Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Thomas Wilfred.
“Light is the artist’s sole medium of expression. He must mold it by optical means, almost as a sculptor models clay. He must add colour, and finally motion to his creation. Motion, the time dimension, demands that he must be a choreographer in space.” —Thomas Wilfred
You can’t talk about art without tirelessly discussing the importance of light. The opposition of light and dark was a decisive factor in major upheavals in the history of humankind, and consequently in art. And it was from light that Danish inventor/musician Richard Edgar Løvestrom, a.k.a. Thomas Wilfred found inspiration for his work. While many artists of his generation talked about using light as a quality of art, Wilfred was the first to speak of light as a formal art form itself.
The son of a photography studio owner, Wilfred was exposed to visual arts at a young age. In his youth he studied painting and poetry in Paris, performing minstrel songs. In 1916, the young artist flew to America to perform as a singer and ended up getting involved with a group of Theosophists called Prometheans, who searched for elements that emit light to represent the principles of spirituality, which they used in their performances. Wilfred called the process Lumia.
Still from Luccata, Opus 162 (1967-68)
Around 1920, Wilfred created the Clavilux, the first color light projection gadget designed for audiovisual shows. Clavilux was a kind of organ that produced fluid light forms instead of music, and it was created to enable the silent compositions of Lumia. This device debuted in New York in January of 1922, and at the time it was considered the beginning of effective light use for art purposes. Clavilux would then lead to a new genre of art: kinetic art.
While at first it was used mainly for public performances, Clavilux then started to project color and light arrangements onto a canvas, creating dramatic and mystic effects. Wilfred also created Clavilux Jr., a home version of the device that could be operated by unskilled hands. Below, see “Opus 161,” a ghostly Lumia composition played on a Clavilux.
In 1930, Wilfred developed the Lumia Box, a television-like device that could generate a non-repeating cycle of light visuals for 650 days or longer. It was from there that the artist’s work went from performance and entertainment to a more contemplative exhibition format.
In 1930, Wilfred patented his audiovisual invention and established the Art Institute of Light in New York. The artist was also a pioneer in the projection of scenery for theater, and his first hit was a Broadway play called The Vikings. Wilfred passed away at age 79 on June 10, 1968, eight days before his birthday.