By Steven Rosen
LOS ANGELES TIMES, 2005
Were he alive today, the artist Thomas Wilfred doubtlessly would find all the recent museum interest in his work “visual music” to his ears.
The Danish-born Wilfred, who died in Nyack, N.Y., at age 79 in 1968, devoted his life to the creation of what he called “lumia” – hypnotically abstract light projections that slowly but constantly shifted shapes and blended colors when watched on a screen in a dark room. Virtually forgotten for decades, his work suddenly is sparking critical reevaluations and restoration efforts from museums internationally.
And Los Angeles is at the center, partly because three of his projections currently are on display in a gallery at Museum of Contemporary Art – Grand Avenue’s “Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900” show through May 22. The exhibit then moves to Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, which organized it with MOCA.
“It does seem to be something in the air right now,” says Kerry Brougher, chief curator and director of art and programs at the Hirshhorn, of Wilfred. “A younger generation has been inspired by digital technology to create a new kind of abstraction in motion. Curators and museum people have started to look back and see the roots of this movement – to look at an alternative history of abstraction that’s driven by technology.”
Comparing his work to music – just as did pioneering 20th Century abstract painters like Kandinsky – Wilfred for a time gave performances at auditoriums and concert halls around the world, such as at Hollywood High School in 1924. He performed with a color organ he built called a Clavilux, which looked like a huge mixing board.
Later, Wilfred went on to make smaller, self-contained lumia that each played unique projected-light compositions by created an illusion of sculptural depth through mechanical means – color wheels, reflectors, electric motors and screens. These finished pieces were sold to individual collectors and several museums.
If not for a dedicated West Los Angeles collector, now-retired radio-astronomer Eugene Epstein, Wilfred might have become completely forgotten. But after first becoming interested after seeing a piece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1960, Epstein has gone on to acquire nine lumia and two surviving Clavilux instruments. There are only about 35 artworks by Wilfred existent.
“It was just an emotional, visceral experience,” Epstein says of Wilfred’s appeal. “As opportunities came up, I acquired them. And at a certain point, the rescuer instinct took over.”
One key indication to Epstein that museums wanted to shed light on Wilfred’s career came last year when he lent a piece from his collection – 1965/66’s “Untitled, Opus 161” – for the “Sons et Lumieres” survey show at Paris’ Pompidou Centre.
To his surprise, the Pompidou selected a lovely, swirling pink-and-blue photo of a projected-light image for the cover of its catalogue, as well as for street banners and subway posters throughout Paris. After that ended, “Visual Music” opened here with two lumia from his collection, including “Opus 161.”
And at about the same time, the Tate Museum in Liverpool contacted him about lending Wilfred’s largest and last completed work, “Luccata (Opus 162 in Three Movements),” for its “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era.” That show runs May 27 through September 27, and will travel to Frankfurt and possibly Vienna.
Meanwhile, “Visual Music” has already prompted two museums to locate and restore other neglected Wilfred artwork. When Judith Zilczer, a Hirshhorn curator emeritus who helped organize the show, was trying to find works by Wilfred, she was startled to learn from Epstein that the Smithsonian Institution – of which the Hirshhorn is a part – already owned one.
A mural-sized projection with a 54-square-foot screen, it had graced Clairol’s New York headquarters for decades after being commissioned in 1959. But in 1996, Bristol-Myers Squibb gave it to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, which promptly sent it to a warehouse in Virginia.
“It had been accepted by the technology curator as an example of a technological apparatus and not as a work of art,” she says. With a grant from Santa Barbara’s David Bermant Foundation: Color, Light, Motion, the Hirshhorn spent nine months and $20,000 restoring it. It’s now a centerpiece of “Visual Music’s” Wilfred gallery and eventually will become part of the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection.
Zilczer’s entreaties also prompted the Cleveland Museum of Art to locate a Wilfred piece that it had had in storage since purchasing it in 1954. It had been part of the museum’s decorative-arts collection, because the projected-light mechanism was inside a cabinet. The piece has been located, examined, put in working order and reassigned to museum’s contemporary collection.
Several other American museums – from New Haven to Honolulu – have undisplayed lumia, Epstein says. But the Holy Grail is “Opus 158,” which the Museum of Modern Art commissioned from Wilfred in 1964 and had on display until about 1980. It became an underground favorite, inspiring such visitors as Joshua White, who created the San Francisco psychedelic-rock light shows of the era. (MOMA has two other projected-light pieces by Wilfred.)
A MOMA spokeswoman said via E-mail there are no current plans to take its Wilfreds out of storage, “but you never know, down the road.” So there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
(photo: Thomas Wilfred with his “lumia” in 1922)