THOMAS WILFRED – GODFATHER OF THE MODERN LIGHTSHOW

Light is the artist’s sole medium of expression, and it demands that the artist must be a choreographer in time and space.”         Thomas Wilfred

Historically Lumia has a very interesting pedigree, it was discovered as art form by Thomas Wilfred (1889 – 1968), a Danish artist, who began experimenting in the 1920s as a youngster with light art in Denmark. His first color organ was built from a cigar box with an electric light bulb. This interested continued onwards, even with his move to the United States.

Once in place with his art, Wilfred dedicated the rest of his life to bringing Lumia to the forefront of both the art world and for the public to enjoy. In total, Wilfred produced roughly 40 works before his death in 1968. Only eighteen Lumia pieces have survived, of which a major portion has been collected and is currently ‘curated by Eugene and Carole Epstein.

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In the early 1920s as Wilfred became more involved with Lumia as an art medium which he developed it into many expressive formats that he described, as a three-dimensional drama unfolding in infinite space. It is a ‘drama’ that has since followed artists, critics, curators, and the curious public from museum hall to gallery wall and printed book, all wondering what the sublime light forms are telling us.

Rarest Moments of Silence

To present Lumia as a visual display he invented a huge Lumia light projector known as the Clavilux (from Latin meaning “light played by key”). The Clavilux is considered the first color light projection device designed for audiovisual shows and was created as a projected light organ that produced fluid light forms instead of music, and used to present silent compositions of Lumia. This device debuted in New York in January of 1922, and at the time was considered the beginning of effective light use for art purposes. With his light art projection in play, Wilfred began a series of Lumia light concerts to audiences through out the United States, Canada and Europe. In 1922, in one of Wilfred’s earliest newspaper reviews for his public light art concert, a theater critic noted, “This is art for itself, an art of pure color; it holds its audience in the rarest moments of silence that I have known in a playhouse.”

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Lumia as the 8th Fine Art

In developing Lumia as an artistic medium, Wilfred proclaimed it as “….the 8th fine art,” of the world. As Wilfred’s Lumia matured as an art medium, its presence established itself in several ways. First as a form of synesthesia establishing a relationship that color, form and music could exist as a synergistic entity where the color illuminated Lumia forms interpreted the music and vice versa. The high light of that relationship culminated in 1928 in Wilfred receiving an invitation from Leopold Stokowski to join the Philadelphia Orchestra as a Lumia soloist for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

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Although Lumia as the 8th Fine Art did not hold much sway with the art community, Wilfred continued to refine its presence, and transformed Lumia from a music-light medium and began to align it with “painting” as an art form. In this fashion, he was “collected” by the New York Museum of Modern Art which acquired their first Wilfred Lumia artwork in 1942 titled Vertical Sequence II (Opus 137). 13 years later, in 1955 MOMA acquired their second Wilfred Lumia work, Aspiration (Opus 145), and their final work in 1963, which was commissioned by the Museum, Lumia Suite (Opus 158). Lumia Suite remained on exhibit at MOMA until 1980, when it went into storage and has remained ever since.

15 Americans

New York MOMA, in 1952 produced an exhibit titled, 15 Americans, upon which Wilfred appeared with several other nationally reknown American painters such as Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. In presenting his Lumia work, he described it a drama of moving form and color, unfolding in a dark space. As cinema critic Colin Dabkowski noted, Wilfred sought to represent the ‘universal rhythmic flow’ in his art.

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Lumia As Home Entertainment

Wilfred persisted in establishing Lumia as a public presence and developed every possible way of presenting Lumia, he gave recitals, he went on tours and he had gallery art shows. Wilfred built big, at one point, he had created a screen that was close to IMAX size as a display for his work. He built small, and in the early 1950s designed the Clavilux Jr., a television sized home entertainment Lumia cabinet for living room viewing. While a small percentage of the public has seen a Lumia performance, those who have, always seem in awe of its swirling voluminous presence.

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Wilfred’s Lumia work continued onwards after his death and culminated in 1971 in a two month exhibition at The Corcoran Gallery of Art, (Washington, DC), titled Thomas Wilfred: Lumia – A Retrospective Exhibition. Although Wilfred passed on in 1968, he also passed Lumia on as an art form – both as a legacy of what he had accomplished, and as tool kit for artists who have succeeded him. Other artists such as Earl Rebeck, Rudi Stern, W. Christian Sidenius have developed the Lumia concept into new forms of visual expression. And now, a younger third generation of light artists moves into “the light” with new forms of Lumia art, for a 21st century curious public who still gasp in delight over Lumia’s visual expression as it once again unfolds in darkened galleries.

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