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Music for the Eyes

Thomas Wilfred's dancing lights continue to dazzle astronomer Eugene Epstein, decades after he discovered such works in a museum.


Forty-two years ago, a young astronomy student took a stroll through New York's Museum of Modern Art that changed his life. Then a graduate student at Harvard, Eugene Epstein had been to New York a few times before, and when he walked into the museum that day, he certainly wasn't expecting to be so thoroughly seduced by a single work of art.

"Wow," is the word Epstein remembers saying as he discovered a secluded alcove where a cabinet displayed a light show of slow-moving, startlingly beautiful colors. "Wow" is the word the now-retired 67-year-old radio astronomer repeats often when he talks about Thomas Wilfred's art, of which he has become perhaps the world's most avid collector.

On that day in 1960, utterly struck, Epstein stood in front of "Vertical Sequence II, Opus 136," 1941, for about two hours. Then he raced to the museum's information desk to find out who Wilfred was.

Call it love, call it fate, but what Epstein experienced that day is the kind of spark that occurs when a true collector meets something that matches his or her need for passion. Be it for stamps, vintage cars or artworks, when that fire is lighted, it takes its own form, often becoming what to anyone else would seem pure obsession but to the collector is just part of what gives meaning to life. For Epstein, the commitment to a single artist's work has been unrelenting.

The Danish-born musician-turned-artist who had developed elaborate theories of making silent music with light was a respected, if somewhat forgotten, artist when Epstein came upon his work. Over the years, the artist had experienced his share of cultist popularity, primarily by presenting his work at theaters throughout the world--from Hollywood High School's auditorium (in 1924) to Carnegie Hall. His work also had been collected by the likes of Clare Boothe Luce and admired by the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. But Wilfred was always a bit isolated by the uniqueness of his ideas.

Wilfred, then 71 and living in suburban New York, was responsive to Epstein when the young man wrote asking to buy a work, but the prices were too high for a student's budget. Five years later, by which time the young astronomer was living in L.A., employed and financially able to buy, Wilfred agreed to sell him a piece and to meet him. It took a few months to deliver, and in the process the two corresponded. By the time Wilfred died, in 1968, they had seen each other twice and had numerous telephone conversations.

Little did Wilfred know that Epstein would be the one to carry his flame into the next century. Wilfred is hardly known at all today, but if the artist seems a thing of the past to most people, you wouldn't know it from talking to Epstein.

On the lower floor of the three-story Modernist Westside home designed by architect Jim Harlan that Epstein shares with his wife, Carol, an entire gallery-like wall is devoted to Wilfred's work. In this quiet, meditative retreat, Epstein spills out stories he has learned of Wilfred's life in a torrent of anecdotes and facts, his enthusiasm for the work and his curiosity about the man unabated by the passage of time.

In a world preoccupied by passing fancies, Epstein's passion for Wilfred is hard even for him to explain; he is drawn to the images and the slow pace of the changing imagery. "Imagine an artist having on her palette the shapes, forms, colors, and intensity range seen in some of the spectacular Hubble Space Telescope images of clouds of interstellar dust and gas. The artist creates a slow, peaceful, sublimely beautiful, almost-imperceptibly evolving sequence of such images that goes on for hours."

Epstein owns nine works by the artist; each of which he lovingly tracked down and whose mechanical parts he often had to restore himself, sometimes with substantial effort. Wide-ranging in their effects, the mechanisms are encased in cabinets and hidden from view and are all quite simple: Each one consists of one or more lightbulbs, a handcrafted color wheel and a series of carefully shaped moving reflectors that sculpt the continuously evolving colored emissions.

Even if Wilfred's works, which he dubbed "Lumia," were not so beautiful, so strangely ethereal in their rotation of colors and shapes, Epstein's enthusiasm would be hard to resist. As he shows a visitor each piece, using a rudimentary Radio Shack remote control to operate the machinery, he stops regularly to express his awe at what is unfolding in light projections on ground-glass screens.

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