Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light



of an Exhibit

by Jaime Ursic

Published on June 02, 2017

  • Description:

    Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light is an exhibition currently on view through July 23 at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT. From the banners posted around downtown, I was anticipating a lesser known James Turrell-like artist making trippy, laser-light impressions of the Aurora Borealis. Once my eyes adjusted from daylight to the extremely dark space, I was greeted by a black and white photograph of an early 20th century gentleman in front of what appeared to be the sliding keys of a mixer. The word LUMIA radiated bright white and although it was vinyl letters on the wall, it seemed to hover above the introductory text. A quick skim of the introductory paragraph and I learned that Thomas Wilfred was a Danish-born American artist from 1889–1968. I learned the organ-like mixer that he was seated at in the 1924 photograph was a machine of his own invention called the “clavilux.” A quick google search told me that clavilux is Latin for “light played by key” and the mechanical invention was built by Wilfred to perform “lumia” in the early 20th century.

    Lumia is Wilfred’s term for kinetic light art. The multi-colored moving light performances, were hybrids of mechanics and light projected through mirrors and moving, colored discs behind screens. I was finding it difficult to imagine how lumia were created with the young, rudimentary technology available to Wilford. I was about to enter the second phase of the exhibition when I realized I had only seen two small lumia performances/works.

    Variations of table-sized wooden cabinets that held lumia creating machines were the majority of what was on display. In the velvety darkness of the exhibition, I bumped my toe on the base of one Lumia as I was unable to discern the floor from the plinth from the wall. Turning a corner, I entered a sectioned off space where muted daylight was defeating the blackout shades. The light allowed me to see a mounted exhibition catalogue and what looked like a table positioned for a séance in a smaller area. Opposite the table was what appeared to be large-size rear projection screen television from the early 1990s. This is where I noticed a black label with grayish white type and read that the piece begins on the quarter hour. I then realized that the lumia works in the show actually performed at intervals throughout the day. Checking my phone for the time, I searched for nearby labels. Unfortunately, I had been moving through the exhibition at a pace to just miss lumia performance.

    The next section included framed works on paper and two long display cases. Letters, diagrams, color notations, booklets, and mechanical blueprints from the Thomas Wilfred Papers, housed in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department were on view. A small bronze medal depicting Thomas Wilfred from the United States, Inventor of the Clavilux published by the Medallic Art Company, was presented on a pedestal and under a plexiglass hood. This installation of the medal emphasized the low-light of the exhibition as I was unable to make out the reverse side of the medal as it appeared to float. Another peculiarity I found was that the top of the pedestal was white, yet the sides were black. The muffled overhead lighting, or lack thereof, created a visual tension between the light and dark and further distracted from the medal. I overheard a nearby couple, the only others in the exhibition, comment on the darkness. The words I heard were “disorienting” and “funhouse” of which the former I could appreciate.

    About to exit the exhibition, a theater like room was created with a multiple benches positioned in from of a large screen. This was the “Lumia Suite” as commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in 1963 and was on view at MoMA for sixteen years. Its history was shared detailing its storage boxed slumber from 1980 until conservators from MoMA and Yale collaborated to restore it to its original intention. Sitting in situ of Lumia Suite, Op. 158, I followed the colored light effects as the slowly moved across the screen. The ebb and flow of colors across the screen were mesmerizing. In this age of computer generated graphics, fiber optics, and lasers, I was transfixed with the simple elegance and fluid motion of Wilfred’s Lumia Suite. I wondered how visually revolutionary this must have been to viewers in the early 20th century. The sound of a fan hummed while I imagined it was on to cool of the larger clavilux behind the screen. Immediately before exiting the exhibition, a clumsy viewfinder on a swivel head reached out from the wall. Squatting to look, the view behind the screen was Rube Goldberg-like in seeing the disks, paddles, fans, and mechanics of Wilfred’s final lumia.

Latest Comments (1)


by Kathleen Mclean - June 05, 2017

Jaime, it seems that the exhibition design disoriented more than intrigued you. Is that right? What could have been fascinating look into the world of animated light was, instead, a series of confusions and stumbles, as if the lighting design for the exhibition actually got in your way of the art experience. Perhaps in their attempt to be dramatic in their presentation, the exhibition organizers went too far, and you noticed the corners and light leaks more than the artwork. It does sound like you thoroughly enjoyed the Lumia Suite at the end of the exhibition.

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