Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light

October 6, 2017 – January 7, 2018

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Thomas Wilfred's light sculpture Unit 86

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

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.


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.

On the Blog

Eye Level, December 28, 2017, How’d He Do That? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Lumia
Eye Level, October 4, 2017, “Lumia: The Art of Light


Watch video segments of the Lumia light sculptures published by Yale University Art Gallery.

Behind the scenes of "Lumia" with lighting designer, Scott Rosenfeld.

Thomas Wilfred's Lumia "Unit #86"


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