Skip to Content

Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light

Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, Connecticut
Through July 23

Lumia Suite, Opus 158, Thomas Wilfred, 1963–64. Projectors, reflector unit, electrical and lighting elements, and a projection screen. Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 582.1964.

Photo: Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

The ethereal works of Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) were so original that he coined his own collective term for them: lumia. Wilfred’s lumia — which manipulate light to project colorful, moving forms — have been compared to the aurora borealis. They once dazzled audiences, yet today this Danish-born artist, who came to the United States in 1916, is largely forgotten. This exhibition, which displays nearly half of the lumia Wilfred produced over his decades-long career, is the first retrospective of his work in more than 40 years.

The pieces range from small, intimate works to grand, cinematic pieces. His 1928 piece Elliptical Prelude and Chalice consists of a maple table that at intervals projects on the ceiling a mesmerizing swirl suggestive of the eye of a storm or an embryo dividing in utero. Lumia Suite, Opus 158, cosmic in scale and scheme, was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1963 and drew crowds before falling into disrepair.

The equipment that generates the lumia requires a good deal of maintenance and can overheat. In the exhibit, mechanical hums and whirs make you aware of the laborious nature of Wilfred’s compositions. Today, we are creatures of the screen, but Wilfred created his lumia before the advent of consumer television and computers, and they have a beauty and ethereality unmatched by computer-generated imagery.

In 1965, Wilfred received a $2,500 award from MoMA, which had supported and exhibited his work for more than two decades. In a letter, MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., commended Wilfred for “achievement in an art invented and perfected by you.” Perhaps this exhibition will restore recognition to this singular, visionary artist.

Unit #50, Elliptical Prelude and Chalice, Thomas Wilfred, 1928. From the First Table Model Clavilux (Luminar) series. Metal, fabric, glass, and electrical and lighting elements on a maple table. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Thomas C. Wilfred.

Photo: Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery