Documenting James Davis’s mobile light modernist sculpture

jim davis proto 2
The 8 inch model created to serve as the model from which eventually the full scale model would be produced. – 1968, James E. Davis
The completed sculpture 1968 James E. Davis. approx 6 feet tall and over 5 feet wide with correct suspension of the plexiglass. Armada collection, 2014.














In a previous post we provided an introduction into James Davis, an avant guarde film maker of the period 1940-1960. In that article we introduced his only known full scale produced light sculpture titled “Fourth Dimension”.

Since that article was written a great deal of research has been accomplished which has included assistance from the West Virginia Art Museum, Archives, Film Anthology of New York and members of the Davis family. What has been pieced together is a complete picture of how this sculpture came to be in existence from start to finish including the influences behind this.  Documentation has surfaced that ties all the pieces together so in this article we will put together a timeline of how this sculpture came into existence and the reader should be aware a great deal of documentation for the this exist but is not being published yet.

James Davis while working with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 50’s and attempting to capture his visions with film was at times approached to produce some of his sculptures into larger forms. He seldom entertained these requests as notes from his journals indicate the sculptures he produced were only ever to be used as equipment coupled with lighting and acetone sheets to produce dynamic moving images for his films.

Created in the 50’s for Princeton University. Approximate size 17-20″. James E. Davis

However, enough people considered the small mobiles as sculptures, excited by how they bent light and created art onto the objects around them, and he would be at times approached and asked if he would give one away or produce one for a specific person.  Peggy Guggenheim is one of his first known clients in this respect, the other previous to this was the famous Plaza Hotel in which several artists jointly adorned the hotel in a never-since-seen fashion.  Notations in letters indicate that persons at Princeton also received some including members of his family who attended during the reunions being previous graduates of Princeton.


It was the mid 50’s when Jim let his niece take one of the light sculptures back to Charleston WV. After some time during the mid 60’s his niece suggested to her husband Jim Brown (who had attended Princeton and knew James well) that a sculpture from James be used in the building that was to be constructed – the WV Building & Loan Association. Jim Brown was the President of the bank and he considered this a wise idea and considering the ultra modern furnishings of the bank, a perfect choice.

jim davis proto1
The three components in small scale prior to full size production. 1968 James E. Davis

In correspondence during the early months of 1968 it was established that the sculpture would need to be of some substantial size for the ceiling in order to be visible.  James Davis produced his sculptures with the idea in mind that light from a moving source – or a static source with the sculpture moving would provide the refractions onto walls and ceilings and this would be the true expression rather than just the sculpture by itself, but the material he used had limitations in size and practicality.

As correspondence went back and forth finally a size was determined which dwarfed anything to date.  Jame’s largest sculptures to date had been within the ranges of some 10-21″ inches and what was being asked for was a sculpture nearly 5 feet wide and taller still.

jim davis proto 3
James E. Davis’s vision. A giant sculpture “Fourth Dimension” with very powerful grounded lamps producing an even larger scale abstract image onto the wall and ceiling. This 8 inch model would never see such lighting applied to it in the West Virginia Building and Loan Association for practical considerations.

James Davis set out making numerous miniature models with an average size of 6″. We have seen innumerable incomplete ones in his archives (and as a side note found a 20″ approx sculpture he performed for Princeton University who we believe is in possession of it to this day.)  After finally producing one he felt satisfied with he photographed it and sent the images to Jim Brown. It was well received and soon after the miniature was requested (later it was returned to James Davis).

Jim Brown had the prototype enlarged on paper and sent to a plastics company for cutting with the colors and sizes conformed. It is interesting to note that the prototype versions were produced of very thin material and when the giant pieces were sent back, gravity played its part and pulled down parts of the sculpture that were meant to be more elevated.

In the photos we can see the evolution from a tiny mobile, to the finished sculpture hanging in the WV Building & Loan Association. When the building was demolished, the sculpture was stored away until our acquisition of it in 2013.  Though a little cramped currently, in our lounge with suspension wire holding the mobile in place as desired in the original design, it is none the less just as appreciated by us daily as well as our guests.

jim davis wv buildingloan
A photograph of the sculpture completed and installed at the WV Building & Loan Association. Note the effect of gravity on the segments not initially predicted. James E. Davis 1968

It is expected this mobile will appear as part of a greater exhibit on the life and works of James E. Davis in the following year where others will be able to appreciate the full body of work accomplished by this incredible artist which included paintings, plastics, this sculpture & his monumental contribution to film making

2014, the Sculpture today in it’s temporary abode until other arrangements (or taller ceilings) can be found. Note the use of thin wire to correctly suspend the sculpture as first envisioned by James E. Davis in 1968.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: