Charles Dockum

Artist-engineer. 1904-1977. Specialized in animated light, typically silent.

Light organ designer, fabricator, composer and performer. Coined the term Mobilcolor for the art of moving color and light.

Born in Texas in 1904, and earned a degree in electrical engineering at Texas A & M in 1926. His health required him to move to Arizona, where he began working on the production of projection machinery that could perform color abstract imagery moving in a harmony and counterpoint comparable to auditory music.

Built six models of the Mobilvolor.

First Mobilcolor public performances in 1936 in Prescott, Arizona.

Performances were usually silent.

Baroness Hilla von Rebay commissioned a Mobilcolor Projector for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the Guggenheim's predecessor) in 1952. Ted Nemeth and Mary Ellen Bute filmed the performance.

from William Moritz:
"Dockum enjoyed successful performances at such places as the Pasadena Playhouse and the California Institute of Technology. In 1942, the Baroness Hilla Rebay awarded him a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation to build a new improved MobilColor projector that could be installed at the Guggenheim Museum. By 1950, Dockum had perfected the MobilColor IV, which could produce layered movements of diverse over-lapping imagery. Dockum built MobilColor V in the early 1960s, and continued to perform at various venues in California. The MobilColor VI remained unfinished at Dockum's death in 1977."

Dockum Research Lab brochure:
The Dockum system of Mobilcolor Projection differs from previous efforts in this field in its practical means of generating mobile form elements, and in the sensitive and accurate control of these mobile forms of light toward the production of a logical and moving thematic development, analogous to the manner in which musical themes are composed into structural forms known as sonatas, fugues, symphonies, etc. Without such control no system can hope to meet the requirements of a great Art and hold a wide, sustained interest among composers, critics and the public. This system also provides a means of recording these visual compositions so that a permanent record remains of any composer's work, which can then be reproduced exactly as created.

In the film, Lumia, Anthology Film Archive scholar, Robert Haller describes a kind of institutional turfdom in the early 20th Century New Yrok lumia scene, with Thomas Wilfred connected to MoMA and Charles Dockum connected to the Guggenheim. The forced retirement of Guggenheim founder Baroness Hilla von Rebay led to an institutional denial of the film program Rebay had nutured at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the Guggenheim's predecessor), and then memory of Dockum rapidly faded.

from a Letter, Charles Dockum to Frank Lloyd Wright, June 10, 1944. Unpublished. Collection Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles.
The Projector makes use of two groups of celluloid films, 4-1/4" wide, the three films of each group being superimposed before a projection aperture. By means of a seventh, control film, the films in each aperture group can be made to move either up or down, change speed or pause before the aperture. By this means designs carried on the films are made to modify each other as desired and produce rhythmic movements and effects over a wide range. The control film also governs the intensity of illumination. Special lens arrangements give the projections a luminous, prismatic quality.
The designs on the films are not drawn or painted on in the sense of painting a picture, as in animated cinematography. Rather the mathematical proportions are worked out which will give the desired results, and the films then opaqued to leave transparent "windows" which allow shafts or areas of light to pass through in guided movement.

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