was publicly performed in 1915 with the colour organ.
When I had a show in Moscow at Russian architect
Konstantin Melnikov’s ‘Garage’, I went to the Arbat to
Scriabin’s house and saw his colour organ. Primitive,
but exciting for me to see. Here was an attempt to play
the music of the spheres in light.
In my study of perceptual psychology, I again came
across Wilfred. Wilfred, Claude Bragdon, Van Dearing
Perrine, and William ‘Kirk’ Kirkpatrick Brice as
patron formed a group they called the ‘Prometheans’.
What’s with this Prometheus fascination? Madame
Blavatsky. She influenced many in the arts at this
time with her spiritualist writings, which she called
theosophy. One of the purposes of the Prometheans
was to construct a colour organ. Though this did
not result from the group, Wilfred went on to do it
himself. He built the Clavilux.
From 1919 to the beginning of World War II,
Wilfred worked at perfecting his light organ, from
the Clavilux Model A to the Clavilux Model H. This
was a fluorescent time for Wilfred. The Clavilux
grew in sophistication and complexity. Its keyboard
resembled that of an organ. But there was no sound
accompaniment, just the music of the spheres in light.
He gave his compositions titles like music, using
the word opus. Many people saw his compositions,
conductor Leopold Stokowski to name just one.
For performances, he created not only the Clavilux
but also the Clavilux Junior. This model was made
for home use and housed its mechanisms inside
a cabinet, with a screen at the top on which the
composition played. Despite its affinities to an early
television set, at this time the television had yet to
be invented. As he further perfected these works,
which essentially performed themselves, he began to
call them ‘lumia’, an art form that was intended for
collecting and was aimed toward the museum setting.
After the Clavilux Junior, his works became more like
paintings. Consisting of a box with a frosted-glass
front, each work was hung like a painting on the wall.
It was this type of work that arrested me at MoMA.
What a time that must have been. To master light in
this way is unique. You can’t form light as with clay
or wax. You can’t carve it as with wood or stone. You
can’t piece it together or weld it. You have to make
the instrument that produces it. Something akin to
dreaming up a symphony and then having to create
the instruments to produce the sound. With paint,
you mix blue and yellow, and you get green. What a
surprise that when you mix blue light and yellow light,
you get white light. You must learn the spectrum. And
that is what Wilfred did.
The Cheshire Cat
In 1966 I was preparing for my first museum show at
the Pasadena Art Museum, in California. I discussed
it with my friend Dennis Halverson. His girlfriend
was then Chloe Kimball, daughter of Ward Kimball.
Ward heard of my interest in light. As an animator
for Walt Disney Studios, he had worked on Fantasia
(1940) and insisted I go to see the work of a friend of
his, Oskar Fischinger. We went together to see him.
They talked for some time about life, Hollywood,
and lost opportunities. Ward spoke of the dream of
Fantasia; it was their chance of a lifetime. Oskar had
been fired from the project because he insisted on
only abstract form and colour. Walt Disney, though,
wanted the recognisable and the figure in his film.
Leopold Stokowski, who had been an early witness to a
performance of Wilfred on the Clavilux, conducted the
music. For Oskar and Ward, Fantasia came up short.
Oskar remarked that Ward at least had the Cheshire
Cat to ‘speak’ for him.
The work I saw by Oskar Fischinger was Radio
Dynamics, A Composition in Rhythm and Color
(1942), richly coloured and redolent with circles. It
developed slowly and was very moving. Again, I was
reminded of Wilfred. I asked Oskar if he knew Wilfred.
He was silent.
I myself never met Wilfred. This I regret. In light
shows that often accompanied rock performances,
and especially in the work of the ‘Whitney brothers’
‘You can’t form light as with clay or wax. You
can’t carve it as with wood or stone... You have
to make the instrument that produces it’