Thomas Wilfred’s Opus, Part II

April 30, 2010

Interior view of "Luccata, Opus 162," 1967-68, by Thomas Wilfred (Denmark, also active United States, 1889-1968), lent by Carol and Eugene Epstein, Los Angeles

“He created a device he called a “color organ,” which he used to “orchestrate” the qualities of light. Where a composer might play with key, melody, or tone, Wilfred composed reflection, refraction, and color. The work is embedded into a wall by a staircase leading up to the European galleries, with a few comfy chairs in place so one can settle in and watch the soundless composition unfold.”

One thing that was not mentioned in yesterday’s post about Thomas Wilfred’s endlessly interweaving Lumia composition of colored light is the inconspicuous door slightly to the right of the screen on which the composition plays. One might ask, if they can possibly take their eyes off the hypnotic undulations on screen, “I wonder what’s back there?” That’s exactly what artist and head of the photography concentration in the Department of Art at UCLA, James Welling, asked LACMA. And earlier this week, Welling, along with some students from his theory class on color, found out—when LACMA electrician Roosevelt Simpson opened the door.

The last Lumia device ever made by Thomas Wilfred, Luccata, Opus 162, 1967-68, is one of approximately 35 of the devices left in existence. The piece is on loan to LACMA by former radio astronomer Eugene Epstein and his wife Carol. Epstein happened upon a Wilfred work called Vertical Sequence II, Opus 137, 1947, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. According to an article in the alumni quarterly of Caltech, Epstein’s undergraduate alma mater, Epstein explains, “When I turned the corner and saw this work, it blew me away, I thought, ‘Wow! Where has this been all my life?’ I watched so long that I ended up sitting on the floor. It was captivating.” (Caltech News, Volume 39, issue 3) He’s been collecting works by Wilfred ever since. Epstein has learned how to care for and restore the devices and has stocked up on various particular types of contemporaneously made light bulbs that Wilfred intended to illuminate his works.

So, what’s inside? Well! Roosevelt unlocked the door and there stands a large cabinet, approximately 51 inches high and wide, and 42 inches deep. A single electrical cord connects the device to normal 120-volt household current. Inside the cabinet is the magic: Two 500-watt incandescent bulbs make for the sources of the light, which seeps through a tangle of hand-crafted parts—colored glass, gelatin, strips and punched metal—some rotating in slow motion, and some static.

Welling and his students were pleased. The contraption was indeed fascinating. Wilfred, in his article “Light and the Artist” in the June, 1947 issue of the Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, wrote, “My own experiments began in May in 1905 in Copenhagen with a cigar box, a small incandescent lamp and some pieces of colored glass.” I’m sure that creation was beautiful too.

Sarah Bay Williams


Thomas Wilfred’s Opus

April 29, 2010

I had a job many years ago where all I did, all day long, was pay the garbage bills for every Circle K in the country. When I wanted to get away from my cubicle for a few minutes to myself, the only place I could go was… a Circle K in the building’s lobby. Outside the lobby doors was nothing more than an industrial park, scored by the buzz of a nearby freeway.

Now when I need a break, I have an entire encyclopedic museum just upstairs. Most recently, I’ve been paying visits to Thomas Wilfred’s Opus 162 (1967–68).

Wilfred was from Denmark and was a pioneer of light art. He created a device he called a “color organ,” which he used to “orchestrate” the qualities of light. Where a composer might play with key, melody, or tone, Wilfred composed reflection, refraction, and color. The work is embedded into a wall by a staircase leading up to the European galleries, with a few comfy chairs in place so one can settle in and watch the soundless composition unfold.

Wilfred’s Opus evolves over time. I don’t really know how long it lasts—a few minutes? An hour? More? No matter: if you can allow your mind and body to quiet and let yourself watch the light, it seems to transform constantly yet languidly.

In the beginning I feel like I’m seeing the tip of a candle flame, its stick cropped out of the frame. Later it feels like looking at the sunrise, or the aurora borealis, or smoke wafting through the air. I can imagine the machinery behind the screen which is somehow manipulating the shapes. An intense point of light moves up the screen at some points, left to right at others.

The more I stare the more I feel like a kid gazing up at the clouds, manipulating them into things I recognize. In the light I’ve seen silk, a spider web, a jellyfish. Eventually it gets to feeling like I’m looking at pictures of the cosmos transmitted from the Hubble Space Telescope.

In time I no longer feel like I’m looking at something but rather looking through something. The screen on the stairs becomes a kind of window. I feel the impulse to reach into it—and with that thought I suddenly feel like maybe I am inside of it. Wilfred’s Opus ceases being an object. It’s all around me.

And with a shake of my head and a sigh, I return from Planet Wilfred, back to my office.

Scott Tennent


Separated by 1,500 Years, Now Two Feet Apart

April 27, 2010

The newly installed European galleries are a treasure trove for art history teachers. The long gallery of Italian Baroque paintings is a particularly exciting room for those of us who lecture and teach at the museum because of the combination of ancient sculpture and Italian Baroque painting that allows us to reveal stories about the history of art across millennia.

At the east end of the gallery, I love the juxtaposition of Michael Sweerts’s Plague in the Ancient City, from 1652, and a Roman sarcophagus from around 230 A.D., which sits right in front of the painting. These two works of art are separated by nearly 1,500 years, and yet the style and arrangement of figures is so similar, as if Sweerts copied his figures from something like the sarcophagus. It’s not just the way the figures are crowded together in a horizontal composition. It’s also the dramatic gestures and the fact that people of all ages are represented in both works of art. If you look closely at the sarcophagus, there are mythological figures—both male and female—in all kinds of poses. In the painting, you can see a similar diversity.

"Sarcophagus with Dionysos and His Followers," Roman, c. A.D. 230-240, marble, William Randolph Hearst Collection

Michael Sweerts, "Plague in an Ancient City," c. 1652–1654, gift of the Ahmanson Foundation

It’s not a stretch to imagine Sweerts would have been studying Roman sculpture for inspiration. He was a northerner who worked in Italy for ten years, and one fashion at the time was to paint scenes with groups of figures, often very sculptural-looking. To be a successful painter in Sweerts’s day, you had to show mastery of the figure. So Plague in the Ancient City is a way of showing off, demonstrating through all these different figures in various dramatic poses a complete command of figure drawing and painting.

Both the sarcophagus and the painting are about death. The story told on the sarcophagus is a merry one, though—this is a Bacchic procession, showing the transition to the afterlife. The painting depicts a story about death and anguish wrought by plague. We aren’t sure if the canvas depicts an actual event from ancient times, but surely the artist was influenced by the various plagues that swept over Europe beginning in the Middle Ages.

Mary Lenihan, Manager, Adult Programs, Education


Avatars of the Gods

April 26, 2010

Nineteenth-century Europe has a lot to answer for. They invented the chastity belt, they shaped our vision of the medieval world (think Tennyson), and they gave us the personification of “Opera”—a woman with long blond braids, a horned helmet, and a brass corset. The new exhibition at LACMA, Myths, Legends, and Cultural Renewal: Wagner’s Sources, shows us that just as the Victorians reshaped the medieval world to their liking, Wagner picked, chose, and altered the stories of the old Niebelungen legend to create his four operas of The Ring Cycle.

Carl Otto Czeschka, "Untitled (Dream of Falcons)," c. 1905, from the book "Die Nibelungen: dem deutschen Volke wiedererzählt (The Nibelungen legend: Retold to the German people)," Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Art Research Library

Exhibition curator Timothy Benson brings us some other striking interpretations of the Niebelunlied, including illustrations by Carl Otto Czeschka and the woodcuts of Franz Grohs, never before exhibited at LACMA. In a charming little book (LACMA’s copy once belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II), Czeschka shows a young girl, Kriemhild, dreaming that her brothers, the eagles, will kill her lover, the falcon. Kriemhild is a major player in the original saga (whom Wagner would re-cast as Gutrune, just a nice girl looking for a husband).

Left: Hans Grohs, "Der Bluttrank (The taste of blood)," 1920; right: Grohs, "Kriemheld Tötet Hagen (Kriemheld kills Hagen)," 1920, gifts of Prof. Annie-Paule Quinsac

Grohs shows Kriemhild, many years later, leading the fight between her people, the Huns, and her guests, the Burgundians. Then she kills Hagen, who with her brothers had killed her lover, Siegfried. She kills him because he will not tell her where he hid a golden treasure (spoiler: he threw it in the Rhine). Wagner took this sprawling saga and reshaped it to bring out a morality play carried out through the four operas Rhinegold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, culminating in the decline and fall of the gods, Götterdämmerung. In another transformation, Achim Freyer has created twenty-first-century avatars of the legendary characters for the LA Opera production of The Ring Cycle. One definition of “avatar” is “a new personification of a familiar idea.” In that sense, Freyer has given James Cameron a run for his money.

Achim Freyer, "Freia," courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera

Achim Freyer, "Walkurenritt (The ride of the Walkyries)," 2009, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera

After seeing the operas from the balcony, it is exciting to see Freyer’s version of a Valkyrie’s horse up close in LACMA’s gallery, and to get a good look at Freia with her golden apples of immortality. And believe me, twenty-first-century Brünhilde has left her corsets far behind, along with that funny hat, to say nothing of her new ’do!

Achim Freyer, "Brünhilde sterblich (Mortal Brünhilde)," courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera

Karen Palmer, Curatorial Administrator


A Short but Elaborate Journey

April 22, 2010

Our European galleries continue to reopen in phases—the Dutch collection opened a few months ago, and the Northern Italian and Spanish galleries have just gone on view, with the rest of the collection to open in the summer. It’s been a complicated process as we overhaul the flow of the space on the Ahmanson Building’s third floor. The latest big change? We needed to move our five massive Assyrian reliefs from one gallery to their new home just around the corner. The panels, which date back to the ninth century BC, weigh one or two tons each. This is the third reinstallation of the reliefs since their acquisition in the 1960s, and probably their fifth journey since their discovery in the nineteenth century. You can imagine how difficult and delicate a process it might be to move them even a few yards. Senior Conservation Photographer Yosi Pozeilov was there to document the big move.

A very stable scaffolding system had to be placed to hold the pulley system that would allow lifting and sliding of the stones in place.

In order to transport the reliefs safely through the hallways of the museum, Dave Carnevale designed and built a special trolley that would both accommodate the size and weight of the panels and fit through the hallways and doorways. Dave is actually the son of the man who originally installed the Assyrian reliefs in their former location about forty years ago!

The reliefs are moved into their new gallery with curators looking on.

The reliefs are installed along their new wall.

As can be seen in this photo, the new galleries are still being renovated. The reliefs will be on view in their new home later in the summer. We’ll keep you posted.

Scott Tennent and Yosi Pozeilov, Senior Conservation Photographer


American Stories (Through a Mirror, Darkly)

April 21, 2010

When I was a kid, I lived in the nineteenth century. Admittedly, I was an old guy before I realized that poignant detail about my grandfather’s farm. Everything about it was of a distant time, for there was not one modern convenience in sight. Everything was intensely labor related. But at nine years of age, the world was still a wonder and so the anachronism of the farm seemed rather like implacable fact. And nothing so reminded me of that moment than seeing Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers. This utterly striking image flooded my memory with that life and all the attending forces and beauties that the past could conjure.

Winslow Homer, "Cotton Pickers," acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees: Robert O. Anderson, R. Stanton Avery, B. Gerald Cantor, Edward W. Carter, Justin Dart, Charles E. Ducommun, Camilla Chandler Frost, Julian Ganz, Jr., Dr. Armand Hammer, Harry Lenart, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, Mrs. Joan Palevsky, Richard E. Sherwood, Maynard J. Toll, and Hal B. Wallis

American Stories has such power, the power of a distant recall, the elusive narrative that manages to trace the ill-conceived and erratic path where somehow we Americans find ourselves in a very different future. What we learned about “narrative painting” is the nature of their owners, for this was a bourgeois world. And though it was a world where the unpleasant was kept at bay, there were still quite practical aims to be achieved. Status had to be acknowledged, daughters had to marry, land and livestock had to be sold. In a very real sense, commerce and then pleasantries were on display in the guise of the idealized narrative of the mildest aspects of American life.

The idea of art and artist in some journalistic form was merely a budding aside to the business of art. It is probably unfair and even nonsensical to assess painting at that time as anything but utilitarian, hence the narrow focus, though this would not always be the case. But unfortunately, in our modern times, the down side is that it aids a form of historical forgetting and implies an entirely different past reality.

From the African American’s view, this is a dark, melancholy, and bittersweet story. One cannot avoid the unambiguous and sorrowful state of slavery and post-slavery life and the immense cruelty that forms the backdrop to this American drama. Maybe, coming from the post-Reconstruction period, Winslow Homer’s rare, debatable though insightful painting Gulf Stream, where the black man on a rudderless boat is in truly troubled waters surrounded by sharks with little hope of rescue, could suggest an abiding metaphor.

Winslow Homer, "Gulf Stream," 1906, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund

For most of the pictures, the purposeful hint at the marginalized presence of the African Americans on the edge of “white” social events may very well serve as a graphic tool of their lamentable presence and an illustrated hierarchy that they occupied which could not be denied, even if it were possible. The narrative painting would give way to moving pictures, starting with the release of Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith in 1915, his racist retort to Reconstruction. And once more darkness would fall on the true American stories that would know no paint.

Nevertheless American Stories is a mirror and a Rosetta stone of our convoluted past, and these dim tableaus, these plaintive snapshots in their vivid paint, where a universe lays motionless, are a continual reminder of our shadow world and the extraordinary distance we have traveled.

Hylan Booker


LACMA’s Collectors Committee Acquires Six Works

April 19, 2010

This weekend was the museum’s 25th annual Collectors Committee event, in which a group of generous donors pool their resources to purchase works for LACMA’s collection. Curators from nearly every department present artworks they’d like to see added to the permanent collection, giving short presentations on the objects’ background and also temporarily installing the works in one of our galleries. After careful consideration, the Collectors Committee members—there were about 160 this year—come together for a gala dinner and vote on which artworks to acquire. The voting is over when the pool of funds is exhausted. (You may recall we made a few acquisitions thanks to the Collectors Committee last year as well.)

Saturday’s event raised a record $2,063,000, and we have consequently added six new works to our collection, ranging from a seventeenth-century Japanese screen to a nineteenth-century painting to a variety of masterful pieces of Tibetan furniture, as well as three works of contemporary art. Here’s a look at the night’s bounty.

Kano Sansetsu, Tiger Drinking from a Raging River, c. 1640. This two-panel folding screen dates to Japan’s Kanei period (1624–1644). According to curator Robert T. Singer, Sansetsu is among the most original Japanese artists of the seventeenth century. Tiger Drinking from a Raging River is the first work by the artist to enter the collection of any museum outside of Japan. Over the weekend the screen was installed and is now on view in the Pavilion for Japanese Art.


The Hayward Family Collection of Tibetan Furniture. The Hayward Collection contains 39 masterpieces of virtually every important type of Tibetan furniture, dating from the late 12th to 20th centuries. Tibetan furniture was typically made for Buddhist monasteries and households, and features vibrant colors and ornamentation. With this acquisition, LACMA’s collection of Tibetan and Nepalese art has been elevated to the most comprehensive public collection in the world. This collection is already on view in the exhibition In the Service of the Buddha: Tibetan Furniture from the Hayward Family Collection.

Jean-Jacques Henner, Portrait of Madame Paul Duchesne-Fournet, 1879. Though Henner is known for his nudes and landscapes, earlier in his career he was a sought-after painter of religious subjects and portraits. Curator J. Patrice Marandel writes of the piece, “Among the portrait painters of his generation, Henner developed a distinctive style. Less voluptuous than Carolus-Duran’s but more spirited than Leon Bonnat’s, Henner’s portraits were particularly appealing to a clientele eager to display in a dignified manner their newly acquired wealth and social rank.” Indeed, this portrait gained some renown at the time of its creation when Henner charged his subject, the wife of a prominent politician, 10,000 francs—an extravagant sum in its day.

John Baldessari, Portrait: Artist’s Identity Hidden with Various Hats, 1974. LACMA has a number of Baldessari works in its collection, with particularly important works from the 1960s (Wrong) and the 1980s (Heel), but Portrait is the first significant work of the artist’s from the 1970s to enter the collection. It will be featured in the upcoming retrospective John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, opening at LACMA in June.


Glenn Ligon, Rügenfigur, 2009. Rügenfigur is part of a recent body of Ligon works entitled, collectively, America. Curator Franklin Sirmans notes that Ligon’s series was inspired by the paradoxical opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sirmans writes, “At once, this expansive neon courier-font A-M-E-R-I-C-A in-verso conjures what Ligon describes as the ‘somewhat troubling’ moment in our country’s identity.”

Samira Alikhanzadeh, Untitled, 2009. Iranian artist Alikhanzadeh’s work focuses on found images of women from the mid-1930s, a period when Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1921–41) led a reform movement to bring women and minorities in Iran into the mainstream, including the compulsory uncovering of women. This was the first generation of Iranian women who were free to appear uncovered in public and in photographs. As curator Linda Komaroff explains, Alikhanzadeh’s untitled work “includes small shards of mirror allowing the viewer (perhaps, ironically, an Iranian woman now decreed by law to wear hejab) to identify more closely with the nameless girls and women dressed in their once fashionable clothes.”

Look for future Unframed posts on some of these works; we’ll also let you know when any of these go on view.

Update: See today’s Los Angeles Times for more on Saturday’s event.

Scott Tennent


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