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Lumia Suite, Op. 158
Lumia Suite, Op. 158

Thomas Wilfred came to America from Denmark more than 100 years ago with an idea — colourful light as art. First, he presented it in soundless “recitals” in 1922 with Wilfred behind the keys of a light organ that controlled the hue and movement.

Then, in the years before widespread use of TV, he created little boxes where people could create their own abstract colour illuminations on home screens. Finally, he made a series of larger devices that displayed the light works — which he called Lumia — on museum screens whose mechanisms were hidden within.

Largely forgotten in the art world for decades, 15 of his works have been gathered for the first time in nearly 50 years for the exhibit Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The exhibit is the latest for the museum’s “time-based media initiative,” which began 11 years ago and involves video, film and digital works, says Virginia Mecklenburg, the museum’s chief curator.

“But one of the things that is so astonishing about these beautiful pieces is that they are not digital,” she says. “They started in the 1920s. We didn’t even have colour movies at that point. So it was revolutionary. He was quite a sensation.”

Complete cycles of the individual works range from five minutes to 44 hours to nine years, 127 days, 18 hours, in the case of his most famous work — reconnected from complete disassembly at the Museum of Modern Art. That’s still more than nine years beyond the exhibit’s planned closing on January 7.

To preserve the fragile mechanisms that move lights, colour wheels and lenses up and down, a third of the works at the Smithsonian can be seen only for limited periods.

The Lumia exhibit started nine years ago, when A.J. Epstein, nephew of the foremost Wilfred collector in the world, came to Yale to see the three pieces that had been in its collection.

“Unfortunately, they had been sitting in storage from 1983,” says Keely Orgeman, assistant curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, who organised the show.

Once they were found, the first one switched on was ‘Elliptical Prelude and Chalice’, a home-sized object that projects a slowly swirling vortex of light on the ceiling. With so much of its original wiring from 1928 still in place, one conservator stood by with a fire extinguisher, Orgeman says. It didn’t burst into flame, but, she says, “All of our jaws fell to the floor.” They stood transfixed at the whirling light art.

Plans were made for the first retrospective of Wilfred since a 1971 show at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Seven of the 15 objects are from the collection of Eugene Epstein, who first became mesmerised by seeing Wilfred’s work as a graduate student in 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Although the exhibit is being staged at a museum that was once the US Patent office, where Wilfred applied for some patents for his ideas, “we really wanted to do something that would highlight Wilfred as a fine artist,” Orgeman says.

Lumia as an art form has struggled. Wilfred’s performances stopped in the late 1940s; other Wilfred pieces were put in storage because of wear and tear and changing tastes; the public had their televisions.

A few acolytes kept Lumia going, including one artist who constructed a Lumia Theatre in a Connecticut village better known today for a morning of darkness, Sandy Hook.

But a number of artists say they were inspired by seeing Wilfred’s work at MoMA in the ’60s, including Joshua White, who went on to create the psychedelic Joshua Light Show that pulsed behind acts at New York’s Fillmore East from 1968 to 1971, finding joy in projecting painted Pyrex, as Wilfred did.

To many viewers, the immediate comparison to Wilfred’s shimmering curtains of colourful lights is the Northern Lights, though the artist’s intent may have been even more celestial than the aurora borealis.

Wilfred died in 1968 — before he could fully witness the effect of his work on psychedelic light shows and rise of various light artists. And following his 1971 Corcoran retrospective, his name disappeared.

Even if museums had his pieces, they eventually unplugged them. “I think it largely has to do with maintenance,” says Orgeman, as well as “the outmoded technology that Wilfred was using.”

In some of the works, new motors have been switched in, and the ancient equipment now sits on sleek new metal shelving on wheels that make them easier to transport.

But so far, the museum is sticking to the incandescent bulbs of the original designs and not LED bulbs, says Smithsonian American Art Museum media conservator Dan Finn.

“Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light” is being displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC from October 6, 2017 to January 7, 2018

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2018