Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light, light art compositions by the Danish-American inventor and musician, closed last weekend at the Yale University Art Gallery. The exhibition’s title refers to the name Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) gave to his kinetic artworks. Arranged chronologically, the works in this exhibition escalate in ambition from Wilfred’s earliest home devices in the “Clavilux” series to a large, public installation, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Wilfred created the first “Clavilux” instruments in 1919, nearly a decade before the first electronic television was invented. Light traveled through rotating mirrored surfaces from a painted “color record” onto a screen. The earliest instruments were performed live for viewers. Later, the mechanical projection machines were housed in small cabinets resembling TVs; however, unlike the television, Wilfred’s lumia were intended to be silent. Wilfred was a musician, yet he was adamant about producing an experience of color without sound for viewers.
Wilfred had hoped to sell his luminous light boxes to consumers as a replacement for the television, but as he gained traction with artists, he gradually shifted his focus to museum and galleries. In 1963, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, commissioned his most ambitious public installation, Lumia Suite, Opus 158, which remained on view at the museum until 1980. In 1971, Wilfred had a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Wilfred’s lumia are beautiful and slow, albeit an awkward replacement for the television. It was difficult for me to consider passively enjoying a Clavilux projection in the same way I consume an episode of “Game of Thrones.” Watching the lumia, I felt my sense of observation was heightened, whereas my senses seem more often dulled by TV.
The cascading colors projected inside his machines made me recall artists such as J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851). In particular, the atmospheric and ephemeral cloudscapes later admired by the Impressionists, especially Claude Monet, recall the slow-moving colors in the lumia. Using washes of watercolor and oil paint, Turner’s layered works achieved the shimmering sensation of light, while Wilfred’s works used light itself in lieu of paint as the primary visual element in his compositions. The lumia works evoke sublime phenomena such as the aurora borealis or gaseous plumes in outer space.
In fact, Wilfred’s innovations preceded works by other light artists. For example, László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) made his seminal work, Light-Space Modulator—a light-based sculpture powered by electricity—in 1930. Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist and Bauhaus professor, advocated for the integration of art, industry, and technology. He recognized the innovation of Wilfred’s works, and the lumia were also admired by many other artists of his time, including the Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). In the foreword of the exhibition catalog, the contemporary artist James Turrell (b. 1943) recounts his childhood encounter with Wilfred’s works at MoMA.
Despite the respect Wilfred earned among artists of his day, his radical oeuvre of light art has not been shown in the last four decades. Lumia Suite, Opus 158 was restored for the occasion of the exhibition, and it concludes the show in a special viewing room, matching the specifications of Wilfred’s original plans. The show reaffirms Wilfred’s role as a visionary artist of both light and color.
Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light closed on July 23, 2017 at the Yale University Art Gallery. The exhibition will travel to Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian American Art Museum in October.