Undreaming the Bauhaus
504 pp., 7 x 9 in, 43 color illus., 163 b&w illus.
- Published: June 25, 2019
How Gyorgy Kepes, the last disciple of Bauhaus modernism, became the single most significant artist within a network of scientific experts and elites.
Gyorgy 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The New Landscape and his book The New Landscape in Art and Science; his encyclopedic Vision + Value series; his unpublished magnum opus, the Light Book; the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), an art-science research institute established by Kepes at MIT in 1967; and the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.
What might the Bauhaus dream look like when enacted as technocratic reality? John Blakinger draws upon deep, original research in his groundbreaking monograph on the last Bauhaus modernist, Gyorgy Kepes, to address this question and others. This astounding book substantively unsettles long-held conventional wisdoms that pertain to the nexus of art, politics, technology, and the military-industrial complex in Cold War America with nuance.
Joyce Tsai, Curator, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art; Director, Intermedia Research Initiative; author of László Moholy-Nagy: Painting after Photography
Blakinger's book offers a timely account of Kepes's conflicted, Cold War-era project to reform technocracy from within. This careful recovery of the character and ultimate shortcomings of Kepes's work also stands as a salutary historical reference point for those seeking ways to resist big tech in the present
Luke Skrebowski, Lecturer in Contemporary Art, University of Manchester
An overdue treatment of the Hungarian-born artist and designer Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001) explores his career, from designing books in Berlin in the 1930s to teaching at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and founding the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T. Technology and war are often common threads in Kepes's work. Innovating forms of camouflage during World War II, his designs coincided with clashes around M.I.T.'s connections with the military during the Vietnam War. Mr. Blakinger argues that Kepes represents a new form of modern artist fluent in and influenced by technology: 'the artist as technocrat.'
The New York Times