“Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light”, the first exhibition devoted to this pioneering artist in more than 40 years, is now on view at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Beginning in the 1920s, the Danish-born American artist Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) forged an international reputation as a radical innovator by creating kinetic abstractions with light. Wilfred designed and built an array of sophisticated mechanical sculptures to produce vibrant, multi-colored displays, realizing a new art form — which he collectively called lumia — that was among the first successful fusions of modern art and technology. Recognized as a pioneering mode of artistic expression throughout Wilfred’s decades-long career, lumia has been a critical touchstone for later generations of light and media artists, and yet, has remained unexplored and largely unknown since Wilfred’s last retrospective, held in 1971 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York.
An assemblage of electric, mechanical, and reflective elements, the projection machines invented by Wilfred employ a technique akin to painting with the rays of a lightbulb. The beam that originates from this source first passes through a rotating, transparent disc with hand-painted color, known as a “color record,” and is then transmitted onto the mirrored surfaces of moving structures. After wending through this virtual obstacle course, the refracted and reflected light ultimately reaches the back of a flat screen, which varies in format and size between artworks; some of these screens are housed in small cabinets that resemble early television sets, while others are of cinematic scale, with only the face of the screen visible from the viewer’s vantage point. The resulting colored compositions, changing in palette and pattern as forms emerge and are then transformed into new shapes, call to mind the aurora borealis as it shimmers across the night sky.
New York Times reviewer Edward Alden Jewell wrote in 1939 that the spatial-temporal experience of lumia was “as if one were witnessing a kind of sidereal choreography — a dance of comets and galaxies with the boreal aurora as backdrop and, beyond that, the velvet blackness of infinite, universal space.”
Lumia works are considered all the more remarkable for their dates of creation. When Wilfred began in 1919 to produce large-scale light projections with the aid of his “Clavilux,” an organlike instrument controlled by several banks of sliding keys,
lumia were ephemeral performances that could only be viewed by live audiences in concert halls. Today, apart from some disassembled equipment, the Clavilux models no longer exist, but their compositions survive through black-and-white photographs taken of the screen during performances and through the keyboard notations that Wilfred read like musical scores to conduct the light’s rhythm, movement, and color sequences. On view in the exhibition, these rare materials represent this largely lost period of the artist’s early practice.
The gallery’s presentation focuses primarily on the subsequent phases of lumia’s development, featuring about half of the extant light works by Wilfred, including three from the gallery’s permanent collection. Organized chronologically, the exhibition tracks the evolution of lumia in format, size, setting, and aesthetic experience, from at-home instruments made for individual viewers in the 1920s and 1930s to a late, culminating installation, “Lumia Suite, Op. 158.” Commissioned by MoMA in 1963, “Lumia Suite” was a popular favorite during the 16 years it remained on almost continuous view at the museum, before being dismantled and stored in boxes after 1980. In anticipation of the present exhibition, conservators from the Gallery and MoMA partnered to restore “Lumia Suite” to its original effect; it is presented in a viewing room to the specifications that Wilfred stipulated in his original plans.
The exhibition also highlights a selection of drawings and diagrams from the Thomas Wilfred Papers, housed in the collection of Manuscripts and Archives at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. These documents reveal additional aspects of Wilfred’s career, such as the public courses and demonstrations on lumia that he led between 1934 and 1943 at the headquarters of his organization, the Art Institute of Light, in New York.
After it closes at the Gallery on July 23, “Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light will travel to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, D.C., later this year. The accompanying illustrated catalogue includes a foreword by the contemporary light artist James Turrell and a number of essays that explore lumia’s dialogue with science, technology, abstraction, and the moving image. Together, the exhibition and its publication help to secure the place of Wilfred’s work within the history of modern art.
“This exhibition gives visitors multiple avenues through which to approach Wilfred’s work,” explains Keely Orgeman, the Alice and Allan Kaplan Assistant Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture and the curator of the exhibition. “It revives his analog form of light art, allowing viewers to study lumia’s impact during both Wilfred’s own time and today. Simultaneously, it offers a pure aesthetic experience that will resonate with viewers — lumia’s slowly unfolding compositions and constantly morphing patterns evoke something different to everyone, whether it be deep space, the Northern Lights, or psychedelic light shows. Whatever we might see, the works transport and transfix us the longer we linger before them.”
Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director states, “This notable exhibition and publication are the result of several years of dedicated scholarship by Keely Orgeman and are a fruitful partnership between curators and conservators, including the gallery’s team, led by Carol Snow, deputy chief conservator and the Allan J. Dworsky Senior Conservator of Objects, and our colleagues at the Museum of Modern Art, whose conservators worked with us to restore Wilfred’s magnificent ‘Lumia Suite, Op. 158’ for this exhibition. The gallery is grateful for MoMA’s generous collaboration and is honored to be able to share the exhibition with a wider audience when it travels to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the fall. The attendant publication is distinguished by fresh insights on Wilfred’s work from art-historical and technological perspectives, and especially by a foreword written by the celebrated contemporary light artist James Turrell, who describes his first, transformative encounter with lumia at MoMA in 1957. It is the gallery’s true pleasure to help bring Wilfred’s work to life for a new generation.”