The room sits in complete darkness. Drumsticks strike a rhythm. Illuminated shapes appear—floating in space—in hues of yellow, red, green, white and other colors created by their overlapping. The images flow, at times expanding and contracting along to the metronomic sounds, or in sudden flashes punctuated by brief moments of darkness. Controlled, yet unexpected and unpredictable, the generally abstract imagery varies at its extremes from narrow, monochromatic shapes resembling stems or branches to expansive multicolored plant-like forms.
So opens “Vegetative Form,” the first of the five Sätze, or movements, comprising Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Farblichtspiele (Reflecting Colored Light Plays) (1922) as last performed under the guidance of the artist in 1966, as well as in recent performances held more than fifty years later. In the fall of 2016 the work was reconstructed and restaged, based on documentation of the 1966 performance, at Microscope Gallery in New York. The performance took place as part of a series of live expanded cinema events titled Dreamlands: Expanded, organized in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016, an exhibition curated by Chrissie Iles, who also first suggested the possibility of restaging Reflektorische Farblichtspiele. Since then the piece has been performed several times, including in 2019 as part of the exhibition bauhaus imaginista, curated by Marion von Osten and Grant Watson, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. There it was the key object or Gegenstand of the exhibition’s fourth main chapter “Still Undead.” Most recently it was again presented at Microscope Gallery in 2020, this time in the context of an exhibition dedicated entirely to the work.
The reconstruction and restaging of Reflektorische Farblichtspiele has proven critical to an overall understanding of the work, as well as its historical significance and visionary approach.
Kurt Schwerdtfeger conceived of Reflektorische Farblichtspiele in 1921 as a student at the Bauhaus Weimar, studying under Oskar Schlemmer, Johannes Itten, Paul Klee, and Joseph Hartwig. The artist later wrote: “While conceptualizing a shadow play titled ‘Days of Genesis’ for a Lantern Festival it seemed necessary to use not only shadow figures but color shapes on black as well. At that very moment I perceived the idea of color-light plays in abstract form with free-moving, superimposed shapes of colored light moving in time.”1 The work was developed over the following year while Schwerdtfeger, a student in the sculpture department, was attending a course in stage performance, Bauhausbühne. Reflektorische Farblichtspiele debuted in February 1922 at the loft of Wassily Kandinsky in Weimar, when Schwerdtfeger was 25 years old.
As realized, the concept of Reflektorische Farblichtspiele is deceptively simple: multiple colored lights are projected through moving stencils from within an otherwise concealed cubic apparatus, out onto a screen. Sliding panels, operated by hand during the performance, obscure the stencils to varying extents—at times completely—shaping the images and their movement on the screen. The switching on and off of lights causes the colors to combine and overlap, generating new tonalities and the illusion of three-dimensionality.