Last spring, boy was I excited to get a call from a New Yorker fact checker. She wanted to know if the museum indeed owned a work by Thomas Wilfred, and was it indeed a gift from Clare Boothe Luce, and was it in storage at the museum? Our collections manager of European and American Art, Courtney Brebbia, confirmed that, yes, we do own a “lumia composition”—what the light artist Wilfred called his works.

A few weeks later, the June 27, 2011, issue of the New Yorker included the Talk of the Town piece “Lumia” by Gregory Zinman. It talks about the cosmic flame that appears at the beginning and end of Terrence Malick’s film Tree of Life, identifying it as Wilfred’s lumia Opus 161 (1965-66). It went on to say that only 18 lumia compositions exist today, and “Clare Boothe Luce’s is in storage at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.” It also talked about lumia aficionado Eugene Epstein, who owns eight of those 18 works. The retired radio astronomer and his wife, Carol, collect them—along with other art—and a wall of their California home is dedicated to the works.

Well, two days after Christmas, the Epsteins visited the museum, to see our lumia composition. Art handler Franklyn Donahue brought Convolux, Opus 160 up from the basement vault to the prints-and-drawings vault, where Theresa Papanikolas (Curator of European and American Art) and James Jensen (Curator of Contemporary Art) let Epstein have a close look at the work. Epstein was especially excited to see it because he had recently secured from the Yale University archives notes that Wilfred had made about it.

We crowded round him as he went down the document, reading out loud that when Wilfred completed the Lumia in 1966, it went first to Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for a big light exhibition, then was delivered to Clare Boothe Luce in 1967. Luce, who lived in Manhattan and Kahala at the time, in turn lent it to the Honolulu Academy of Arts where it went on view right away for a few weeks. The work was such a hit with viewers that she decided to “move up my plans and give it to them right now.” And she asked Wilfred to make her another one.

Examining the lumia, Epstein said, “It’s one of the most beautiful works he did.” After hearing about how it’s a work of illuminated light, and seeing the fantastic nebulae Opus 161 in Tree of Life, I was underwhelmed by what appeared to be the prototype of an early console TV, one side of it opaque plastic. It looked like something a mid-century American suburban dad tinkered on in his garage.

But we rounded up some chairs, plugged in the plug with fabric-covered(!) wire, and turned off the light. “Look at the colors!” exclaimed Epstein. “I’m blown away.” We all immediately started calling out the faces, landscapes, spacescapes and dreamscapes, and perfect settings for an apotheosis that we saw. Then we just sat in the dark and watched. You can watch for 15 days and 19 hours and not see exactly the same thing. What is on the screen—3D-like, luminous, mysterious, a kind of black magic—seems so sophisticated and modern even to Apple acolytes. The shoddy video snippet above does not do the lumia composition justice.

“I, my wife and my nephew (A.J. Epstein, who is also crazy about lumia, and who has visited the museum to see this composition), are so envious of this work,” said Epstein. Why? What makes it so special compared to the other 17 extant lumia compositions? “The vividness of colors,” said Carol Epstein. “Each composition is different.”

We are one of only six museums to own a Wilfred. The others are the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Modern Art; and the Yale University Art Gallery.

We reluctantly turned the light back on, and we all wanted to open the inside of the box, to see what created the fantastic light show. Donahue gingerly removed the back of the box to reveal what Zinman so perfectly described as “feats of bric-a-brac engineering.” Shards of colored glass, what appear to be jerryrigged hinges, pieces of metal and glue are the ordinary items that produce extraordinary visions.

Epstein takes umbrage at the description, explaining that Wilfred “had decades of technical experience—his instruments are very carefully put together—and they are rugged, often being on exhibit for years! Those hinges and restraint rods are not jerryrigged. And they are not random shards of colored glass he picked up on the beach. What he creates is a complex assembly of carefully shaped reflecting surfaces, moving, slowly, independently of each other, and a slowly rotating color wheel comprised of selected shapes and colors of stained glass.”

Papanikolas is overseeing the reinstallation of galleries one to ten, and is thinking about putting the Convolux on view sometime this year, when there will be an open spot available. We’ll keep you posted.