You've never heard of Thomas Wilfred? Neither has just about anybody these days. Born in Denmark in 1889, Wilfred was the first known person to use light itself as a stand-alone art medium. He spent his life crusading for his invention—"lumia," the art of light—beginning with cigar-box experiments up in his room in 1905 and ending with an installation that ran continuously at the Museum of Modern Art for more than a decade after he died in 1968. All these years later, Wilfred's pioneering legacy is largely forgotten, his body of work seemingly lost to history... Except, that is, in a basement in Seattle, where half of the largest existing collection of Wilfreds now lives.
AJ Epstein has been producing plays and films in Seattle for more than 15 years, most recently at his theater West of Lenin in Fremont. But Epstein's home has also become a theater of sorts, a treasure chest full of Thomas Wilfred's unknown inventions, which he collects and restores, in concert with his uncle Eugene in Los Angeles, who introduced AJ to the obscure artist/inventor at a tender age.
No museum has a Wilfred collection to rival the Epsteins'. Many Wilfreds are lost. So AJ and Eugene save the ones they can, from dumpsters, from discombobulated estates, from wherever they can find them. Nobody gets to see the 27 steamer trunks' worth of light art and player machines stored in boxes in AJ Epstein's basement, or, more vitally, the functioning works by Wilfred that live—by the flip of a switch—in Epstein's living and sitting rooms, waiting on a quiet side street in a Seattle neighborhood for an audience that never comes.
I'd briefly seen a few Wilfreds in a dark corner of Seattle arts festival Bumbershoot in 2013, and Epstein invited me to view more at his house sometime after dark. A strange invitation, really, to a revelation of the life and work of this eccentric artist born at the height of impressionism, when painters in Paris were doing their own more mediated experiments involving light. Wilfred was just 2 years old when his mother died, and the only thing his father could find to console him was a crystal egg he'd wave in the sunlight to cast prismatic moving pictures on the ceiling. That was 1891. By 1905, Wilfred was creating his own light shows using cigar boxes with holes cut in them, electric bulbs, and pieces of colored glass. His painting instructor at the Sorbonne told him he'd never amount to any kind of painter that way—and he didn't. After art school, he toured as a successful player on the archaic 12-stringed archlute, performing medieval music. This was an artist whose creative output would bridge medieval, romantic, modern, and postmodern before he was through.
To be clear: Wilfred considered his moving light compositions—the lumia—to be his art. He also built the machines to project them. His earliest project, finished in 1919, was called the Clavilux, meaning "light played by key" in Latin. A Clavilux Model E sits on carpet fragments in Epstein's basement, in the shadow of filing cabinets piled high with archival boxes of Wilfred ephemera: his coat, his round glasses with the curlicue arms, mechanical parts by the thousands. The Model E is four metal boxes each the size of a large suitcase. Inside them are what look like Ferris wheels studded with little collaged sculptures made of scrap metal, electrical glass, anything Wilfred could put his hands on. Using the dials on top, he manipulated an elaborate system of reflection and projection to filter the light using those sculptures, to shape the light into theatrical performances around the country and Europe—including at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle in 1924.
Having moved to New York just before completing his first Clavilux, Wilfred drew the attention of the transatlantic avant-garde. Patron Katherine Dreier wrote to Marcel Duchamp in Paris of the wonders of Wilfred's lights. Bauhaus master Laszlo Moholy-Nagy wrote admiringly of Wilfred's aesthetic and technological ambitions in a 1922 essay. At the Grand Central Palace in New York, Wilfred set up what he called his Art Institute of Light, where he gave regular performances until World War II hit, he was conscripted as a radio translator, and the Grand Central Palace was commandeered by the army.
After the war, MoMA curator Dorothy Miller grouped Wilfred with the abstract expressionists. She included him alongside Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in her 1952 exhibition Fifteen Americans, and in 1964, MoMA commissioned what Wilfred considered his magnum opus, a large installation that remained on long-term display, called Lumia Suite, Opus 158. (Despite Wilfred's musical titles, he only once made the concession of including music with his silent light works, on a commission for the Clairol corporation.) By the mid-1960s, the video generation had got wise to Wilfred. In 1967, he showed with cutting-edgers including Nam June Paik at the prominent Howard Wise Gallery. And in 2011, Terrence Malick used the cosmic red-and-yellow drifts from a late Wilfred work to open and close his movie The Tree of Life. (Would Wilfred have been pleased? He strictly forbid his works to be filmed during his lifetime.)
But these were dribs and drabs, and the truth was that Wilfred was disappointed. His reserved demeanor was eclipsed by the brash New York School. His beloved medium remained a side note. Publishers rejected his manuscript on lumia, and he waited in vain for a league of followers.
Enter the Epsteins. AJ is trained as a lighting designer, and he makes his own lumia on the side. He was weaned on the stuff, having watched Wilfreds rather than television at his uncle Eugene's house as a boy. Eugene's first experience of Wilfred was in the 1960s at MoMA. "Where has this art been all my life?" he tells me by phone. "I stood there watching. They didn't have any benches. Eventually my feet got tired, so I just sat on the floor."
Eugene bought Wilfreds and proselytized about the artist to a blind date who turned out to be an art history graduate student in need of a thesis project. She was Donna Stein, who ended up organizing his retrospective exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1971, and writing the only book on Wilfred. He wasn't an easy subject, a guarded person "working in isolation between the war and 1965," Stein says, reached by phone. "That takes a toll."
Years later, AJ evangelized Wilfred to Yale University, where Wilfred's son had donated all his father's papers and three of his machines. As Eugene had convinced his blind date, AJ convinced then-grad-student Keely Orgeman one day in the dark at Yale storage.
"We switched on the little switch at the bottom of the table, and it was this blazing hot pink and orange swirling vortex," Orgeman remembers vividly, by phone from New Haven. Conservators and curators crowded around. Soon after, Yale authorized Orgeman to organize a Wilfred exhibition. It's scheduled to open in 2016 in New Haven, accompanied by a new book. Yale's Center for Engineering Innovation and Design will make new parts and lightbulbs and rewire the boxes in reversible ways so they can be seen working, then preserved again.
The foreword to the Yale book, says Orgeman, is by none other than James Turrell, the most beloved 20th-century artist working with light, and one of the most important American artists ever, period. Wilfred was Turrell's earliest inspiration. Turrell came across a Wilfred when he was dragged to MoMA by his aunt as a boy. He was supposed to be admiring Monet, but Wilfred handily beat out the water lilies and set Turrell in motion.
"You must begin by imagining endless dark space in front of you," says Wilfred from beyond the grave, his accented English captured on WNYC in 1968, the year he died. You're inside "a fantastic spaceship with a huge window in the nose."
On the night I visit, AJ runs four of the 17 functional machines owned by the Epsteins. He also opens up the innards so I can see where Wilfred's fingers dimpled the sheets of aluminum, folded and tore them into irregularly shaped cones and drums that rotate along with glass disks colored by swirls of paint or glued-on stained glass shards.
Wilfred dreamed of "dry fountains" of light at parks and lumia-topped skyscrapers. He got as close as designing hotel ballrooms and theaters, including several playhouses in Seattle. Epstein has scraped the city and found nothing extant.
The machines Epstein runs were designed for home use by any well-off family ready to leap into the modern era by replacing a hearth with a moving work of abstract art contained in a custom wooden cabinet. In his middle period, Wilfred provided remote controls along with the colored disks, so users could play the pieces themselves. Later, his systems and compositions were fixed; Epstein has both kinds. What I saw that night took me aback, it was so subtle. Maybe Wilfred gained so few followers because, actually, he took light abstraction to its aesthetic limits. I saw vivid tendrils and clouds, soaring and seeping like magma, sequences I was tempted to compare to northern lights or bruises seen in time-lapse or bombs detonating or thunderstorms or potions or fogs. But each resemblance was only a fleeting appearance on the way to something else, always in delicate motion. If anybody had been walking by the house that night, they'd have seen it gleaming. But it's a quiet street, and probably nobody did.