Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light

October 6, 2017 – January 7, 2018

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)

Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light restores Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) to his rightful place in the history of modern art. This pioneering light artist invented a new art form that was among the first successful fusions of modern art and technology. Recognized as radically innovative, he was included in the influential 1952 exhibition 15 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. His work continued to resonate with later generations of light and media artists, among them James Turrell, who acknowledge Wilfred’s influence on their own thinking about light and art.


This groundbreaking exhibition features fifteen light compositions, shown together for the first time in nearly fifty years. Wilfred’s spellbinding works, which he referred to collectively as lumia, display ever-changing colored forms against a black background, like an aurora borealis emerging from and disappearing into the night sky. Despite his influential career, Wilfred disappeared from the story of American modernism as his works became hard to maintain and consequently relegated to museums’ storage. Extensive research and reassembly by conservators has made it possible to present the works now in their original form. Lumia brings Wilfred’s avant-garde work back to life for a new generation.

The artworks have various run times, from five minutes, fifteen seconds to approximately nine years, 127 days, eighteen hours. Although Wilfred left specific instructions for their preservation to ensure lumia could be exhibited well into the future, the fragile nature of the earliest objects require that they be turned on and off according to a schedule. Five works in the exhibition are on for set, limited periods of time to protect the components.

Visitors can also watch video segments of the Lumia light sculptures published by Yale University Art Gallery, Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light


  • 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.
  • Thomas Wilfred, "Unit #86," from the "Clavilux Junior (First Home Clavilux Model)" series, 1930. Metal, glass, electrical and lighting elements, and an illustration-board screen in a wood cabinet. Carol and Eugene Epstein Collection, Yale University Art Gallery. As seen in the exhibition Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light.

    SAAM Stories

    Exhibition Catalogue

    The exhibition catalogue, distributed by Yale University Press, is available in the museum store ($45). Written by Keely Orgeman, it includes a foreword by James Turrell and contributions by Maibritt Borgen, Jason DeBlock, Carol Snow, and Gregory Zinman.


    Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light was organized by Keely Orgeman, the Alice and Allan Kaplan Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery and was made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Additional support provided by Mary-Jo and John Amatruda, Jerald Dillon Fessenden, the David Bermant Foundation, the Art Gallery Exhibition and Publication Fund, and the Friends of American Arts at Yale Exhibition and Publication Funds.

    The presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a collaboration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generous funding for the exhibition was provided by the Elizabeth Broun Curatorial Endowment, the James F. Dicke Family Endowment and the scan | design Foundation.

    Three different logos: Terra Foundation, Patent Office, and scan/design Foundation