“Unit #86” by Thomas Wilfred (1930)
“Unit #86” by Thomas Wilfred (1930)

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Thomas Wilfred thought that the art of the future ought to look like the view through a spaceship window. Shortly after World War I, the Danish-born troubadour decided to hang up his lute and start wowing audiences with swirling colored lights. He built an organ-like instrument that used levers, mirrors, and tungsten bulbs to transform the concert hall into “a fantastic dream ship,” as he once described it, “capable of traveling through space with the speed of thought.”

Wilfred dubbed his instrument the Clavilux; with it, he launched lumia, a silent, time-based eighth art of pure light. He gave his first lumia performance in New York in 1922 and eventually toured Europe, immersing audiences in shifting, aurora-like fields of color.

The hype for these concerts was intense: A poster for a 1926 show promised “an achievement that will rank among man’s greatest.” But despite his love of self-promotion and spectacle, Wilfred saw himself more as an inventor than a performer. “In time,” he wrote in a 1947 essay, “we shall have lumia virtuosi who can sweep the spectators off their feet with masterly interpretations of a composer’s work. But first the Johann Sebastian Bach of lumia must appear on the scene. Let us hope he is at least a high school student at the moment.”

But his Bach never arrived. By the 1950s, Wilfred was selling scaled-down light machines to collectors and stage lighting gadgets to theater companies. And while he successfully courted key patrons—in 1963, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned “Lumia Suite, Op. 158,” a 6-by-8 foot piece that remained on continuous view until 1980—his work increasingly looked out of place in the art world.

By 1971, three years after Wilfred’s death, New York Times critic John Canaday suggested lumia had died with him. “[Wilfred’s] scientific control was impressive,” Canaday wrote, “but the fact that his light and color motifs are most easily (and accurately) described as ‘effects’ makes one wonder whether all the science was worth the end result. The lumia screens are fascinating to watch—for a while. But that is the end of it.”

Nearly half a century later, Wilfred’s abortive eighth art has been resurrected. Organized by the Yale University Art Gallery and currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light features 15 light-based pieces created between 1928 and 1968. The show hums with Wilfred’s fully restored original disks of colored glass, curved panels of polished metal, and wonky antique lamps and actuators, many rescued from dusty boxes and disrepair. Returned to their former glory, these contraptions fill the darkened galleries of SAAM with wobbly space jellyfish and slowly churning nebulae.

Sadly, little evidence survives of Wilfred’s 1920s performances; they’re represented by drawings, diagrams, and lumia scores, written in white ink on black paper to make them legible in the dark. Instead, the show focuses on smaller works: early prototypes for light-generating home appliances and framed rear-projection screens for galleries.

“Unit #86” from the Clavilux Junior (First Home Clavilux Model) series (1930) demonstrates how Wilfred schemed for a while to sell the Clavilux as a household item. In the belly of “Unit #86,” a glass record covered in hand-painted, snake-y orange, blue, and green shapes spins; lights project these shapes onto a curved cardboard screen. Undulating bands of color travel up the left and right margins of the cardboard; organic blobs morph and spin in the center. The tempo and intensity can be altered via a hand-held controller.

The art deco cabinet housing the mechanism is handsome, but the action onscreen feels undercooked. Wilfred’s device may have prefigured a future of remote-controlled glowing screens, hypnotizing families in their living rooms, but it’s not surprising that the Clavilux-as-home-entertainment never took off.

Wilfred also designed machines for museums. In his 1950 piece, “Counterpoint in Space, op. 146,” wisps of light glide like glowing smoke across a rear-projection screen, rising, turning, and dissipating. Colors shift from yellow and green to violet and red; apparitions stretch and collapse. The piece can hold viewers for long, contemplative stretches awaiting a resolution that never comes: “Counterpoint” runs for over 44 hours before the sequence of motions repeats.

While Wilfred claimed to be the future of art, “Counterpoint” seems old-fashioned, even for the 1950s. A chunky 24-by-20 inch oak frame with an engraved brass nameplate surrounds the small frosted screen—not unlike a fusty old landscape painting.

In 1952, Wilfred’s framed pieces were featured alongside works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still in MoMA’s 15 Americans exhibition. While all three painters created giant canvases with flat, all-over compositions, Wilfred crafted small illusionistic  windows into fictive worlds of cosmic goop. Wilfred did interact with these artists—Pollock attended Clavilux recitals—but setting lumia in the context of modern painting only underscored its quaintness.

Career retrospectives often suggest that great artists develop one big idea through phases of creativity that follow one another organically. Wilfred doesn’t fit this model, and ends up seeming a bit like a huckster. At first, he sold lumia as a concert medium;  then he tried to make it the basis for an unsuccessful form of ur-television; finally, he turned it into a luminous, kinetic analog for painting.

Light and intermedia artists have acknowledged Wilfred, but his inclinations toward space fantasy are durably unfashionable. It’s easier to connect him to the explosions of color in Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia or the pulsating energy of The Joshua Light Show  at the Fillmore East in the 1960s than to the minimalist tendencies of Light and Space artists like James Turrell or Robert Irwin. No wonder Canaday didn’t know what to do with him. Rather than address the history of an established medium, he invented his own. Rather than connect to his peers, Wilfred waited for followers to flock to him.

Despite all of this, in the presence of Wilfred’s refurbished works, it’s impossible not to admire his irrational commitment to his craft. Wilfred intuitively understood big changes in science, popular culture, and our relationship to technology, and he responded to them in a novel way. His art historical pedigree may not make sense, his Bach is presumably never coming, but at SAAM, his spaceship windows offer a view onto something like beauty.

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Jan. 7, 2018. 8th and F streets NW. Free. (202) 633-1000.  americanart.si.edu.