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Spectral Color Dancing and the Luminal Art of Thomas Wilfred By Emily Leon

Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161”

During the latter years of the nineteenth century, an important aesthetic shift occurred in art that embraced anti-Realist tendencies and focused on the relationship between sound, music, and painting. Artists openly proclaimed their interest in the relationship between music and visual arts, while color theorists and inventors believed that a widespread interest in color music would develop among the artistic community in the twentieth century.[1] Unfortunately, a narrow-minded framework that required validation from affluent and powerful individuals held the art world together in the early twentieth century.[2] Although the concept of color music has been around since Antiquity and has been introduced in various forms ranging from colored pitches on eleventh century manuscripts to the fourteenth century “isorhythmic motet,” modern color music pioneers like Thomas Wilfred struggled to assert the validity of luminal art within the constraints of the art world during that time.[3] However, Wilfred’s love of spectral color enchanted him from the time he was two years old until his death in June of 1968. Wilfred believed there were various approaches to moving art and thought light was the most important.

Wilfred developed an art form he described as Lumia and began to focus his attention on form, color, and motion. Borrowing techniques from musical works, Wilfred invented the Clavilux, an instrument designed to project and manipulate pure light. Wilfred’s ocular compositions, mostly performed in silence, had the ability to be interpreted as music based on musical terminology used in titling his works, time, and rhythm. Despite evidence confirming inconsistencies between music and color, Wilfred managed to succeed in developing a nonobjective art form that not only questioned how we listen, but also demonstrated how spirituality plays an important role in the perception of visual art.

Wilfred’s fascination with spectral color began at two years old when his father moved a crystal egg in the sunbeam coming through his office window. Wilfred’s experience with the color spots he adored as a child influenced his lifelong devotion to the art of Lumia. In 1905, at the age of sixteen, Wilfred had already been experimenting with color instruments that were approached with disdain from his Paris painting teacher. Although Wilfred studied music, sculpture, and painting as a way to understand “various approaches to moving art,” he could not replace his consideration that light was the backbone to it all.[4] Wilfred believed that light was “part of the universal flux” and motion a “necessary dimension and factor.”[5] Without light, Wilfred was convinced that other artistic disciplines could not be fully realized and light itself became his medium.

Wilfred came to the United States from Europe in 1916 with the inclination that there would be more of a community and a larger acceptance of Lumia. He taught himself the lute and spent winters performing and saving money so he could spend his summers experimenting with luminal art.[6] More importantly, during 1916, American architect Claude Bragdon was experimenting with similar ideas in New York. Bragdon, famously known for his association with the Prometheans, the New Stagecraft movement, and his promotion of “theosophy and the fourth dimension” influenced the works of Wilfred.[7] As years progressed, Wilfred gave up his career as a musician and focused all of his attention on creating his first color instrument around 1921, which he named the Clavilux [light played by key] .[8]

Wilfred’s main instrument, employing six projectors, was controlled from a ‘keyboard’ consisting of banks of sliders. An elaborate arrangement of prisms could be inclined or twisted in any plane in front of each light source. Color intensity was varied by six separate rheostats which Wilfred operated delicately with his fingers. Selection of geometric patterns was effected via an ingenious system of counterbalanced disks.[9]

Wilfred’s Clavilux compositions demonstrated a relationship between four-dimensional space and theosophical ideologies, in addition to an analogous relationship to music.[10] Was technology only a disjunctive and new form of communicating ideas and experiencing the world; or were mystical avenues of creative practice, such as the Clavilux, attuned to a more spiritual pedigree? We do know that Wilfred’s programmed Lumia brought some of Bragdon’s fourth-dimensional concepts to life through the “dimension of its individual cabinet” and the compositions “absolute” and “virtual time” cycles. [11]

The technical aspect of Wilfred’s programmed Lumia was designed to demonstrate an evident fourth-dimensional perspective, which can be seen through movement of the projected Lumia.[12] Some composed works that more closely related to Bragdon’s “mystical, theosophical aspect” of the fourth dimension can be experienced in Wilfred’s pieces Vertical Sequence II and Opus 137.[13] Both pieces conveyed a clear relationship to and were reminiscent of theosophist Annie Besant’s thought-forms through the Lumia’s ability to represent qualities that resembled auras or “apparitions” from the astral plane.[14] Perhaps there was a hidden wisdom in Wilfred’s luminal art? The rise and decline of non-geometric shapes of various colors shifting through space and time emanated a powerful atmosphere for the ocular listener, almost as though the art was navigating the viewer through an ethereal nonphysical realm. During the twentieth century, many had no idea how to find the right words to describe this new art. Art critic Sheldon Cheney described the art of Lumia in A Primer of Modern Art: “In the projection of this art in space, I sensed a new dimension, a new direction.”[15] Arguably, with this new direction came the continuity between visual art, spirituality, and music.

Light and sound was an ongoing topic of interest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after John Locke’s seventeenth-century publication An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, where he described a blind man’s aural experience with a trumpet “to be like the color scarlet.”[16] Such an experience prompted “international discussions” regarding the potential relationship between light and sound.[17] How does the brain translate sound into light or color in a blind man, and how can one man’s opinion of Wilfred’s color music recital have been described as “music for the eyes?”[18] Notably, color music pioneers like Wilfred were more interested in abstracting traditional ideas of music in order to create a transcendent experience for the viewers.[19] The transcendent importance of the works of Wilfred sought to find a link between spirituality and music—music and visual arts. Modernists like Wilfred used color, motion, form, and depth as a way to elicit an emotional response, to bring the viewer and themselves to a higher spiritual reality.

In Wilfred’s case, it’s hard to believe his legacy has been largely forgotten because his works challenge the viewer to ask so many important questions: What does it mean to listen, to see, to exist? The list of kinetic and luminal art fanatics throughout history that have been experimenting with these ideas would exceed far beyond the confines of such a short essay. When you look at the luminal works of Wilfred, your awareness of the infinite becomes almost paralyzing, which draws to mind an important quote from Rudolf Steiner’s eurythmy course on the musical art of the future. Steiner wrote, “In the musical element the spatial human being is transformed into the non-spatial human being—the spiritual human being is the inner origin of the musical element.”[20] Steiner’s quote resonates with Wilfred’s works, as the spatial human being becomes the musical element and the music represents time and space. After all, music is inherently synonymous to silence and sonic qualities such as texture and timbre are often described as the color of sound.

©2016 Emily Leon

[1] Judith Zilczer, “Color Music”: Synaesthesia and Nineteenth-Century Sources for Abstract Art,” Artibus et Historiae 8, no. 16 (1987): 101, doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1483303.

[2] Stephen Eskilson, “Thomas Wilfred and Intermedia: Seeking a Framework for Lumia,” Leonardo 36, no. 1 (2003): 65, doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1577284.

[3] Kenneth Peacock, “Instruments to Perform Color-Music: Two Centuries of Technological Experimentation,” Leonardo 21, no. 4 (1988): 398.

[4] Thomas Wilfred, interview by Patricia Marx, NYPR Archives & Preservation, 93.9 WNYC FM, 1968.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] William Moritz, “Abstract Film and Color Music,” in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, ed. Edward Weisberger (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986), 298.

[8] Ibid., 298.

[9] Kenneth Peacock, “Instruments to Perform Color-Music: Two Centuries of Technological Experimentation,” Leonardo 21, no. 4 (1988): 405.

[10] William Moritz, “Abstract Film and Color Music,” in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, ed. Edward Weisberger (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986), 299.

[11] Ibid., 299.

[12] Ibid., 299.

[13] Ibid., 299-300.

[14] Ibid., 300.

[15] Linda Dalrymple Henderson, “Mysticism, Romanticism, and the Fourth Dimension,” in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, ed. Edward Weisberger (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986), 227.

[16] Kenneth Peacock, “Instruments to Perform Color-Music: Two Centuries of Technological Experimentation,” Leonardo 21, no. 4 (1988): 398.

[17] Ibid., 398.

[18] Ibid., 405.

[19] Judith Zilczer, “Color Music”: Synasthesia and Nineteenth-Century Sources for Abstract Art,” Artibus et Historiae 8, no. 16 (1987): 101, doi: http://jstor.org/stable/1483303.

[20] Rudolf Steiner, Eurythmy As Visible Singing (London: Anthroposophical Publishing Co., 1932), xxi.

 

 

 

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