knowledge that would help him elevate this material
to a status in the arts equivalent to that which it had
attained in the modern sciences,’ says Keely Orgeman,
Alice and Allan Kaplan Assistant Curator of American
Paintings and Sculpture and the curator of the new
exhibition on Wilfred at Yale University Art Gallery.
An undated drawing by Wilfred illustrates several
light-bending techniques involving light bulbs, their
filaments and mirrors, the arrangement of which
he could adjust accordingly when designing each
composition. What Wilfred demonstrates is how
minor changes in the placement of the equipment,
even the position of the bulb’s filament, allowed him
to both refine the visual effects of the composition and
predict certain patterns. ‘Broadly speaking, Wilfred’s
precise light-bending technique mimicked that of
physicists’ laboratory experiments, which often used
angled mirrors to test the velocity of light when its path
was redirected by reflection,’ says Orgeman.
Throughout a career that spanned decades (he was
born in 1889 and died at the age of 79 in 1968),
Wilfred was recognised as an artistic pioneer. Lumia
has been an inspiration for later generations of light
and media artists, including James Turrell, and widely
influential for post-war artists in general. According to
film historian William Morittz, Jackson Pollock, ‘avidly
visited Wilfred’s studio, studying ‘lumia... his head
moving up, diagonally, around, down, following the
trajectories, the gestures of the various colours.’ Wilfred
was included alongside Pollock, Mark Rothko and
Clyfford Still in MoMA’s 1952 survey 15 Americans.
‘Thomas Wilfred’s lumia compositions reveal how
much they have influenced the abstract use of colour,’
wrote Howard Devree in the New York Times.
But since his last retrospective, held in 1971 at the
Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, and
MoMA, Wilfred has languished in relative obscurity.
The new exhibition at The Yale University Art Gallery,
which runs until July, ‘aims to reestablish lumia to its
rightful place at the beginning of the fascinating story of
light art,’ says Orgeman. It will move to the Smithsonian
in Washington, from October to January 2018.
It features around half of Wilfred’s extant light works,
including three from the gallery’s permanent collection.
Organised chronologically, the exhibition tracks
the evolution of lumia in format, size, setting and
aesthetic experience, from at-home instruments made
for individual viewers in the 1920s and 1930s to a
door and... a provocative invocation
to wonder at what nearly limitless
directions the art of light may yet take’
Keely Orgeman, curator, Yale University Art Gallery
Opposite: Wilfred’s The Clavilux Silent Visual Carillon, 1928. Gouache
and watercolor on paper, mounted on cardboard