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ROWLUX Illusion FIlm

While Dali owned and used ROWLUX in the 60's, it was not until the 70's and in particular, my work with him that he really started to explore it's possibilities.

Dali Anecdotes - ROWLUX Illusion Film

My introduction to ROWLUX, the plastic made by ROWLAND Development that gives the impression of relief in its honeycomb shaped products, or the look of large moiré or 3D crumpled cloth in others by the few small paintings Dali had done on the substance. The 2 small oils utilize the material to allow the painted portions to look like they float above the plastic. In early 1971 Dali worked with the company to manufacture the Tristan and Isolde lithograph, featuring a gold chalice which formed the facial profiles of Tristan and Isolde utilizing an old and much utilized double image. The piece was important in a number of ways, where Dali used the plastic deformation of the lenses to form a nude in the moiré pattern of the wine in the goblet, and also had the lens relaxed to form an actual 3D like representation of the chalice.

The surrounding imagery which Dali painted, was done on a clear acrylic or glass panel, and then lithographically printed on the limited edition of 500 pieces. The litho was a great success, selling originally at $1000, the price and scarcity of available copies has risen. The series was released at Dali’s 1972 show at Knoedler gallery in New York. 

Previous to the show Dali put together that I lived in Connecticut and ROLAND Development was in Connecticut, so I became the go-between. Dali had a LOT of ROWLUX and loved the stuff as it simulated 3D more or less successfully, and secondly, because the actual parabolic lenses which the material is made of, and its projected honeycomb structure had the shape of…flies eyes, and we all know how Dali loved the whizzing and whirring of protons and electrons, known to most of us as the common housefly. In my first visits to ROWLAND, we spoke of possible new projects and I bought a batch of the material. I got a factory tour and was allowed to purchase different sheets of type and color. These I delivered to the St Regis where I would be given the task of trying to maximize the effect of depth and find reasonable ways to extend the effect in useful ways for Dali to create art. While Dali loved the stuff, it did not deliver the 3D effect he really wanted and while ROLAND Development had created ways to control the moire pattern of the relaxed lens array, it did not provide enough depth for him. He complained that while he loved the material there was little he could do with it artistically. I for one felt that there was much more to be explored with the stuff, and set up an area in one of Dali’s many working rooms in the St Regis to experiment with the material. The second limited edition Dali planned was for a Butterfly image, with a huge swallowtail moth in the center of the image and two surrounding butterflies. Dali quickly sketched them out and I cut them and had to show them on different backgrounds to him until he was happy. Again the butterflies were supposed to be custom designed by ROWLAND and the project was never brought to them to execute, so only the prototype remained.

While Dali had samples of the material early on, he did not try to exploit it to its greater potential. I would work on and off with the material for the entire length of my work with Dali. To test how the plastic reacted with different types of 3D effects I painted the ROWLUX Dalinian landscape, which utilized the optical design from Apotheosis of the Dollar, The anti-gravitational landscape from the Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, and the field of perspective dots from the Hallucinogenic Toreador. It was one of the first painting tests I did for Dali to test what worked best on the lensed plastic.


One of the first “discoveries” was the effect of putting a Fresnel lens (optical disc popular in the day) on the thick or animated ROWLUX. Adding a Fresnel lens to the plastic increased the perceived depth from a few inches to more like 10-12”, a great leap that Dali liked. The first pieces done this way were signed by Dali and I owned one for a long while. These lenses were used for the eyes in the ROWLUX Marilyn pieces Dali showed in the same Knoedler show. The Fresnel’s were bought by me again from Edmund Scientific and others were custom made for the Marilyn. When I noticed they had an array of them on a single sheet, I immediately told Dali we had to make Hypercube Crosses with it. While holding the sheet up in front of you created a fun effect, again Dali remarking it allowed him to see like a fly does, it wasn’t until I cut up a sheet into a array of square fresnel’s and showed Dali how great it would be to make hypercube crosses with them that he saw the potential. We made 3 or 4 different crosses in this manner where Dali told me to cut the cross shape out, he would choose the background ROWLUX material, and put a quick drawing on it and sign it. The pieces never made it out to the public because Dali could not settle on a adhesive for the lens to the plastic, The fresnel lens’s were clear, so adhesive sheet available from ROWLAND, was not good nor was glue, so the pieces festered and were kept in a holding box for years. This was the case for most all of the ROWLUX pieces Dali produced over the next few years, for most the glue was inadequate, or it was a prototype for what would have been another limited edition print such as Tristan and Isolde. Dali had only painted on the front of some ROWLUX before we started working together and I suggested that to gain a better 3D effect he could paint on the front and back of transparent or semi transparent versions of the plastic. (prior to the painted version of Butterflies, Dali worked on a all ROWLUX version which with new contoured shaping of the butterflies by ROWLAND, it was ment to be the second limited edition, but the project was scuttled when Dali stared working with Selwyn Lissack on Holograms, the sensationalism of that medium totally overshadowed the ROWLUX, but I kept working on better methods to use it and poking Dali about subjects he should use it on. This was experimented with and carried out in “Butterflies” which also utilizes an oil based stain to color the plastic while still being transparent (like a thin glaze). It was working with the plastics to try and maximize depth that I would regularly propose new projects including “The Eye of Time”, perhaps Dali’s most iconic and varied use of the plastic material. (Although there is one more smaller soft watch)  , I had to beg Dali to consider a soft watch in the material, where that I thought was the perfect image, the glean and contour created by the plastics illusion would be perfect for that subject. Bringing it up often, I must have been like the kid in the back of the car asking “Are we there yet?” to Dali.But since I was not receiving that much wrath, I persisted and the piece is great even if it was never executed as hoped to be (With contours mapped in the plastic parts by ROWLAND.) Simply playing with different pieces of the plastic gave Dali ideas, such as the clock which would change the magnification of the honeycomb as it rotated one lensed sheet over another…with  different signatures designating the hour. Dali quipped, “It would always be Dali Time” with such a clock.

My personal ROWLUX masterpiece was done as an Homage to Dali, where I used the plastic as a backdrop, painting one half of Dali’s face in a molecular fashion (As in Dali’s Dead Brother), and the other side of the Homage was half of a Fly’s head, all executed in several different ROWLUX materials. The two half heads were united across the work by the anti-gravitational flies which appear in the Hallucinogenic Toreador. These used glows painted on the back side of the plastic to elevate and make more 3D the fly images. Dali and I spoke of a few projects with the material which never came to pass, which I may pick up in the future. To see more ROWLUX projects and workings with Dali, go to my Working with Dali Page in the Galleries.

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