Pierre-Jacques Pernuit

2020 – 2021 Terra Foundation for American Art Predoctoral Fellow
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Light In media res: The Art of Mobile Color in America, 1910–1970

The many-colored-light devices created by American artists between the 1910s and the early 1960s, such as Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s Color-Light-Machine, Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux, or even Charles Dockum’s Mobile Color Projector, were considered a new medium for the fine arts by their creators and a cohort of critics. What was termed the new “art of Mobile Color” consisted of the projection of colored light through “visual organs” or other light devices of varying sizes onto screens in improvised, abstract compositions. Mobile Color artists considered their machines a technological improvement on the medium of painting and an alternative to such mediums as photography and film. The most emblematic example of Mobile Color is what the Danish-born artist Thomas Wilfred called lumia, an art which received significant institutional attention in postwar America.

My dissertation examines Mobile Color as an unexplored moment in the history of American art, critically overlooked as a significant early encounter between technology and avant-garde theories of abstraction. In the first half of the twentieth century, Mobile Color artists sought to implement technical solutions to aesthetic problems. My dissertation specifically examines the colored light machines that these artists created, interpreting them as a theory of art and technology put into mechanical form. I aim to contextualize Mobile Color within the art of its time by closely studying the discourse that accompanied these technological experiments at two different moments: their elaboration in the early decades of the twentieth century and their postwar exhibition in American museums.