New Haven

Interior view of Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia Suite, Op. 158, 1963–64.

Interior view of Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia Suite, Op. 158, 1963–64.

Thomas Wilfred

Interior view of Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia Suite, Op. 158, 1963–64.

IN 1951, Jackson Pollock flung paint on glass while Hans Namuth stood underneath with his film camera, catching the descending cords of color. Jackson Pollock 51, along with Namuth’s still photographs, generated a captivating picture of the processual motions of body and pigment that yielded Pollock’s hyperkinetic paintings, enshrining artist and Abstract Expressionism as forces of liberatory rebellion. The following year, Dorothy Miller included Pollock’s painting in “15 Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, along with work by a Danish-born artist, Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968), who had been perfecting the art of chroma-in-motion since 1919. But Wilfred relied neither on paint nor film; his medium was light, and he called his work “lumia.”

Pollock had long admired Wilfred; in the 1930s, he attended lumia recitals at Wilfred’s research and performance space in New York, the Art Institute of Light. “It is not unreasonable to think that Wilfred’s lumia recitals may have influenced Pollock’s thinking about painting,” Maibritt Borgen writes in the catalogue for “Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light” at the Yale University Art Gallery. Indeed, it’s impossible to walk away from this revelatory exhibition—which was curated by Keely Orgeman and is the first retrospective of the artist’s work since 1971—without feeling as if the tectonic plates that compose the stories of twentieth-century art and media have shifted.

Throughout the ’20s, Wilfred performed with versions of his original invention, the Clavilux, a silent light organ whose keyboard controls projected restless, spellbinding light forms onto a screen. He disappeared as machine-controller when he developed, pre-television, smaller models for home use: Wooden cabinetry housed screens that, with the flip of a switch, gave birth to variations of churning flames and swirling clouds. “Clavilux Junior,” 1930, owners selected compositions and twisted knobs to alter color intensity, tempo, and brightness. Wilfred’s kinetic light sculptures began to self-perform entirely in the ’30s, and by the ’50s, he had designed frosted-glass lumia units that hung like paintings. Anticipating the twenty-first century, Wilfred’s investigations invert the quintessential modernist dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk by scaling the theatrical down to the individual interface, offering the all-encompassing experience in spectatorial isolation.

Each lumia work produces a distinct formal instability that exceeds mere shape-shifting; the spectator encounters a moment-by-moment morphology of apparent volume, density, and depth—crisply folded three-dimensional forms contract into lines, hazy ocean floors become graphic sunsets. And if you repeat, infinitely, the thrill that accompanies the discovery of a particular color combination in the detail of a painting, you will begin to glimpse the undeniable holding power of a Wilfred creation: One has barely registered the delight of ecru-tipped sapphire clouds before they give way to an aqueous tableau of apricot, marbleized and then overwhelmed by teal.

Commissioned by Alfred H. Barr Jr., Lumia Suite, Op. 158, 1963–64, was installed nearly continuously at MoMA from the time of its completion until 1980 and has been meticulously restored for the Yale exhibition by Carol Snow and Jason DeBlock, in collaboration with MoMA. A “vision hood” allows spectators to see behind the piece’s backlit six-by-eight-foot translucent screen: Lightbulbs, motors, two color elements (a glass record composed of mosaiclike shards and a rotor striped with plastic gels), a rotating aluminum reflector tower and mirrors generate a virtually never-ending spectacle (the piece would require nine years, 127 days, and eighteen hours of nonstop “play” before its precise sequence of light-movements repeated).

Wilfred’s lifelong commitment to light-as-medium fused his scientific fluencies with his philosophical and spiritual imagination. To make art was necessarily to work with light and motion: Not only is color dependent on light for its existence, but “[light] is part of the universe of flux and therefore motion is a necessary dimension, in fact, in any visual art involving light.” Wilfred’s drive was not to imitate light or represent the cosmos but to produce work that articulated their already-ongoing presence: “purely non-objective luminous form[s] moving slowly through a curved space orbit.” Light for Wilfred was both an elemental fact of nature—the sun as ultimate life-source—and metaphysically suggestive: “the greatest symbol of conscious mankind’s longing for understanding and spiritual liberation.”

In their progressive production of shifting abstraction, Wilfred’s mesmerizing creations also generate a linguistic challenge, frustrating the impulse to name and describe. Appropriately, the aurora borealis, with its vast, pulsing dazzle, has functioned for decades as a figure of comparison for lumia. It’s also a figure that philosopher William James embraced to capture the linked movements of mind and matter: “Whilst we think, our brain changes, and . . . like the aurora borealis, its whole internal equilibrium shifts with every pulse of change.” Like James, Wilfred devoted his life to the rich meeting place between the mystical and rational, the material and the otherworldly. Born Richard Edgar Løvstrøm, Wilfred came to the US in 1916 to follow the call of his imagination. He belongs not only in the book of modernism but in the story of American visionary philosophy as well.

“Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light” is on view through July 17; travels to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Oct. 6, 2017–Jan. 7, 2018.

Rebekah Rutkoff is the author of The Irresponsible Magician: Essays and Fictions (Semiotext[e], 2015) and the editor of a book of essays by and about the American filmmaker Robert Beavers (Austrian Film Museum, 2017).