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The Danish-born immigrant, inventor, performer, and artist Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) made art on his own terms, literally. He dubbed his brand of work Lumia, a neologism designed to break with the past and establish a new artistic genre consisting solely of moving electric-light displays. Fifteen of Wilfred’s works, dating from the 1920s to the 1960s, were painstakingly restored for this luminous, and illuminating, exhibition. Accompanied by a beautifully produced and informative catalogue, Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light offered a unique opportunity to be immersed in the work and ideas of an artist whose last retrospective was held nearly a half century ago. The exhibition sought to remedy decades of relative neglect and restore Wilfred to his place in the history of modern art.
At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the galleries for the exhibition were reached through the museum’s folk and self-taught art sections, and it was tempting to see Wilfred as another “outsider” artist, obsessively pursuing a personal vision with do-it-yourself ingenuity. But he was hardly unknown in his day. Over a long and prolific career, Wilfred was connected to everything from László Moholy-Nagy’s “light-painting” of the 1920s (Moholy-Nagy mentions Wilfred in his seminal 1925 Bauhaus book Painting, Photography, Film) to psychedelic light shows of the 1960s (light-show pioneer Joshua White cites him as a formative influence). In the 1930s, collector Katherine Dreier wrote to Marcel Duchamp to extol the wonders of Wilfred’s work. In 1952, Wilfred was included in Dorothy Miller’s influential Museum of Modern Art exhibition 15 Americans, alongside Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, all of whose work in paint shows similarities to Wilfred’s in light. Indeed, Pollock had been a frequent visitor to Wilfred’s Art Institute of Light (located in midtown Manhattan) in the 1930s and early 1940s, and Pollock’s turn to all-over painting in 1947 is arguably indebted to his exposure to Wilfred’s dynamic, abstract works. In 1964, Wilfred’s large-scale Lumia Suite, Op. 158 was installed in MoMA, remaining on near-continuous view for sixteen years and attracting widespread attention. At the tail end of his career, Wilfred had pride of place in the seminal 1967 exhibition of kinetic and new-media art, Lights in Orbit, at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York, showing alongside Nam June Paik and others. In the introduction to Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light, celebrated light-and-space artist James Turrell traces his career to an early exposure to Wilfred’s art at MoMA.
In the exhibition’s darkened galleries, each of Wilfred’s abstract works slowly revealed its unique structure and character over time. Wilfred eschewed soundtracks, keeping his colorful screens intentionally silent, which was conducive to meditative viewing. He kept the mechanisms of his works hidden, using rear-screen projection to create an appearance of mysterious depth and inner light. His ethereal imagery suggests (and has frequently been compared to) the flicker of flames, the evanescent patterns of the aurora borealis, and the subtly shifting light at dawn or dusk.
Wilfred’s six-decade odyssey began in 1905 when, as a teenager, he devised a rudimentary light machine using a cigar box, eventually leading to his innovation of the Clavilux—a term denoting a key-driven electric light projector related to the color organ. Wilfred developed the Clavilux in the late 1910s and early 1920s in New York while a member of a group that called itself the Prometheans, devoted to exploring new spatial realities through the use of pure light. The group included Claude Bragdon, an architect and the major American theorist of the spatial fourth dimension, which was conceived as a mystical realm of infinite expansion and transcendent oneness.
Wilfred’s pursuit of “cosmic consciousness” was strongly influenced by astronomical photography and the growing field of science fiction. With his work he sought to “create a fantastic and radiant realm, a celestial architecture of lightyear dimensions.”1 He frequently likened the “magic screen” of his Lumia works to the window of a spaceship, with the spectator in the position of the astronaut on the inside looking out, seeing a small portion of the endless cosmos.
In the 1920s Wilfred toured Europe and the United States presenting Clavilux “recitals” to eager audiences. By decade’s end he had developed a cabinet-like “home” version, the Clavilux Junior, which could be manipulated by the individual user with a sort of remote-control device. A 1925 Vanity Fair article, reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, predicted that people would soon all have Wilfred’s devices in their houses, “tucked away in a corner of the drawing room” (76). Wilfred’s Lumia for the home predate consumer television and anticipate the color TV consoles that would become ubiquitous in middle-class living rooms.
In the 1940s and 1950s Wilfred moved from real-time performances toward what he thought of as “pre-recorded” displays that followed a fixed trajectory based on clockwork mechanisms. Stephen Eskilson has suggested that Wilfred’s work, existing as it did outside of conventional media distinctions, and before the emergence of Intermedia and Light Art as categories in the late 1960s, needed to find analogies with traditional art forms, first music and then, starting at midcentury, abstract painting2. MoMA first acquired Wilfred’s work in 1942, initiating a decades-long relationship.
In the 1960s Wilfred expanded the scope of his programmed Lumia works from furniture-like consoles to room-sized installations, with the projection apparatus concealed in another room entirely; all that appears to the viewer is a luminous screen embedded in the wall. At this time he worked both for commercial clients (he designed a mural-sized Lumia work for Clairol’s New York headquarters in 1959) and for museums. These large-format Lumia works reflected the expansion then taking place in painting from the easel to the wall, and in their scale and complexity they represent the pinnacle of Wilfred’s career.
Wilfred’s recent lack of visibility in some ways reflects the problematic status of light art in general. In their moment, works of light art might reach wide audiences and achieve popular and critical acclaim, but their moment tends to be fleeting. Unlike more tangible and collectible works of art, much light art cannot be easily crated up, stored, transferred from one setting to another, or re-exhibited. Given the sheer, ever-mounting technical challenges of keeping any sort of electronic or kinetic art from falling into disrepair, it is little wonder that elaborately devised work such as Wilfred’s fades from view. If they are preserved at all, such works often end up languishing in storage, as Wilfred’s did for many years. Wilfred’s magnum opus, Lumia Suite, Op. 158 (1963–64), which had been so influential while on view at MoMA through the 1960s and 1970s, spent subsequent decades boxed up in a warehouse literally accumulating dust. An entire team of conservators and technicians collaborated to restore it.
This exhibition is thus both the story of a life’s work that today begs to be better known, and the tale of collectors, curators, and conservators who against many odds have managed to bring this work back into view. The catalogue recounts some of the complexities and difficulties involved in restoring Wilfred’s machines to functioning status, such as having to find or fabricate replacement parts for outdated electronics. Many of the works on display had been collected over several decades by Dr. Eugene Epstein, a retired radio astronomer, and his nephew Adam “AJ” Epstein, a theater producer, who are largely credited with saving Wilfred’s oeuvre from oblivion.
The Lumia works in the exhibition were not, as they might have been, digital recreations but rather fully functioning originals, analog in their technology. The infinite gradations of the reflected color patterns were accompanied by a hushed hum, the sound of the machinery quietly operating within the housings behind the screens. Wilfred’s machines provide a link between today’s abstract animations on the computer screen and the hidden mechanisms of nineteenth-century color organs and magic lantern shows. In terms of their technology, they are quintessentially of the twentieth century—using filament bulbs, polished aluminum reflectors, celluloid filters, and electric machinery to achieve their ephemeral effects.
In Washington, Wilfred’s ambitious late abstractions fairly begged comparison with the Washington Color School canvases made at the same time, above all Morris Louis’s diaphanous veil paintings so beloved by modernist critic Clement Greenberg for their pure opticality. But whereas Louis’s washes of color exist in a perpetual state of suspension, Wilfred’s vaporous displays are always in a state of flux—their structure is unstable, never at rest. Indeed, the “time dimension,” as Wilfred put it, is integral to his works, adding not only a perceptual level of experience but also a conceptual element around the idea of duration, which fascinated him. Some Lumia compositions cycled over the course of minutes, while some unfolded over many hours, days, or even years. Fittingly, Wilfred’s final work (Luccata, Op. 162), completed in 1968, the year of his death, was designed never to repeat, achieving the mixture found in the universe itself of recurring pattern on the one hand, and endless variety on the other.
1. Thomas Wilfred, “Composing in the Art of Lumia,” in Michael Betancourt, ed., Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2006): 40.
2. Stephen Eskilson, “Thomas Wilfred and Intermedia: Seeking a Framework for Lumia,” Leonardo 36:1 (2003): 65-68.
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