“When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a room full of dukes,” wrote W.H. Auden, articulating what many artists have felt since the dawn of the modern age two centuries ago, when scientific discoveries became the dominating reality of our daily lives. John R. Blakinger’s study of the life and ideas of Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001) is a cautionary tale of one artist’s struggle for relevance in an age of science.
Trained as a painter in his native Hungary, Kepes moved in an artistic society permeated by the revolutionary atmosphere of post-World War I Europe. He met Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in Berlin and eventually followed the well-known artist and designer to Chicago, where Moholy-Nagy had founded the New Bauhaus, an attempted re-creation of the German school of modern art and design, which closed after Hitler came to power. In 1946, Kepes began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he would remain until his retirement.
It is emblematic of Kepes’s aspirations that the program he established at MIT was not called the Department of Art and Design; it bore a scientific-sounding name: the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. The teaching of art there was not about imparting techniques for manipulating traditional media. Kepes replaced a course on freehand drawing with courses on “visual fundamentals.” He oversaw a series of publications with titles such as “Structure in Art and Science,” “Arts of the Environment” and “Education of Vision.” He tried to organize interdisciplinary seminars where scientists and visual artists would learn from each other.
Kepes also curated exhibitions such as “Explorations,” full of what was then cutting-edge technology, including video screens, strobe lights and interactive floors on which visitors’ footsteps appeared in brightly colored patterns. Though the general public loved the show, critics hated it, with Lawrence Alloway complaining that “the junction of art and technology does not result in cultural lodestones, but in an art of mostly trivial effects.” Kepes’s own art — he continued to paint — likewise did not garner positive critical attention. He produced anodyne abstract canvases that could serve as inoffensive decorations for corporate boardrooms.
MIT was at the intersection of academia and the military-industrial complex. Student protests against military-funded research for use in the Vietnam War spilled over into a rejection of anyone regarded as part of the establishment, including Kepes. He did not help matters when artists, protesting American assistance to a military coup in Brazil, pulled out of the U.S. contribution he had organized for the Sao Paulo Biennial. Kepes tried to placate all sides. He begged the artists to reconsider, saying, “We could contribute more constructively to the Brazilian and the international artistic community than by withdrawing our participation.” Students and colleagues dismissed him as hopelessly naive.
Blakinger’s attitude toward his subject is ambivalent. At one moment, he seems to regard Kepes as a romantic revolutionary, attempting to bring modern art to the masses. At others, he portrays Kepes as an academic apparatchik fruitlessly trying to hobnob with his (scientific) betters. There remain the magnified images, at once abstract and ultrarealistic, that first infatuated the artist. Reproduced in this book, they speak to a dream of union, where beauty and scientific truth become one.
Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.
By John R. Blakinger
MIT. 504 pp. $55