Color Organs

6 Colored-Light Displays as Autonomous Light Art

At the same time, a light art developed that in its goal toward independence ultimately led to a complete dissociation with music. Dozens of devices for the generation of often kaleidoscope-like color presentations were patented well into the 1920s that could still be referred to as color organs.[9] The most prominent representative of this trend was the American Thomas Wilfred, who, beginning in 1919, developed various models of his colored-light instrument, the Clavilux, with which he produced and projected spherical formations of colors. Color-tone analogies, however, no longer played a role. Rather, Wilfred saw his silent light art, which he referred to himself as Lumia, as a new art form. This view is related to the demand for a kinetic art — light kinetics — which began emerging around 1920, an art that obeyed its own laws and the performance of which no longer borrowed from music, not even in a technical respect by using a keyboard.

As historical antecedents of light kinetics, however, color organs represent only one of three reference points. Besides photography and film, new forms of light design were important in the theater. On the one hand, this concerned electrical light effects, in particular in productions by Adolphe Appia, who made the lighting a central creative tool in performances, and on the other hand, it concerned the ideas of individual artists such as, for example, the serpentine dances by Loïe Fuller, during which alternating colored light was projected onto her lavish costumes.[10]

Early attempts at light kinetics were in part oriented towards composition techniques and forms taken from music. In 1924, for example, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack performed his Reflektorische Lichtspiele at the Bauhaus in collaboration with Kurt Schwerdtfeger. He had become familiar with musical analogies through his mentor Adolf Hölzel and Paul Klee’s teachings. However, when translating musical into visual principles, he did not start out from color, but from form. In 1923 he produced a Lichtfuge (light fugue), accompanied, in his own words, by music in simple rhythms … . Lamps and masks and all the other accessories are controlled according to the musical movement, so that the temporal structure becomes very clear, and all optical movements, expansions, contractions, intersections, progressions, climaxes, and decaying sounds are underscored and enhanced.[11]

Several years later, László Moholy-Nagy demonstrated the possibility of light kinetics without reference to music. His Light-Space Modulator (1930) not only served to illustrate kinetic processes, it was in fact conceived as a light prop in order to produce different and constantly alternating projections of light and shadow.