We catch up with John R. Blakinger to discuss visionary artist, designer and educator György Kepes 

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György Kepes is often described as an ‘artist, designer and educator’, rather than primarily one or the other. Why is this?

Kepes’s artistic output was exceptionally wide-ranging. He produced paintings, drawings, and photographs, but also published books filled with images, diagrams, and writings from a vast spectrum of disciplines; he designed public installations like murals and stained glass windows, but also elaborate environmental works that were never fully realized; and he created advertisements, book jackets, and magazine covers. He was a lifelong educator, first at the New Bauhaus and School of Design in Chicago (later known as the Institute of Design) and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he taught from 1946 through the 1970s. His work not only defies the medium-specific concerns applied to many artists, but it is also visually disparate, lacking a single ‘look’ or style. Moreover, much of his career was spent in the academy, far beyond the typical confines of the art world. Conventional models for the artist or designer fail to fully make sense of this encyclopaedic and interdisciplinary practice. Above all, Kepes was a design thinker. 

Nonetheless, he was motivated by consistent theoretical concerns, and argued eloquently for reconciliation between the ‘two cultures’ of art and science. He believed that balancing antagonistic worldviews through common visual experience could repair a fractured society. He evocatively termed his enterprise ‘interthinking’ and ‘interseeing’. Kepes’s mission was not always successful, but he still provides an important historical precedent for the study of contemporary phenomena like ‘visual culture’ (Kepes employed the term before it was common) and ‘new media’. 

Incredibly, given the level of quality he achieved with the medium, Kepes didn’t consider himself a photographer.

The photogram, an image produced directly on light-sensitive paper without the aid of a camera, should be understood as a means to an end rather than an end in itself: the technique allowed Kepes to isolate and manipulate light, with the resulting image serving as a record of his investigative process. In creating such images, Kepes undertook an elaborate study of the elemental properties of light – how it reflects, refracts, diffracts, and scatters. He molded light with mirrors, lenses, and prisms; projected it through screens and filters; and used it to reveal the inner structure of semi-transparent materials like leaves, shells, and eggs. He effectively transformed the photographer’s darkroom into a research laboratory. The approach combined an essentially empirical research method with his mystical conception of light as a creative force.

The photogram was already an old technique when Kepes began his investigations into it. What was it about the medium that attracted him?

Kepes was not the first to create photograms. A previous generation of modernists, namely Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy, had all pioneered the technique in the early twentieth century, variously calling their results Schadographs, Rayograms, and photograms.

Kepes differentiated his images by recuperating a number of antiquated techniques. For example, he recovered the cliché-verre method, in which painted glass replaced standard negatives. Kepes used the technique to project light through liquids suspended on a glass surface, creating luminous graphic inscriptions in his images. He further combined cliché-verre with decalcomania, in which a viscous solution of ink and casein pressed between glass plates produced an unpredictable pattern. The technique was almost like automatic writing, resulting in unusual chance effects. Kepes called these works ‘photogenics’ or ‘photo-drawings’, not photograms; he appropriated the label from Henry Fox Talbot, who first used it in the 1830s. The choice of terms indicates how Kepes envisioned his process as painterly, not strictly photographic.

Kepes also differentiated his images through their conceptual emphasis. He aimed not only to create new visual relationships but also to expose hidden ones; he attempted to reveal a latent structure common to both the organic and inorganic forms he employed in his pictures. He believed that the artist could render visible the invisible forces of nature, allowing one to see the unseen. 

His career seems to have been entwined and much informed by the Bauhaus and fellow artist/Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy. Why were those relationships so defining?

Kepes is among a handful of émigrés who brought avant-garde modernism associated with the Bauhaus from Europe to the United States shortly before the Second World War. Other such figures include Josef Albers, Mies van der Rohe, and [Bauhaus founder] Walter Gropius.

But Kepes’s roots were actually in the Hungarian avant-garde, not Bauhaus modernism. His connection to the famed school is by proxy, through his work with his compatriot László Moholy-Nagy, who had been a Bauhaus master before the school disbanded. In 1930 Kepes left Budapest for Berlin in order to work in Moholy’s design studio. He subsequently followed Moholy to London, assisting him with various design projects, and in 1937 he accepted Moholy’s invitation to head the Light and Color Workshop at the New Bauhaus in Chicago.

But despite their professional and intellectual proximity, Kepes also departed from his mentor in significant ways. First of all, their relationship became tense, and disputes between them eventually led to Kepes’s departure from the School of Design. More significantly, Kepes extended the Bauhaus approach into the highly fraught context of the Cold War. In a period dominated by science and technology, the rhetoric of holistic integration between disciplines and the practical applications of design took on highly charged meanings. What happens to the Bauhaus idea in the explosive context of the Cold War? What is the role of the artist in a brave new world dominated by science? Kepes was always searching for the answers to these questions – questions that Moholy never really faced. 

He was fascinated with combining art and science, believing in their potential to unify. Where did this start for him?

Kepes developed an elaborate theory based on the unity of opposites, and saw the world as composed of dialectical tensions that could never be fully resolved. This philosophy emerged early in his career, and he also became fascinated with scientific research like Gestalt psychology and scientific images like microphotographs while living in Berlin.

His interest in the ‘two cultures’ thus predates his arrival at MIT but it gained special urgency once he moved to the Institute. In interviews, Kepes recalls a sense of shock and displacement upon his arrival – he had to reinvent the notion of the artist in a setting where the arts were marginalized (Kepes was the first artist the Institute hired as a full faculty member). He began collecting scientific imagery, studying research on perception, and formulating new platforms for ‘confronting, combining, and comparing knowledge,’ as he frequently described his mission in written statements.

What is his greatest legacy? His artworks, or the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) fellowship programme he founded at MIT?

Kepes believed that art is fundamentally a private and a public practice, meaning that the artist should create personal works of art – paintings, photographs, drawings – but must also strive to solve larger problems, applying aesthetic knowledge to contemporary issues. In his many writings he called his idea of art as public service ‘civic art’. This was the core motivation behind his Center, which he conceived as a means to respond, through aesthetics, to crises brought on by accelerating technological change, such as ecological destruction or urban disorder. But Kepes never relinquished his private practice, seeing it as a vital prerequisite for this public application; his artworks and the activities of his Center thus must be understood in close relation to one another.

You curated a Kepes exhibition at Stanford, which you’re recreating in Liverpool. Where and why did your interest in him begin?

I first became interested in Kepes as a graduate student at Stanford University. It was my good fortune that the Department of Special Collections at Stanford University Libraries acquired a significant archive of Kepes’s papers in 2010, just as I was beginning to explore topics for my dissertation. Kepes was a natural fit with my interest in art during the Cold War, but I also recognized something surprisingly contemporary about his work. Kepes speaks to a set of issues that are timely: he responded to a crisis of confidence in the arts and humanities that still exists in the art world and in the academy today. For me, this crisis seemed especially acute at Stanford; like MIT in Kepes’s era, Stanford is dominated by science and technology. I turned to Kepes in part to understand how the artist navigates this context. 

I feel we could still learn a lot from György Kepes, is that fair?

Kepes provides a powerful model for collaboration; his notion of ‘interthinking’ and ‘interseeing’ compels us to search for the relationships that might connect otherwise irreconcilable and incompatible worlds. But I would caution against a simple application of Kepes’s approach. His work suggests the possibilities but also some of the pitfalls of interdisciplinarity. For example, he often found himself in tense debates over the compensatory role of the arts at a scientific institution, especially one with such close ties to militarism. The colleagues he collaborated with on various book projects included a metallurgist who prepared fissionable material for the first atomic bomb, an engineer who created one of the earliest digital computers for the United States military, and a mathematician who invented novel ways to simulate thermonuclear war. In the 1960s, the symbolic as well as literal connections between science, technology, and warfare became even more apparent. Though Kepes was politically on the left, and vocally protested the war in Vietnam both on the ground and in numerous written statements, he was still trapped in a conflicted position within what we might call the military-industrial-aesthetic complex. It would be a mistake to critique Kepes merely for his institutional affiliations, but it would also be a mistake to celebrate his interdisciplinary projects without a critical evaluation of the purposes they may have served.

John R. Blakinger is a PhD candidate at Stanford University and a Twenty-Four-Month Chester Dale Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He is completing a dissertation on Gyorgy Kepes’s career in the United States. As the first Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Research Assistant at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, he organized the 2014 exhibition The New Landscape: Experiments in Light by Gyorgy Kepes, which presented photographic panels produced by Kepes for the first time in over sixty years. A version of the show, titled György Kepes: The New Landscape, is on display at the Exhibition Research Centre at Liverpool John Moores University from 15 April – 19 June.

György Kepes is on display at Tate Liverpool from 6 March – 31 May 2015

Don’t miss: Pattern Vision: The New Landscape in Art and Science by György Kepes