Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator

Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, October 4, 1991

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy‘s Light-Space Modulator is an abstract construction of geometric forms cut from sheets of shiny metal and transparent plastic, mounted on a small electric motor.  When it is set in motion, circles, rectangles, spirals and curves perform a slow and graceful dance that casts light shadows on the walls and floor.

This kinetic sculpture embodies one of the ideals of early modern art:  the creation of new forms of art with the power and elegant simplicity of machines.  It is a beautiful machine for making art.

The Light-Space Modulator was made to move, but for many years it has been silent and still. Its delicate mechanism is easily jammed, and it has broken down and been repaired many times since it was completed in 1930.  But a few weeks ago, the curatorial and conservation staff of the Harvard University Art Museums decided to run the sculpture for very limited periods of time.   For five minutes every Wednesday afternoon, beginning at 2:00, the statue moves.

The Light-Space Modulator is made of three parts, each with its own set of movements.  Seeing it in motion is like watching a performance.   A circle rises, a sphere falls, a spiral turns, and three rectangles pirouette.  “It’s about grace,” says Peter Nisbet, the present curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, who made the decision to turn on the Light-Space Modulator for a few minutes once a week.

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was a painter, photographer, and sculptor, and he did  innovative work in typography, advertising, and set design.  He was born in Hungary in 1895, and began to draw while he was recovering from shell shock after being wounded on the Russian front in World War I.  After the war, he worked his way across Eastern Germany by painting signs.  In Berlin, he fell in love with abstract art and became a Constructivist.

Moholy wanted to bring into the world of art the dynamism that he saw in modern life — in railways and bridges, speed and light.  He painted light-filled abstract pictures of transparent, overlapping geometric planes that seem suspended in a pure, clear air.   In 1923, Walter Gropius brought some of the best abstract artists in Europe to the Bauhaus with the goal of creating modern designs for modern life.  He invited Moholy to direct the Metal Workshop there.  Moholy worked on the sculpture, which he sometimes called a “light prop“, at the Bauhaus and built it there with the aid of a mechanic.  In his autobiography he wrote,

“For almost ten years I planned and battled for this realization of a mobile and I thought that I had familiarized myself with all its possibilities…But when the “light prop” was set in motion for the first time in a small mechanics shop in 1930, I felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice.  The mobile was so startling in its coordinated motions and space articulations of light and shadow sequences that I almost believed in magic.”

In 1937 a large metal frame was added to the sculpture to stabilize its structure.  It was restored in 1966 by William Wainwright.  He replaced the yellowing plastic panels with acrylic and chromed all the metal parts, which were originally varied from matte aluminum to nickel-plated brass. “The Bauhaus was not really a high-tech place,” says Wainwright, who is also a maker of kinetic sculptures.  “It must have been made with a minimum of drawing and a maximum of hand-waving and pointing .

A key element of the mechanical part of the sculpture is a bicycle chain — a stroke of luck for Wainwright, who comes from a family of bicycle chain manufacturers.  He replaced the worn-out German chain with a Diamond chain, and says that the only thing he added was a de-railer.  “If it jams, it goes k-chugg, k-chugg, k-chugg in the chain and sprocket department, but it doesn’t hurt the visual shapes.” This year, the sculpture was cleaned and repaired at the Fogg Art Museum’s Center for Conservation.  And once a week, the statue moves.

Moholy used the Light-Space Modulator as the inspiration for paintings, photographs, and even a film.   The work was so important to the artist that a Hungarian critic once compared him to the mythic Greek sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with his own creation.

Moholy never sold the sculpture, and it accompanied him to England and then America after the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus and declared abstract art “degenerate.” Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, the artist’s wife, said that it was

“the problem child of my household because it refused to pass custom authorities the normal way.  When it finally came to rest in Chicago it had been declared a mixing machine, a fountain, a display rack for various metal alloys, and a robot…”

Moholy moved to Chicago in 1937 and founded the New Bauhaus, later known as the Institute of Design.  He taught there until his death in 1946.  His widow gave the sculpture to the Busch-Reisinger Museum in 1956.  While a new building for the Busch-Reisinger Museum is being built, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator is on display at the Fogg Art Museum.

And for five minutes every Wednesday afternoon, the statue moves.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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