Looking for Lumia:
Thomas Wilfred’s Forgotten Art of Light
It is possible to experience the exhibition Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light (Yale University Art Gallery, February 17 – July 23, 2017) in reverse-chronological order, since one may enter the gallery from either end. Indeed, on my first visit to the show, this is what happened. Wandering through the exhibition following the standard chronology tells the story of Thomas Wilfred (born Richard Edgar Løvstrøm in Denmark, 1889), a singularly prescient artist, engineer, and technological mastermind who, from the 1920s to the 1960s, developed an artistic practice taking light as its primary medium, and who—because his work stubbornly resisted assimilation into art-world narratives and canons—remained somewhat critically overlooked in his own time and especially so afterward. However, if by happy accident you enter the gallery from the other end and make your way around the exhibition without concern for chronological order, you may be struck by just how contemporary it all feels.
First up: a “vision hood” built into a temporary wall, allowing a glimpse at the complex assemblage—reflectors, projectors, metal, glass, and lighting elements—that produce Wilfred’s best-known work, Lumia Suite Op. 158 (1963 – 64), long held by the Museum of Modern Art. As the gallery space opens up, things resemble nothing so much as a video-art or moving-image installation such as those one comes across seemingly at every other biennial or exhibition today: little cabinets or plinths supporting what look like miniature televisions, imposing rectangular HDTV-like objects, and every so often, a cinematic screen tucked away into a corner viewing space. Midway through the exhibition, there’s a small cylindrical lamp-like object positioned upon a table. This is Unit #50, Elliptical Prelude and Chalice, which Wilfred designed to literally be a part of home furnishings until switched on, at which point the lamp atop the table activates. Internal workings—hand-painted rotating discs, reflective cones, and light bulbs—allow the device to fill the ceiling and surrounding walls with a slowly swirling mass of what appear to be storm clouds, revolving around a central space.
Finally, one comes across numerous blueprints and working plans that are all that remain of Wilfred’s early “Clavilux” works—large-scale visual performances in which Wilfred played a keyboard or organ of his own design, manipulating various levers and switches to project gigantic murals in moving color. In this section, too, are several charts detailing Wilfred’s theoretical and technical construction of lumia, which for him was an “eighth art” in which light could be manipulated, by adjusting form, color, and motion (with the aid of technology) into an “art of light.”
No modest overview can do justice to the sheer scale of Wilfred’s ambitions, nor to the numerous ways in which his thought and practice have fundamentally influenced both those artists who, whether contemporaneously or subsequently, also worked with light, projection, or the moving image (i.e. from László Moholy-Nagy to Nalini Malani to Ken Jacobs) and the ways in which we ordinarily think of spectatorship in museum contexts. Consider for instance a frequent criticism leveled at much time-based or moving-image media exhibited in museums: that they may simply be glimpsed for a few seconds and passed over. The time-based artwork, oriented neither toward the all-at-once presentation of a painting nor the narrative logic that inheres in cinema (certain experimental and non-narrative variants aside), is thus considered incapable of stimulating engaged, contemplating spectatorship. Wilfred’s “Lumia” works give the lie to this thesis, for many of them are explicitly founded upon the principle of duration: from twenty minutes (Multidimensional, Op. 79 of 1932) to an astonishing nine years, 127 days, and eighteen hours (Lumia Suite, Op. 158 of 1963 – 64). And that’s not even the longest one!
The “Lumia” works complicate received ideas of duration and spectatorship in mid-century American art. It seems difficult to imagine such a work finding much traction when, in 1967, Michael Fried’s infamous polemic against Minimalism and its insistence on durational spectatorship would appear to drive a wedge between modernist purism and the allegedly chaotic any-art-whatever that he dismissed as “theatricality.” And yet, writing to Wilfred in 1959, Alfred H. Barr, then director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which, alongside the Whitney and the Met, had already collected a few of his works by then), noted that the museum “receive[d] more letters and telephone calls asking about Lumia than about any other single work in the Museum’s collection.”
The exhibition catalogue, handsomely illustrated and with informative essays by exhibition curator Keely Orgeman and scholars Maibritt Borgen and Gregory Zinman, does much to navigate complex terrain in terms of recovering and clarifying Wilfred’s position within the histories of modern art. Orgeman’s essay identifies affinities between Wilfred’s early Clavilux performances, aesthetic interpretations of light as form and medium, and general interest in astronomy and imagery in the 1920s. Borgen’s contribution places Wilfred in conversation with the art world of his time, showing the vital relations that developed between his practice and the Museum of Modern Art (which long supported his career) as well as passing encounters with contemporaries who have since entered the artistic canon (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko). Indeed, Wilfred’s diagram for the Sequential Development of Three Form Groups (1948) is eerily similar to Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #786A (1995), which, curiously enough, decorates a wall within the Yale University Art Gallery itself. But it is Zinman who patiently unfolds Wilfred’s multi-faceted legacy, tracing his influence across performance art, mid-century New York light-shows and multimedia events, expanded or inter-media practices, and finally, contemporary approaches to intermedial installation art.
It is useful, I think, to approach Wilfred’s work from a contemporary perspective that takes art’s intermedial condition as something of a given. Although Wilfred himself argued for lumia as an art distinct from all others, he did not shy away from adapting the rhetoric of performance (and later painting) in order to gain wider acceptance. At a time when much contemporary art that relies upon moving images, performance, or (to put it polemically) “spectacle,” is frequently dismissed as being inadequately “critical,” I am in complete agreement with Zinman’s conclusion, wherein he argues for Wilfred’s sustained attention to aesthetic and sensual pleasure, which is evident in just about every work on display in this exhibition. The “aesthetics of negation, disruption, and purposeful ugliness” that Zinman notes as being characteristic of the historical avant-garde (and art that follows in its footsteps) were born out of a pervasive distrust of the beautiful, the pleasurable, and the sensuous. In a sense, this was a version of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion in the art world, subjecting all “pretty” things to withering skepticism and even summary rejection on grounds of their complicity with the capitalist order. Such criticism was most recently leveled at parts of Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest (New Museum, October 26, 2016 – January 15, 2017), which foregrounded immersive experience and pleasures of the body over cerebral distantiation and the rigors of detachment. But spectacle need not be wholly bankrupt nor uncritical. Sensual pleasures in the art world, as Jason Farago has recently argued, can include “ones that make demands on us and might even leave us improved.” It is to this more subtle category that Wilfred’s best work belongs. The distance between Thomas Wilfred’s Op. 161 (1965 – 66) and Rist’s spellbinding and sensuous Looking Through Pixel Forest (2016) is less than their chronology would suggest.
Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light will be on view at Yale University Art Gallery through July 23, 2017, and at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. from October 6, 2017 – January 7, 2018.
Swagato Chakravorty is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Art, combined with Film and Media Studies, at Yale University. His research explores moving-image art and expanded cinema since 1989, focusing on the work of artists from the global South that intersect with documentary, archival, and performance-based practices. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.