How’d He Do That? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Lumia

Thomas Wilfred, Lumia Suite, Op. 158, 1963–64. Projectors, reflector unit, electrical and lighting elements, and a projection screen; approx. 9 yrs., 127 days, 18 hrs. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 582.1964. Photo: Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery 


Scott Rosenfeld is a Lighting Designer at the museum. This post is part of an occasional series where SAAM experts take you behind-the-scenes as they investigate a work of art.

The exhibition, Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light, gives visitors a rare look at the artworks created by Thomas Wilfred that use light as their medium. I was fortunate to work with Eugene and A.J. Epstein, passionate collectors of Lumia, during the installation period to learn how Wilfred choreographed these dazzling displays of colored light. I was particularly impressed with Wilfred’s signature artist mark: the projection of a lightbulb’s filament. I decided to see what I could uncover, and am excited to share this short video that demonstrates what is happening behind Wilfred's magical and mysterious Lumia screens.


  • Lighting Designer, Scott Rosenfeld, takes you behind the scenes of Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light.

    SCOTT ROSENFELD: Hi. About a month ago, I got to start working with artworks by Thomas Wilfred. Now, Wilfred called these artworks “Lumia”. Wilfred kind of invented light art. And I didn’t know what I was looking at when I first saw these things. I was mystified about exactly what he was doing. It’s as if I was looking at a painting, but I’d never seen a paintbrush. So, let me show you a little bit about how Thomas Wilfred worked. I understood this after I actually looked into his mechanisms, and what I saw was, it’s simply a clear, incandescent light bulb and something shiny to reflect it. That’s all he’s doing. He’s taking the filament in the clear light bulb, and he’s reflecting it onto the wall. So, I’m going to show you that in a minute using these elements and just a little bit of black plastic, and some colored material. Let me turn off the lights and then I’ll show you.

    Hi, I’m back. So, let me show you how Wilfred was working. So we’ve got our clear light bulb, I’ve got something shiny, and there it is. His most basic idea is that I’m shining— I’m just reflecting the filament. But the light bulb itself is washing out that projection, so I’m going to take some black tin foil and cover it up. So now the wall is black, but fancy thing about light is that light only illuminates what it hits. So, the light is still up here, and that filament is still projection-worthy down there. I take the reflector and there we go, and that starts looking like Thomas Wilfred’s artworks, called “Lumia”. That basic reflection of that filament. Now I’m slowly moving the reflector— Wilfred did this mechanically, where he moved either the reflector, or he moved the light bulb, especially in his earlier works, he was moving the light bulb.

    Now, the quality of the film will make a difference. I’ve got a mirror here, and the mirror does quite a different thing, and Wilfred used this as well, he used different quality of reflective materials. And of course he used color, so just by putting some color — this is amber — on top of the light, I’m now projecting amber. One of the things that Wilfred did is that he would move the color. In this case, it’s just the difference between no color and white. So, Wilfred developed this entire vocabulary, but at its most basic level, he’s just taking a filament and something reflective, and projecting the beauty of a filament onto a surface.

    Come see Thomas Wilfred’s work. Thanks.


    Your last chance to see Wilfred’s work in person is January 7, 2018, when the exhibition must close!