Kaleidoscopic light unfolds upon a black screen. Balletic and tenuous, multihued forms bloom in quieted drifting. Analogies sketch them dimly: reverberations of Mingus’s slapped bass strings, scalding jazz now steams into bluer notes; the purpled portent of coming dark, a crepuscular cloud grows, backlit by the westering sun.
Such is Thomas Wilfred’s lumia. The artist coined the term to refer to his light art, 15 works of which go on display today in an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. Titled “Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light,” it will run through July 23. The exhibition is not just a revelatory retrospective on an oft-neglected pioneer, but also the culmination of an almost eight-year quest to resurrect his magnificent art of light.
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You will be forgiven if you have never heard of Wilfred. Despite being the father of a whole genre of contemporary art, his work has been more or less relegated to cardboard boxes in storage, his reputation that of an idiosyncratic and charming, though not significant, artist.
Immigrating to the United States in 1916 at the age of 19, the reserved Dane studied art in Germany, England and France, spending time at the Sorbonne. His teachers urged him to explore light effects in painting and sculpture, but Wilfred refused. In an interview given in 1968, the year of his death, he asserted, “You cannot paint light convincingly because light moves. It’s part of the universal flux. And, therefore, motion is a necessary dimension.”
Working from this framework, Wilfred created increasingly complex contraptions to display his dynamic light art. He fashioned his first instrument by cutting holes in a cigar box and, after inserting an electric light bulb and colored glass, projected the original lumia onto a ceiling. From there, he only grew more ambitious. By the 1930s, his pieces resembled proto-televisions, screens set in polished wood. When turned on, they displayed the lilting “cadenza of color,” as one promotional poster described it, which became his life’s work.
Wilfred’s lumia represent an improvisation on larger 20th century art historical trends. They explore the same sense of motion which obsessed the Cubists.
“Contrary to how experimental painting and sculpture tried to represent the sense that things move in space and time on canvas or in static material, Wilfred actually created these movements,” said Maibritt Borgen GRD ’17, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History of Art at Yale. “He allowed us to see these movements on a screen.”
These iridescent shiftings seem to convey so much in their impossible and abstracted forms, yet their mode is patently different from the contemporaneous work of Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. While these artists sought to wholly imprint their work with their own handwriting through the paintbrush and other means, Wilfred intentionally obscured his role as artist. We do not relive or experience Wilfred’s own emotions when we see one of his compositions, Borgen noted. “It is,” she said, “the experience of larger, more abstract phenomena, sometimes extraterrestrial phenomena, sometimes natural phenomena.”
But the singularity of Wilfred’s work also proved its undoing. Museums were wary to take on such demanding pieces. Burdened by seemingly half a hundred whirring parts, their maintenance commands considerable institutional dedication. They also need specific conditions for display, such as dark lighting and a semi-private viewing area, to be appreciated in the manner Wilfred intended and, often, demanded. Because of this, Wilfred’s work disappeared from view in many museums across the nation, shuffled into storage and regarded as a curiosity. Its influence marked the development of light art in the second half of the 20th century, most notably that of James Turrell, but it mainly flickered on the art world’s periphery, waiting to ignite once more.
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The re-illumination of Wilfred’s oeuvre began in 2009.
It was then that A.J. Epstein asked to see the YUAG’s three lumia pieces. An artist himself and a collector of Wilfred’s work along with his uncle, Eugene, he was told the compositions were packed away in storage after having been donated by Wilfred’s son in 1983 but never put on exhibit. Epstein unearthed the works with Keely Orgeman, now the Gallery’s Alice and Allan Kaplan Assistant Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture. They had no inkling whether, when plugged in, these opuses would even function.
But the pieces awoke from their dormancy and dazzled. “When we turned them on, we were all blown away,” Orgeman said.
The moment marked an epiphany, and served as the impetus for the exhibition of Wilfred’s work in the museum. Spearheaded by Orgeman, the project required persistence, perseverance, patience, and whatever other virtues must be marshaled to deal with the most unique and challenging undertaking the YUAG has seen in some time.
Compounding this was Orgeman’s inexperience, the exhibition being the first she has ever organized and led in a museum. “It’s introducing me to almost every single problem that I can think of that I might encounter in my career as a curator,” she said. “And it’s been fabulous.”
Orgeman began by reviewing as many of the approximately 35 extant Wilfred pieces she could find. She travelled to Los Angeles to visit the lumia collection Eugene Epstein keeps in the basement of his home, before zigzagging across the country to Seattle and then the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, and finally on to the Cleveland Museum of Art, with plenty of pit-stops in between. All the while, she deliberated about the format, shape and goals of the exhibition.
She decided ultimately on a monographic exhibition, showcasing solely Wilfred’s work, rather than putting it in conversation with contemporary light art. And she sought a chronological arrangement within the exhibition, so as to display opuses from Wilfred’s early, middle and late periods.
Footwork had to be done in research to provide the exhibition with a secure foundation of academic knowledge. Borgen helped with this, working as a research assistant for the exhibition and delving into Yale’s Wilfred archives.
Much of the information gained there was incorporated into a catalogue outlining the exhibition’s framework. It contains essays on the works’ art historical context, their conservation and their intersection with contemporaneous scientific theory, including Einstein’s postulations concerning bending light. It will also serve as a record of the exhibition and, perhaps, a guide for future Wilfred research and displays.
And then there was the pecuniary matter. All great art derives from great riches and Orgeman had to muster the funds to make the exhibition possible. Orgeman tapped a variety of founts, cajoling private donors and applying for grants. The latter proved substantial when she landed a considerable grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art.
But before all this was even possible, the museum had to secure Wilfred’s magnum opus, lest the exhibition be hollowed out by its absence. “Lumia Suite,” or “Opus 158,” was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in 1963 and was on almost continuous view from 1964 until 1980, one of the rare Wilfred compositions to be appreciated for an extended period of time. Indeed, “Lumia Suite” can run uninterrupted for an estimated nine years, 127 days and 18 hours without repeating a single form, pattern or image. It is without equal in ambition, dynamism or effect, not just among Wilfred’s output, but in modern art.
After 1980, though, “Lumia Suite” met the same fate as so many other lumia opuses, disassembled and deposited in at least ten boxes on some out-of-sight shelf. Thankfully, Wilfred devised a technical manual for the piece, which proved a godsend. “That was really what allowed us to make the argument to MoMA that we could reconstruct this work,” Orgeman said.
Negotiations succeeded and, in January 2015, Wilfred’s masterpiece was shipped to New Haven. It arrived at the YUAG’s West Campus facility, where conservators began their frenzied and sometimes frustrating work. The piece consists of two projectors, each replete with moving parts, along with metal cabinets, a set of glass color wheels, tungsten light bulbs, aluminum reflectors, motors, chains, wires and cables. “You can imagine there was a lot of potential for things to go wrong,” said Carol Snow, deputy chief conservator at YUAG and the Alan Dworsky Senior Conservator of Objects.
Initially, conservators believed “Lumia Suite” to be in poor condition. Languishing in cardboard boxes for decades, the conservators feared potential encroachment by mice, among other deterioration. However, after spreading out each of the artwork’s individual components, and working in conjunction with Wilfred’s technical manual, the conservators were able reconstruct the entire apparatus. “Once we started working with it,” said Snow, “we found that the different elements and components were actually quite robust and strong.”
Nonetheless, not every part fared well in storage. The piece’s 1000-Watt light bulb had fizzled out and needed replacing. As tends to happen, this particular light bulb was no longer manufactured. Snow beseeched everyone she could think of who might possess such a bulb, even the U.S. Coast Guard. “But every time,” she lamented, “I came up with nothing.” She decided then to pursue a more unorthodox route. A glassblower from Oregon was invited to the Gallery. After he demonstrated he could blow a light bulb, he was asked to handmake the elusive 1000-Watt bulbs.
Updating the technology behind Wilfred’s work raises a dilemma, though. At what point does this revision harm the integrity of the artwork? Snow referenced the paradox of Theseus’ ship, in which the namesake vessel is repaired until, eventually, all its original pieces are replaced. Nonetheless, the exhibition and its organizers maintained a consistent approach with regards to respecting Wilfred’s original parts, attempting when possible to use original replacement parts furnished by Wilfred. “We were pretty purist about it,” Snow said.
The scrambling and concomitant improvisation inherent in such a complicated and peculiar operation has placed unusual strains on Snow and the other conservators. They have worked after hours and on the weekend, all while addressing the unique and almost wholly uncharted difficulties of lumia. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, frankly,” Snow said. “And it may even be the most challenging one in my career.”
Undoubtedly, the conservators’ diligence has not gone unnoticed. Orgeman most of all understands the import of their labor and its consequences for the exhibition’s success. “They’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty in their roles and they have accommodated every request,” she said. “They’re incredible, really.”
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The installation process commenced when the first of Wilfred’s lumia arrived at the Gallery on Feb. 6 amidst a saturnalia of construction – ladders, scaffolds, panoplies of plyers and drills arrayed on trays, future wall text strewn on the floor, the stench of damp paint and vinyl thick in the air. Installation lasted two weeks, feverish, punctured by stress and soaked with pungent perspiration, until the exhibition’s grand unveiling on Feb. 17.
First, the gallery space itself was molded to fit Wilfred’s specifications. The walls were painted dark grey and the skylights blocked out to provide the black-box lighting conditions necessary for full appreciation of the pieces’ color and illusion of depth.
Additional walls were built to enclose some of the works. Wilfred insisted that each piece be viewed one at a time, with nothing nearby to distract the viewer from the meditative light show before them. Benches were also installed to permit visitors to sit and allow the compositions to engross them.
These lengths again demonstrate the exhibition’s dedication to present Wilfred’s work in the most ideal of conditions, so that their impact is not diminished in the slightest. “They aren’t just flat images on a screen,” Orgeman noted. “They’re sculptural objects that have presence in a room.” And these efforts have also transformed the gallery space into a sort of shrine, a dimmed temple.
Of course, the technology has also proved glitchy. When I toured the installation site on Wednesday, one work in particular was acting up, forcing a two-man-team to climb inside its wire-ridden bowels to diagnose its ailment. These surgeons, clad in turtleneck sweaters, conducted their operation supine and beneath floodlights.
The scene served as a reminder that Wilfred utilized analog technology in a predigital world. He did not have the benefit of computers or the Internet, and some of his pieces predate television. Orgeman trusts visitors can appreciate this aspect of Wilfred’s work and she hopes lumia remains compelling in an age of screensavers and iPhones.
“It’s about showing people today that this historical work can still be meaningful and it’s not obsolescent,” she said. “Just because it has some obsolescent parts doesn’t mean the work itself should be ignored or forgotten.”
Indeed, the installation represents one of the final stages in an affair that has become a passion project for all involved. Orgeman initially approached Wilfred’s work with a skeptical mind, desiring to remain objective in her evaluation of its merits and its ability to carry the weight of an entire exhibition. But the art, as it has with so many others when given the chance, won her over. “I’m devoted to it. I believe in it, I believe in its potency,” she said.
After the exhibition ends its run at YUAG in July, it will move on to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It will reside in Washington from Oct. 6 to Jan. 7, 2018. Beyond this, though, the future of these pieces remains opaque.
“We feel that this is really a once in a lifetime event for us,” said Snow. “We have no idea how many decades will go by again before any of these pieces come back out on public view.”
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In the aforementioned 1968 interview, Wilfred explained why he came to America: “I wanted to try and see if my work would find a better soil here, a more open mind.”
Almost half a century later, this esperance still whispers in each of his lumia. As the light bends and breaks, dances symphonic upon its screen, we will see once again whether this land can not only comprehend the breadth of Wilfred’s vision, but love it with the same febrile passion that consumed him in his pursuit of the medium.
And so, when the timer ticks, and light bends from the bulb and glides onto the screen as a technicolor dream, sit down in the dark and see it, that light itself which shone in Wilfred’s eyes and which even now gleams, miraculously, blessedly, in yours.