Charles Dockum (1904--77)

Charles Dockum was born in Texas in 1904, and earned a degree in electrical engineering at Texas A & M in 1926. Ill 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. He coined the term "MobilColor" for this new art form, and gave public performances in 1936 in Prescott, Arizona. He became well enough to move to California shortly thereafter, and he continued working on improved MobilColor projectors (he would make six models altogether) at his home in a Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, near the studio of the young Whitney brothers. Dockum also got to know Oskar Fischinger and other experimental film-makers from Los Angeles, and enjoyed successful performances at such prestigious places as the Pasadena Playhouse and California Institute of Technology. In 1942, the Baroness Rebay awarded him a fellowship from the Guggenheim foundation to build a new, improved MobilColor projector that could be installed in the Guggenheim Museum (still the Museum of Non-Objective Painting at that time) in a gallery where it could play continuously (the rival Museum of Modern Art had acquired such a continuous Lumia display from Thomas Wilfred).

By 1950, Dockum had perfected the MobilColor IV, which could produce layered movements of diverse overlapping imagery. By the time he had brought the machine to New York and demonstrated it, Solomon Guggenheim had died, and the position of Baroness Rebay was growing shaky. She was angered that the MobilColor IV did not really run automatically and continuously, but needed one or two people to play it. Dockum himself gave several performances in 1952 (one of which was filmed by Ted Nemeth and Mary Ellen Bute), but after he returned to California (and his stipend was discontinued), the MobilColor instrument was put into storage, and a few years later dismantled with the lighting elements used in the galleries and other portions given away or trashed. All of the compositions that Dockum composed for MobilColor IV were also effectively destroyed, since they were specific to the instrumentation. Dockum built MobilColor V by the early 1960s, and continued to perform at various venues in California, and filmed one sample of three compositions to show to Frank Popper when he visited France in the mid-1960s. He began working on a MobilColor VI, which would have had computerized mechanisms that would really have played continuously without human operators, but it remained unfinished at Dockum’s death in 1977, and the specific computer elements he had incorporated were already "obsolete" as the computer industry made enormous strides in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

MobilColor V, however, is still in good condition, at Dockum’s studio in Altadena, and three of his compositions can be played on it by two performers, of which few exist, namely his daughter Greta, his former assistant sculptor Steve Smith, his nephew, the abstract painter Craig Antrim, and Dr. William Moritz.

The live performances of Dockum’s compositions on MobilColor V are breathtaking, far surpassing the "documentation" of them on film. Unlike film, the imagery appears silently out of complete darkness, and the saturation of vivid color forms an astonishing living presence. The particular configurations and the sensitive overlapping of imagery (including optical color mixtures) proceed with a satisfying sense of harmony and counterpoint hat truly constitutes "Visual Music."