In 1963, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned artist Thomas Wilfred to create a work of “lumia” — one of his spellbinding compositions of reflected or projected light — for the museum’s reopening after a renovation.
Wilfred, a Danish-born American who pioneered the use of artificial light as an artistic medium, spent a year creating the MoMA composition. It went on view when the museum reopened in July 1964
“It’s as close to perfection as I can get it,” Wilfred told the The New York Times of the work, in which wisps and ribbons of multi-colored light continuously and silently thread, bend, and unspool like an aurora borealis on a 6-by-8-foot screen.
The installation, “Lumia Suite, Opus 158,” enchanted MoMA visitors until 1980, when it was dismantled and placed in storage.
Thirty-seven years later, the installation’s ribbons of light have resumed their mesmerizing dance as part of “Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light,” a retrospective of Wilfred’s career on view at Yale University Art Gallery through July 23.
The resurrected Lumia Suite closes the exhibition, which features 15 of Wilfred’s “lumia” — a term the artist coined to describe his luminous abstractions — as well as archival materials, such as sketches and plans, drawn from the artist’s papers, which are housed at Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale University Library.
The task of restoring the MoMA work, and conserving the other examples of lumia on display, fell to Carol Snow, the gallery’s deputy chief conservator, and Jason DeBlock, associate director of collections.
“To say that Carol and Jason were instrumental to this exhibition is an understatement,” said Keely Orgeman, the Alice and Allan Kaplan Assistant Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture and the curator of the exhibition. “Recreating Lumia Suite, Opus 158 was a monumental task and, through their work, we have the pleasure of sharing this unique and enchanting work of art.”
Snow and DeBlock described the experience of conserving Wilfred’s otherworldly creations in an essay included in the exhibition’s catalogue.
“To conserve a lumia work is to enter Wilfred’s mind,” they write. “By studying the evolution of his materials and techniques, patterns and progressions emerge, and apparent randomness becomes somewhat ordered; there is some method to his seeming madness.”
Restoring Lumia Suite presented the greatest challenge, they write.
Curators and conservators from the gallery visited MoMA’s storage facility in 2013 and had a chance to look at the work’s components. The parts were coated in dust, and the original screen had become brittle and badly discolored. Prospects for a successful restoration seemed grim, Snow said.
The conservators possessed an important guide: Wilfred’s archive at Yale includes a copy of the 50-page technical manual he composed for operating Lumia Suite.
The gallery formed a partnership with MoMA to reassemble the work’s rear projection apparatus. MoMA conservators consulted with Snow and DeBlock throughout the project.
Boxes and crates containing the installation’s 85 components were shipped to the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale’s West Campus, where the conservation and recreation took place.
Wilfred’s lumia are complicated mechanisms composed of mechanical, electrical, and reflective elements. Lumia Suite’s primary components include a horizontal projector with a record made of pieces of colored glass, a vertical projector with a color rotor, a two-tiered reflector tower composed of 18 sheets of aluminum, a lamp control unit, an elliptical convertor — a gadget that reflects light onto the screen — and an actuator, which contains switches to control the various mechanisms. (In his notes, Wilfred, who died in 1968, compared the actuator’s role to that of a conductor of a symphony.)
After arriving at Yale, each component was cataloged and cleaned. A color rotor attached to one of work’s two projectors was bent and required repair.
When the work was installed at MoMA, the components were mounted to Wilfred’s specifications inside a special projection room. To put Lumia Suite on view at the gallery required reassembling the pieces without the benefit of a projection room.
To simulate the projection room, Snow and DeBlock created a system of two aluminum frames onto which they mounted the components in a manner that precisely mimics their positions at MoMA.
“This was important because all of components needed to relate spatially perfectly according to Wilfred’s plans,” Snow said. “We could never have done it without Wilfred’s manual. If only every work of art came with a technical manual.”
Replacing the work’s various light bulbs posed another challenge, write Snow and DeBlock. The gallery’s agreement with MoMA stipulated that the original tungsten-filament bulbs, if they still functioned, were not to be used for the duration of the exhibition. The conservators needed to find replacement 300-watt and 1,000- watt bulbs consistent with Wilfred’s specifications.
For help with the 1,000-watt bulb, which is no longer manufactured, they sought the help of Dylan Kedhe Roelofs, an incandescent light artist and trained glassblower who calls himself “the last light bulb maker.” Kehde Roelofs created replicas of the 1,000-watt bulb that could serve as the horizontal projector’s light source. They also performed research to determine whether LED or halogen bulbs could be suitable substitutes.
Snow and DeBlock synchronized the many moving parts involved in Wilfred’s mechanism according to his plans. The projections form, coalesce, and change just as they did over the 16 years Lumia Suite was on view at MoMA. (The screen was beyond repair and had to be replaced.)
The installation’s light show runs in 12-minute cycles composed of three movements: horizontal, vertical, and elliptical, according to Snow and DeBlock. The mechanism provides for a striking diversity of images: It would take approximately nine years, 127 days, and 18 hours for Lumia Suite’s patterns of color and form to repeat.
A viewing room allows visitors to the exhibition to linger with the installation’s colorful and vibrant projections as long as they like. A viewfinder near the show’s exit gives visitors a chance to look behind the installation’s screen and see Snow and DeBlock’s handiwork. A diagram on the wall shows the entire framework system that the conservators devised.
The Art Gallery has prepared a selection of videos of the various works of lumia on display, including a 10-minute section from Lumia Suite.
After the exhibition closes at the gallery on July 23, it travels to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, D.C., later this year.
The Yale University Art Gallery, located at 1111 Chapel St. (between York and High), is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; until 8 p.m. on Thursdays from September to June; and 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. For more information, visit the museum’s website.
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