György Kepes was MIT’s first tenured artist, a pioneer of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. But despite his success relating artistic, scientific, and technological research at MIT, his tenure was also defined by backlash and controversy. Kepes found himself entangled in a new military-industrial-aesthetic complex during the Vietnam War era.
In this talk and discussion, John R. Blakinger shares from his book György Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus (MIT Press, 2019) — the first comprehensive study of artist, designer, and visual theorist György Kepes’s career in the US. Blakinger demonstrates the profound resistance Kepes faced while trying to “undream” the Bauhaus into reality at MIT in the early years of the Cold War. This discussion focuses specifically on Kepes’s complex and contradictory relationship with MIT through various projects completed at the Institute from 1946 until his retirement in 1974.
This event is cohosted by the History, Theory, and Criticism Section, Department of Architecture at MIT. Lunch provided.
About the book:
How György Kepes, the last disciple of Bauhaus modernism, became the single most significant artist within a network of scientific experts and elites.
György Kepes (1906–2001) was the last disciple of Bauhaus modernism, an acolyte of László Moholy-Nagy and a self-styled revolutionary artist. But by midcentury, transplanted to America, Kepes found he was trapped in the military-industrial-aesthetic complex. In this first book-length study of Kepes, John Blakinger argues that Kepes, by opening the research laboratory to the arts, established a new paradigm for creative practice: the artist as technocrat. First at Chicago’s New Bauhaus and then for many years at MIT, Kepes pioneered interdisciplinary collaboration between the arts and sciences—what he termed “interthinking” and “interseeing.” Kepes and his colleagues—ranging from metallurgists to mathematicians—became part of an important but little-explored constellation: the Cold War avant-garde.
Blakinger traces Kepes’s career in the United States through a series of episodes: Kepes’s work with the military on camouflage techniques; his development of a visual design pedagogy, as seen in the exhibition The New Landscape and his book The New Landscape in Art and Science; his encyclopedic Vision + Value series; his unpublished magnum opus, the Light Book; the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), an art-science research institute established by Kepes at MIT in 1967; and the Center’s proposals for massive environmental installations that would animate the urban landscape. CAVS was entangled in the antiwar politics of the late 1960s, as many students and faculty protested MIT’s partnerships with defense contractors—some of whom had ties to the Center. In attempting to “undream” the Bauhaus into existence in the postwar world, Kepes faced profound resistance.
Generously illustrated, drawing on the vast archive of Kepes’s papers at Stanford and MIT’s CAVS Special Collection, this book supplies a missing chapter in our understanding of midcentury modern and Cold War visual culture.