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Coming to Light: Long-Lost New Media Pioneer Thomas Wilfred Dazzles in Yale Retrospective

Thomas Wilfred, Study in Depth, Op. 152, 1959, projector, reflector units, electrical and lighting elements, and a projection screen, 142 days, 2 hrs., 10 mins.

HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) created experiments in light and movement which in their ephemeral form and duration—some projections repeat only once every several years— challenge our notion of an artwork as a viewable experience. A show at Yale curated by Keely Orgeman puts his life’s work on display, and it is significant for anyone interested in time-based art, performance, and new media. “Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light,” the first North American survey of Wilfred’s work since 1971, spans the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s, during which time his “Lumia”—Wilfred’s name for his art of light, was mostly produced by wooden boxes with frosted glass screens and electrical elements inside. These instruments, which he called “Home Clavilux,” occupied a liminal space between performance, painting, and home appliance.

The Lumia are basically mechanized abstract light performances, which play on instruments somewhat like record players for color and light. Wilfred, who was born in Denmark (as Richard Edgar Løvstrøm), studied painting in the 1910s at the Sorbonne, where he also developed interests in Theosophy (Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant) and folk singing. In the 1920s he invented an instrument called a Clavilux, a kind of light organ—a keyboard connected to different gels which allows projected color to be thrown on a theater screen in front of an audience (in a theater or in a church). The instruments’ shifting abstract colors and resistance to narrative and illustrative function (no music played during the performances) were greeted rapturously by audiences of the 1920s, and the exhibition puts some ephemera from these performances on display, but the Lumia-producing home Clavilux boxes are the real heart of the show.

Thomas Wilfred sitting at the Clavilux “Model E,” ca. 1924. Sepia-toned photograph. THOMAS WILFRED PAPERS, MANUSCRIPTS AND ARCHIVES, YALE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY, NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT

Taking the engine from a sewing machine, colored gels in pickle jars, rotating colored glass disks, mirrors, and light bulbs, Wilfred cobbled together home Clavilux units for the display of kinetic abstract light. They revolve slowly, sometimes jerkily, but they are mesmerizing—the colored patterns on the frosted glass evoke underwater worlds, or the northern lights, or some cosmological display. At times they reminded me of lava lamps. One version shoots a morphing colored light display onto the ceiling. The earliest home units are numbered like music compositions (Abstract, Opus #91, 1934) and have other elements of music: speed, rhythm, repetition. Framed in wood, they are paintings that unfold over time, colors performing themselves on a frosted-glass ground for the user. Unit #86 (1930) looks like nothing so much as an early television in a wooden cabinet, but rather than a sitcom, the screen plays an abstract red flame-like blaze, like something out of a dream. The founders of the Societé Anonyme, Marcel Duchamp and modernist doyenne Katherine Dreier, championed his work in 1934. “I don’t know when I have been so thrilled or saw such possibilities,” Dreier wrote of Wilfred, and a work like the one she purchased is on display.

But there’s nothing like seeing the units in motion. At Yale, when they are switched on at set intervals, to save wear-and-tear on their motors, the darkened room is full of quiet engine whirs and mysterious, flickering patterns. They were considered art at the time they were made, but they were also recommended for their therapeutic benefits, and they call to mind other early 20th-century contraptions: record players, vacuum cleaners, and later, early televisions.

Thomas Wilfred, Unit #86, from the Clavilux Junior (First Home Clavilux Model) Series, 1930, metal, glass, electrical and lighting elements, and an illustration-board screen in a wood cabinet.

CAROL AND EUGENE EPSTEIN COLLECTION

The show also puts on view dozens of drawings for engineering the Lumia and for constructing something called the “Art Institute of Light,” which Wilifred founded in 1930. They are like something out of a science-fiction novel: precise, even technical, yet totally out there (one features a viewer seated in front of a giant glowing projection—“Reality—the physical equipment,” it is labeled). You can see Wilifred’s attention to the location of the audience in relation to his mechanical setups of bulbs and mirrors and his awareness of how to produce certain abstract forms and kinds of motion. The works on paper appear bombastic and somewhat cultish, though, with their eccentric titles and grandiose theories.

Rather than being mass-produced or replicable, Wilfred’s work remained in the realm of art, often in dialog with Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1940s and ‘50s. Where the show really excels is presenting Wilfred’s work as something central to American modernist art. Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, started adding his work to MoMA’s collection in 1941.

Surprisingly, Wilfred featured in the landmark 1952 exhibition of modernist painting at MoMA, “15 Americans,” alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. “Lumia is the name given to the art of light developed by Thomas Wilfred some years ago, in which moving forms and colors are projected on a screen by a special light-generating instrument, the museum’s press release from that show reads. “During the period of the exhibition, there will be daily Lumia projections in the Museum’s Auditorium from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.” MoMA commissioned Wilifred’s grand work Lumia Suite, Opus 158, in 1963, and it remained on continuous view in a small, darkened theater in the museum until 1980.

Thomas Wilfred, Luccata, Op. 162, 1967–68, metal, glass, electrical and lighting elements, and a frosted-glass screen in a hinged wood cabinet; indefinite playing time.CAROL AND EUGENE EPSTEIN COLLECTION

The home boxes were reimagined for commercial commissions, including one spectacular piece for the Clariol company headquarters, Study in Depth, Opus 152 (1959)—it is my favorite of the works on view for its immersive deep magentas and blues and its 6-by-9-foot scale. It has a duration of 142 days, 2 hours, and 10 minutes, and I pictures Mad Men-era beauty company execs scurrying by the backlit cinema-screen-sized work in their corporate lobby as it constantly changes. His Lumia, Counterpoint in Space, Opus 146 (1956), purchased by the Met, is an elegant, modestly-scaled panel of shifting whites, more like a sublime European seascape set in motion than a home appliance—it is framed in an understated wood case reminiscent of an oil painting frame.

Each work has its own duration—some are as concise as ten minutes, but as the show unfolds chronologically one sees Wilfred pushing the duration and scale of his pieces. MoMA’s Lumia Suite, Opus 158 (1963–64), has a 6-by-8-foot screen and a 9-year, 127-day duration. It consists of three movements: one in which the colors scroll horizontally, then a vertical scroll, then an “elliptical” scroll. The curators at Yale have tried to smooth out and conserve it, but it jumps at times like a record needle hitting a bit of grit. Although the original audiences of the 1960s saw only the abstract, projected colors, the Yale show gives us a glimpse into the room that produces the scrolling light play—it’s magic, something like drawing the curtain back on the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz.

Thomas Wilfred, Study in Depth, Op. 152, 1959. Projector, reflector units, electrical and lighting elements, and a projection screen, 142 days, 2 hrs., 10 mins.

HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, WASHINGTON, D.C.

James Turrell writes in the catalogue’s foreword of seeing Wilfred’s work at MoMA as a child, and the influence it had on his glowing minimal light sculptures; Tony Conrad’s “Yellow Movies” echo Wilfred’s quest for a Lumia of durations exceeding the viewable (Wilfred strove for an indefinite playing time, and achieved it in his last piece, Luccata, Opus 162, 1967–68). The work prefigures the current live film performances of Ken Jacobs. I went to see the show with a van of New York– and L.A.–based video artists and sculptors including Christian Sampson, Laddie Dill, and Tony Oursler, heirs to Wildred, and while the perhaps too-scholarly exhibition might have established the late artist’s numerous and varied influences on contemporary art to greater advantage and with greater discernment, the show does emphasize his influence on the Disney film Fantasia (1940), and as a founding father of the psychedelic rock show.

Seeing Wilfred’s work is like meeting a long-lost uncle your family never talks about. With Drake videos imitating Turrell and performance curation on every museum’s to-do list, it’s worth celebrating this forgotten precursor of some of our most popular contemporary tendencies.

“Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light” is on view at the Yale University Art Gallery through July 23, then travels to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., where it opens October 6.

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