Light in Orbit: Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia

The Danish-born, American artist Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) was the first to treat light as an independent medium in works of art—works he called collectively “Lumia.” The Yale University Art Gallery is planning an exhibition on the luminous mobile projections of Wilfred, concurrently with a major conservation effort to restore the technology behind these objects to operational condition. Co-authored by the lead curator and conservator on the project, this paper explains what constitutes a work of Lumia, from the fundamental concepts to the technical components, using the beautifully rendered drawings in Yale’s collection of Manuscripts and Archives. These materials include, among others, a flow diagram of the interconnected visual factors of the Lumia system; an illustration of the viewer’s relationship to the imagined space behind the screen and to the physical equipment; a gridded map of a typical form combination in a light composition; a chart of visible and invisible dimensions of the screen-space and beyond. Wilfred illustrated the drawings for instructional purposes, such as lectures he led at his studio, in the hope of establishing a place of prominence for Lumia in the future. Although Wilfred graphically represented the basics of the art form with clarity and skill, they were nonetheless derived from an esoteric language all his own and therefore difficult to comprehend without the aid of explanation. After several years of studying this largely forgotten visual vocabulary, curator Keely Orgeman and conservator Carol Snow decipher the intertwined relationships among Lumia’s building blocks—light, form, color, and motion—and the technical underpinnings that give rise to Wilfred’s vision. Orgeman analyzes the translation from concept to resulting imagery, showing related examples of drawings and Lumia compositions. Snow grounds the conceptual origins of Lumia in the electrical instruments Wilfred specially designed according to principles of light and reflection.

Keely Orgeman

Keely Orgeman is Acting Assistant Curator in American Paintings and Sculpture and the former Marcia Brady Tucker Curatorial Fellow (2008–2011) in the same department at the Yale University Art Gallery. She has contributed several essays to Gallery publications, including collection catalogues and the annual journal. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University in 2014, writing her dissertation on representations of radioactivity in postwar American art. As a recipient of the Presidential Fellowship and the Adelson Fellowship in American Art at BU, she organized the 2008 exhibition Atomic Afterimage: Cold War Imagery in Contemporary Art and authored its accompanying catalogue.