Thomas Wilfred came to America from Denmark more than 100 years ago with an idea — colorful light as art.
First, he presented it in soundless "recitals" in 1922 with Wilfred behind the keys of a light organ that controlled the hue and movement. ("Cadenzas of Color," promised the posters. "Symphonies of Silence.")
Then, in the years before widespread use of TV, he created little boxes where people could create their own abstract color illuminations on home screens.
Finally, he made a series of larger devices that displayed the light works — which he called Lumia — on museum screens whose mechanisms were hidden within.
Largely forgotten in the art world for decades, 15 of his works have been gathered for the first time in nearly 50 years for the exhibit "Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The exhibit is the latest for the museum's "time-based media initiative," which began 11 years ago and involves video, film and digital works, says Virginia Mecklenburg, the museum's chief curator.
"But one of the things that is so astonishing about these beautiful pieces is that they are not digital," she says. "They started in the 1920s. We didn't even have color movies at that point. So it was revolutionary. He was quite a sensation."
Complete cycles of the individual works range from five minutes to 44 hours to, in the case of his most famous work — reconnected from complete disassembly at the Museum of Modern Art — nine years, 127 days, 18 hours. That's still more than nine years beyond the exhibit's planned closing on Jan. 7.
To preserve the fragile mechanisms that move lights, color wheels and lenses up and down, a third of the works at the Smithsonian can be seen only for limited periods.
The Lumia exhibit had its start nine years ago, when A.J. Epstein, nephew of the foremost Wilfred collector in the world, came to Yale to see the three pieces that had been in its collection.
"Unfortunately, they had been sitting in storage from 1983," says Keely Orgeman, assistant curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, who organized the show.
Once they were found, the first one switched on was "Elliptical Prelude and Chalice," a home-sized object that projects a slowly swirling vortex of light on the ceiling. With so much of its original wiring from 1928 still in place, one conservator stood by with a fire extinguisher, Orgeman says.
It didn't burst into flame, but, she says, "All of our jaws fell to the floor." They stood transfixed at the whirling light art.
"That," says Orgeman, "was a very revelatory moment for everyone who was there."
Plans were made for the first retrospective of Wilfred since a 1971 show at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Seven of the 15 objects are from the collection of Eugene Epstein, who first became mesmerized by seeing Wilfred's work as a graduate student in 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art.
"Within a few seconds, it just grabbed me," Epstein said at a Smithsonian panel discussion at the opening. "I said, 'Wow, where has this art been all my life?'" He became a collector once he was old enough to afford it.
Although the exhibit is being staged at a museum that was once the U.S. Patent office, where Wilfred applied for some patents for his ideas, "we really wanted to do something that would highlight Wilfred as a fine artist," Orgeman says. "Not just a technician who was capable of creating these magical instruments that you see here today, but someone who was appreciated in his own time as a fine artist, as a modernist."
Lumia as an art form has struggled. Wilfred's performances stopped in the late 1940s; other Wilfred pieces were put in storage because of wear and tear and changing tastes; the public had their televisions.
A few acolytes kept Lumia going, including one artist who constructed a Lumia Theater in a Connecticut village better known today for a morning of darkness, Sandy Hook.
But a number of artists say they were inspired by seeing Wilfred's work at MoMA in the '60s, including Joshua White, who went on to create the psychedelic Joshua Light Show that pulsed behind acts at New York's Fillmore East from 1968 to 1971, finding joys in projecting painted Pyrex, as Wilfred did.
The artist James Turrell also said seeing the "Lumia Suite" "stopped me in my tracks."
As he writes in the foreword to exhibit's catalogue, "A glowing orb of light slowly rotating and spreading about auroral spectra [was] arresting for sure. But more than that. This was from our culture, from our time. Not a depiction of light, it was light, alive."
Famous owners of home units included Clare Boothe Luce; modern art patron Katherine Dreier, who raved about it to her friend Marcel Duchamp; and the maestro Leopold Stokowski, who would famously conduct in Walt Disney's own experiment of light and sound, "Fantasia."
To many viewers, the immediate comparison to Wilfred's shimmering curtains of colorful lights is the Northern Lights, though the artist's intent may have been even more celestial than the aurora borealis.
Instead, in one of his manuscripts, he compared the frame of each of his pieces to "a large window in the cabin of a magic space-liner." The fantastic, roiling clouds of color represented the interstellar gas and dust of space nebula.
Wilfred died in 1968 — before he could fully witness the effect of his work on psychedelic light shows and rise of various light artists. And following his 1971 Corcoran retrospective, his name disappeared.
Even if museums had his pieces, they eventually unplugged them.
"I think it largely has to do with maintenance," says Orgeman, as well as "the outmoded technology that Wilfred was using."
Collector A.J. Epstein says he had to stockpile certain unusual bulbs required for the pieces. "We were able to source thousands of them and hoard them," he says. "I just remodeled my house to make more storage room."
In some of the works, new motors have been switched in, and the ancient equipment now sits on sleek new metal shelving on wheels that make them easier to transport.
But so far, the museum is sticking to the incandescent bulbs of the original designs and not LED bulbs, says Smithsonian American Art Museum media conservator Dan Finn.
The idea is to preserve any aspect that is central to the piece, he says, with the idea being, "How far can we go to fix it before we're endangering the behavior of the work?"
When the show first opened at the Yale University Art Gallery this year, a new generation of students stood transfixed, Orgeman says. "Students would stay all day. That's the beauty of it."
Because the works transform so slowly over such a long period of time, "I'm seeing these works afresh every time I come to them," she says.
Wilfred's work had a boost in the past decade in a 2008 documentary "Lumia" and especially when Terrence Malick used bits of his "Opus 161" to open and close his 2011 film "The Tree of Life."
But any film of Lumia doesn't do it justice, Wilfred maintained. "We have experimented with the process here and the results have been too poor to be considered," he wrote in 1962.
"He felt 24 frames a second didn't capture it," A.J. Epstein says.
Besides, Orgeman says, "one of my primary goals was to get across to visitors the object-ness of these works, that these are works that are sculptural. What you see on YouTube are just two-dimensional projections and give no sense of the object that produced the projection."
What's more, the most popular clip of "Opus 161" on YouTube is only a fleeting 20 minutes, while experiencing the complete original would take one year, 315 days, 12 hours.
"Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light" runs through Jan. 7 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. Information: 202-633-1000 or americanart.si.edu