisation.

The idea of losing the body, and that was related in a way to being a woman.

In the middle of the 1970s I realised, actually it was after taking acid, I realised how important it was to ground oneself in the body.

And I realised just how important it was to be physical.

So these three figures are self-portraits and this one's called 'Lilith', or 'Portrait of the Artist on Fire'.

I made it as an homage to all women who've had breast cancer. It's also about feminine passion. Anger, also. Anger. Fury, really.

I never really was part of a group. I was interested in kinetic art but I wasn't interested in the movement of Kinetic Art.

I was interested in the relationship between art and science.

Science I found very poetic. I wanted to go to the root of things.

I wanted to understand the essence of reality and that seemed to me to be it.

I had started working with kinetic cylinders. Cylinders that were revolving.

And what interested me here was looking at form in a completely new way.

So instead of walking around a shape or looking at the way shape changes, what you see is a code transmitted by light and you see every
change on the surface of that cylinder.

I never really had this feeling that I absolutely had to exhibit, or I absolutely had to have a huge career.

I wasn't brought up that way, maybe because I didn't go to art school.

So we never thought of ourselves as earning a living, we thought of ourselves as criminals.

I knew quite well a number of American beat-poets who lived at what was called the 'Beat Hotel'.

I had the feeling that words generally had lost their energy, their power, particularly the way they were used in journalism and in
politics.

So what I wanted to do, by actually spinning these words, was to make words become vibration.

And so what I would say was, 'I want people to see sound'.

I started making these clay pieces which were about holding, and one of them was cast in Athens as an edition, with my gallery Rodeo.

And I called it 'Holding Stone'. So it's really about holding matter. Keep holding it and feeling it.

I have to say, the most important thing for me is the moment of awareness and focus.

And so I try to make work that will allow people to, if you like, still their minds. Look at things with a different eye.

Who is Liliane Lijn?

I try to make work that will allow people to still their mind and look at things with a different eye.

Liliane Lijn

Artist Liliane Lijn is best known for her kinetic artworks. (Kinetic art is art that moves.)

In the early 1960s Liliane Lijn was at the forefront of exploring new ways of using technology and materials to make art.

Surrealism, Greek mythology, female identity and developments in technology are just some of the things that have inspired the artist.

Early Inspirations

Liliane Lijn was born in New York in 1939.

Her family were European Jews who had settled in America at the outbreak of World War II. Her family included writers and artists who she describes as ‘simply interesting people’.

After spending her teenage years in Switzerland she moved to Paris in 1958 with the aim of being an artist. Lijn remembers her first year in Paris as ‘a sustained burst of unfocussed energy’.

She studied archaeology and art history, attended gatherings at the Surrealist Café, visited museums, explored the city, and began to experiment with collage and ink drawings.

Liliane Lijn in Paris with Takis 1961

Liliane Lijn (second from left) with Takis (far left) and friends in Paris, 1961 © Costas C. Chryssostalis

Everyone I met taught me something, suggesting reading material, showing me their own work, telling me what to look at, giving me tips on technique and looking critically at my first attempts to draw and paint.

Liliane Lijn

Poetry and surrealism

In 1963 Liliane Lijn had her first exhibition at La Librairie Anglaise in Paris, where she showed kinetic artworks called Poem Machines.

In these works, cylinders with printed words spin at high speed until they blur and vibrate. Lijn felt that words had lost their power and wanted to do something about this.

When I made Poem Machines my intention was to explode both prose and poetry, remembering their origin in vibration.

Liliane Lijn

To Lijn, poetry is a form of visual expression: 'I wanted people to see sound'.

Liliane Lijn, Poem machine, 'Get Rid of Government Time' 1962

Liliane Lijn, Get Rid of Government Time 1962 © Liliane Lijn

Liliane Lijn, Poem Machine, 'Get Rid of Government Time' 1962

Liliane Lijn, Get Rid of Government Time 1962 © Liliane Lijn

Lijn's idea of using machines to create poetry came from the surrealist idea of automatic writing.

Surrealist artists and writers were interested in creating visual representations of ideas or thoughts and often tapped into dreams and the subconscious. Automatic writing is produced by letting subconscious thoughts guide what you write.

Lijn met André Breton, one of the founders of the surrealist movement and inventors of automatic poetry, in Paris.

Feminism and Representations of the Feminine

Being a woman installs you so totally in your body that you could do two things: You could say ‘yes I am body and I’m proud of it’ or you could say ‘I’m mind! Forget the body.

Liliane Lijn

Liliane Lijn’s time in Paris also led to an interest in feminism.

When she arrived in Paris she found that there were very few visible women artists. She describes an atmosphere where women were not taken seriously or considered professional as artists.

In reaction to this, Lijn began to explore ways of representing the feminine in art.

Liliane Lijn, ‘Space Displace Koan’ 1969
Liliane Lijn
Space Displace Koan 1969
Tate
© Liliane Lijn

Throughout her career, Lijn has made cone-shaped artworks called Koans which she sees as a female symbol. (Kōan is a Japanese word linked to Zen Buddhism and meditation).

As the cones spin, thin sections made from transparent material appear to rise and fall as curved lines, losing their form.

When the koans oscillate, the more you look at them the less you see the body. And that’s what interested me because I was very interested in dematerialization – in the idea of losing the body. And that was related in a way to being a woman.
Liliane Lijn

Liliane Lijn, ‘Bridal Wound’ 1986–90
Liliane Lijn
Bridal Wound 1986–90
Tate
© Liliane Lijn

In the 1970s Lijn started making art whose forms echoed the female body.

Bridal Wound 1986–90 is a small sculpture in which black feathers encircle a glass sphere with a hole bursting through the front.

My idea was that it was torn, that my head was torn apart but also – it was like a wound – and also it was like hair. It was wound, hair, vulva.
Liliane Lijn

  • Feminist art

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Science and Technology

I wasn’t interested in the movement of kinetic art. I was interested in the relationship between art and science. Science I found very poetic.

Liliane Lijn

Another important influence in Liliane Lijn’s work is her passion for science and technology.

In 1962 Lijn began to experiment with rotating lenses and projectors.

She created lenses with water and thick blocks of Perspex to refract and reflect light in new ways, describing the physics of light and materials as ‘pure poetry’.

Her sculpture Liquid Reflections 1968 mirrors the movement of particles and planets.

Liliane Lijn, ‘Liquid Reflections’ 1968
Liliane Lijn
Liquid Reflections 1968
Tate
© Liliane Lijn

Liliane Lijn continues to make art that asks us to focus and think about things in a new way.

Science can be poetry. Language and visual art can overlap. The feminine can be expressed in relation to mind as well as body.

Through her work the artist creates a visual space in which we can pause, be aware and look at things ‘with a different eye’.

'Budd' Waintrobb Liliane Lijn 1975-6 © 'Budd' Waintrobb

'Budd' Waintrobb, Liliane Lijn 1975-6 © 'Budd' Waintrobb

If a work of art makes you aware, and wakes you up, enlightens you, then it’s given you the best thing it can give you and everything else will come afterwards.

Liliane Lijn

Artworks by Liliane Lijn

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