Thomas Wilfred

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Wilfred between 1926 and 1930 The Claridge and its inventor, Thomas Wilfred (NBY 5606) (cropped).jpg
Wilfred between 1926 and 1930

Thomas Wilfred (June 18, 1889 in Naestved, Denmark - August 15, 1968 in Nyack, New York), born Richard Edgar Løvstrøm, was a musician and inventor. He is best known for his light art, which he named lumia , and his designs for color organs called Clavilux. Wilfred was not fond of the term "color organ", and coined the word "Clavilux" from Latin meaning "light played by key". His innovative, kinetic works prefigured the advent of light art in America, and influenced subsequent generations of visual artists. [1]

Denmark Constitutional monarchy in Europe

Denmark, officially the Kingdom of Denmark, is a Nordic country. Denmark proper, which is the southernmost of the Scandinavian countries, consists of a peninsula, Jutland, and an archipelago of 443 named islands, with the largest being Zealand, Funen and the North Jutlandic Island. The islands are characterised by flat, arable land and sandy coasts, low elevation and a temperate climate. The southernmost of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark lies southwest of Sweden and south of Norway, and is bordered to the south by Germany. The Kingdom of Denmark also includes two autonomous territories in the North Atlantic Ocean: the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Denmark has a total area of 42,924 km2 (16,573 sq mi), land area of 42,394 km2 (16,368 sq mi), and the total area including Greenland and the Faroe Islands is 2,210,579 km2 (853,509 sq mi), and a population of 5.8 million.

Nyack, New York Village in New York, United States

Nyack is a village located primarily in the town of Orangetown in Rockland County, New York, United States. Incorporated in 1872, it retains a very small western section in Clarkstown. It is an inner suburb of New York City lying approximately 19 miles (31 km) north of the Manhattan boundary near the west bank of the Hudson River, situated north of South Nyack, east of Central Nyack, south of Upper Nyack, and southeast of Valley Cottage.

Light art form of visual art using light as a medium

Light art or luminism is an applied art form in which light is the main medium of expression. It is an art form in which either a sculpture produces light, or light is used to create a "sculpture" through the manipulation of light, colours, and shadows. These sculptures can be temporary or permanent, and can exist in two distinctive spaces: indoor galleries, such as museum exhibits, or outdoors at events like festivals. Light art can be an interaction of light within an architectural space. Light artists are those that devote all their creative experimentation to light art, some artists experiment with light and neon signage and use light in their practice.



Wilfred's father ran a photography studio, and young Wilfred was exposed to the arts at a young age. He studied painting and poetry in Paris, and found early success as "Wilfred the Lute Player" traveling Europe and America performing minstrel songs on the archaic lute.

Paris Capital of France

Paris is the capital and most populous city of France, with an area of 105 square kilometres and an official estimated population of 2,140,526 residents as of 1 January 2019. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of finance, diplomacy, commerce, fashion, science, and the arts. The City of Paris is the centre and seat of government of the Île-de-France, or Paris Region, which has an estimated official 2019 population of 12,213,364, or about 18 percent of the population of France. The Paris Region had a GDP of €709 billion in 2017. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit Worldwide Cost of Living Survey in 2018, Paris was the second most expensive city in the world, after Singapore, and ahead of Zürich, Hong Kong, Oslo and Geneva. Another source ranked Paris as most expensive, on a par with Singapore and Hong Kong, in 2018.

Around 1905, Wilfred began to experiment with bits of colored glass and light sources. After moving to New York he, along with Claude Fayette Bragdon and 'Kirk' Kirkpatrick Brice cofounded a group of Theosophists called the Prometheans. The Prometheans were dedicated to exploring spiritual matters through modern artistic expression. Brice served also as patron to the group.

Claude Fayette Bragdon American architect

Claude Fayette Bragdon was an American architect, writer, and stage designer based in Rochester, New York, up to World War I, then in New York City.

While many people had experimented with light as an artistic medium (most notably the color organs) Wilfred was the first to speak of light as a formal art. He coined the term "lumia" to describe "an eighth art" where light would stand on its own as an expressive art-form. Wilfred was passionate that lumia should be a silent art.

Wilfred's mechanisms were often complex designs that have been described as from the "Rube Goldberg school". He was a trained artist, but had little mechanical schooling. That said, his devices were very sturdy, and many still function with most of the original parts.

Rube Goldberg American cartoonist

Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg, known best as Rube Goldberg, was an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor.

In 1919, Wilfred constructed the Clavilux Model A in his Long Island studio (located on the Brice estate). The first public recital came in 1922 and featured performances on the Clavilux Model B for audiences at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. The press was highly receptive. In the audience that first night was Leopold Stokowski.

Clavilux is the term coined by the artist Thomas Wilfred to refer to his mechanical invention that allowed the creation and performance of lumia, which was Wilfred's term for light art.

Leopold Stokowski British conductor

Leopold Anthony Stokowski was an English conductor of Polish descent. One of the leading conductors of the early and mid-20th century, he is best known for his long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his appearance in the Disney film Fantasia. He was especially noted for his free-hand conducting style that spurned the traditional baton and for obtaining a characteristically sumptuous sound from the orchestras he directed.

The Clavilux was a complex instrument which allowed a person to create and perform lumia compositions. Later models B-H were touring and lecture models, the last one being built prior to W.W.II.

Wilfred founded the Art Institute of Light, which had a recital hall in Chelsea, and then later at the Grand Central Palace.

World War II found the Grand Central Palace theatre turned into an Army induction center, and Wilfred did his part for the Allies by serving as a translator.

After the war, Wilfred no longer performed Clavilux recitals, concentrating his work on recorded lumia and theatrical projection.

Wilfred was also an early pioneer in working with projected scenery for the theatre. His initial success in this was a 1930 Broadway production of Ibsen's The Vikings. Wilfred did seminal work in the 1950s with the University of Washington's John Ashby Conway in this field.

University of Washington Public research university in Seattle, Washington, United States

The University of Washington is a public research university in Seattle, Washington.

Clavilux works

Starting in the late 1920s, Wilfred began to create smaller, less complex lumia devices, some were meant for home exhibition, while others were designed for installation in museums and art galleries:

Starting in 1931, he began to shift his emphasis with lumia from concert recitals to museum and gallery exhibitions.

There are only about thirty-five extant Clavilux Jr. and lumia compositions. Wilfred has explicitly stated his objections to recording lumia works on film (in his writings collected in Thomas Wilfred's Clavilux), making the survival of his works dependent on the existence of his machines. Most of the extant works are in the Epstein Collection, and the Epstein family has loaned lumia compositions to museums world-wide. In 2003, two of the original Clavilux (Models E & G) were rescued from an East Village eviction dumpster, and are now stored in Seattle, Washington awaiting restoration by the Epsteins.

Museum Exhibitions

In 1951, he was included in the influential Museum of Modern Art exhibition 15 Americans, alongside Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. At this point in his career, Wilfred shifted from a musical to a painting-based analogy for lumia in an attempt to explain it to the broader public. [2] One of his installations, "Lumia Suite, Opus 158," enchanted MoMA visitors from 1964 until 1980, when it was dismantled and placed in storage. [3] The Museum of Modern Art owns three Wilfred lumia compositions, and many artists of the Psychedelic era were inspired to work with light after seeing the MoMA compositions.

Because of his influence on this generation of artists, Wilfred's final work "Lucatta, Opus 162" was included in the "Summer of Love" exhibition, which was hosted by the Whitney Museum in the spring of 2007.

In 2017, Yale University Art Gallery organized the first exhibition dedicated solely to Wilfred and his light compositions in more than forty years. It was on view at Yale University Art Gallery from February 17, 2017 – July 23, 2017, before traveling to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. from October 6, 2017 – January 7, 2018. [4]

In 2011, brief excerpts of "Opus 161", Wilfred's penultimate lumia work, was featured at several important points in the Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life. [5]

See also


  1. "Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light". Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  2. Closed Access logo transparent.svg Eskilson, Stephen (February 2003). "Thomas Wilfred and Intermedia: Seeking a Framework for Lumia". Leonardo. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 36 (1): 65–68. doi:10.1162/002409403321152347. JSTOR   1577284. OCLC   4636571287.
  3. Cummings, Mike (2017-03-20). "Installation that once enchanted MoMA guests resurrected at Yale's 'Lumia' exhibit". Yale News. Retrieved 2017-03-23.
  4. "Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  5. Zinman, Gregory (2011-06-27). "Lumia: Thomas Wilfred's Opus 161 (1965-66)". The New Yorker . New York, NY: Condé Nast . Retrieved 2015-10-11.

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