GYORGY KEPES: EXEMPLAR OF THE VISUAL ARTS 1906-2001
in 1973 by Otto Peine
Artist and Director Emeritus of the Center for Visual Studies,
-Photo Courtesy of the
Boston Public Library Print Department
A man builds a house for himself and his family on Cape Cod
in the woods by a lake near the sea, and everything in his house
seems to be made of natural fiber, of wood, skin, hemp, fur;
and the wind carries clean air and every sound is muted. No
war seems to have beenonly airplanes with their trails
of sound and vapor remind you of the bustling trivia outside
This man's worldly title is Institute Professor. He is a
member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a
doctor honorus causa. He is the director of the Center
for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. M.I.T. has been
an objet d'amour and an operational base to him for twenty-seven
Gyorgy Kepes the artist whose work and thought embrace nature
and technology; whose understanding of the determining factors
of the energy field in which modern man day-dances, leads him
to seek harmony of seemingly opposite forcesand whose
charismatic thought-prayers for a saner world have gathered
around him for decades now a people of listeners, followers,
admirers and disciples.
I was introduced to Gyorgy Kepes at the Howard Wise Gallery
in New York City, and the occasion was my show, Light Ballet.
He was in the company of Harry Bertoia and other artists and
designers of renown. A few weeks later I had dinner at his home
in Cambridge, and the absence of contemporary art in it struck
me as almost arrogantly modest.
many plants in the house, though, and a green garden surrounds
it. In 1969 I talked the Kepes family into acquiring a TV set.
The cat is always there but I have never seen the set turned
on. His wife, Juliet, who has created the beautiful and well-known
children's books about bugs, birds and other living creatures
of fauna and flora, admits to watching TV every now and then.
observed a long procession of friends and acquaintances
who have shared moments, years, decades of work and life
with Gyorgy Kepes, among them Rudolf Arnheim, Marcel and
Connie Breuer, Charles Eames, Erik H. Erikson, Buckminster
Fuller, Walter and Ise Gropius, Jean Helion, Kevin Lynch,
I. A. Richards, Bruno Rossi, Jose Luis Sert, Maurice Smith,
Alexander Trauner, and Robert J. Wolff.
-Photo Courtesy of the Boston
Public Library Print Department
Kepes, at right
The enormous number
of friends and acquaintances is not accidental. During all
the mature stages of his life, Gyorgy Kepes has been a man
whose thoughts, dreams and work concentrate on the betterment
of others' lives by way of redirecting their education,
conditions of living and working, and their immediate as
well as large-scale environments. He has naturally sought,
found, enjoyed and sometimes endured the company of those
who are similarly inclinedbeginning with L. Kassak,
the Hungarian artist-writer who impressed Gyorgy Kepes when
he was young. Another focal force was Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
who encouraged a long lasting mutual cooperation on shifting
scenes, such as Berlin, London, Chicago; and Bela Bartok
and Albert Szentgyorgyi have been cherished idols.
To the uninitiated Gyorgy Kepes' speech still sounds Hungarian.
The only pictures I have seen in his homes are Russian-orthodox
icons; there are also small precious objects, Peruvian fabrics,
Han pots, a pre-Columbian funeral urn. His wife, Juliet,
is British. He met her in London after leaving Berlin in
1936. He stayed until 1937 when he followed Moholy to Chicago.
There he taught and Juliet studied and taught at the New
Bauhaus, sometimes under adverse circumstances due to the
always shaky situation of the new Bauhaus/Institute of Design.
In 1943 they embarked on a brief inter-American migrating
period which led them to M.I.T./ Cambridge, Massachusetts
Gyorgy Kepes, as a mentally independent artist who does
not invite interpretation by an art-jockey critic, has never
invested much in a "style," and the total of his
work reflects the many moods of the universe and the multi-faceted
demands of the man-made world rather than "modern art's"
aesthetic chess games. An artist's concern for his fellow
citizens leads him to offer his services to the environment
and its inhabitants; even if no mediating art agency, such
as a museum or a gallery, is involved.
Among real-world inspired tasks and commissions the artist
took on during the past twenty-five years is a Nature Room
for art museums that he proposed with his wife in 1949.
They also built, at about the same time, a standard setting,
much publicized children's play room with many features
still considered "recent," such as optical stick-on-and-change
games, a time-teaching wall-size clock, a phosphorescent
ceiling, and a prevalence of soft and hard materials, in
little-processed natural state for all children's furniture.
I think their children, Judy and Imre, inspired this "art
for the little people."
Much of Kepes' work of that period can now easily be subsumed
under the category "Environmental": Neon reliefs
for Radio Shack; acoustic tiles for U.S. Gypsum; the programmed
light mural in KLM's 5th Ave. office in New York City; lighting
sculptures for Roehm and Haas' Philadelphia headquarters;
a Light Corridor for the Milan Triennale.
Throughout his life G. K. has maintained passionate interest
in photography as an interpretation of the known as well
as a technique to tear layers of conventional knowledge
off the skin of the earth in order to free fresh sections
of it, inviting renewed admiration by the beholder.
He endows the photo with magic to turn projection into reality;
as a blueprint builds cathedrals. His engagement for and
involvement in kinetic art has moved from photography, photo
design and exhibition design to large kinetic objects, systems
and environmental/ecological organisms.
The complexity of his work ranges from the intimate scale
of book design to the large scale of his proposed Sylvania
light environment and, for the Boston Harbor Project, a
multi-systemic and multi-elemental Denkmodell. His executed
work and his projects are closely related to the work of
Gyorgy Kepes the educator, the author and editor of many
books on art anchored in "the world" and on understanding
the world aided by art. Sometimes his books inspire exhibitions,
and sometimes exhibition catalogs become important publications.
New Landscape" was an exhibition and became a published
book. "The Visual Education of Architects" was
an exhibition sponsored by the University of Minnesota in
Minneapolis. Other important exhibition designs by Gyorgy
Kepes: "The Art of the UN" at the Chicago Art
Institute; "Light as a Creative Medium" at the
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University;
"Explorations" at the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, D.C. The latter two shows were accompanied
by catalogs that had the weight of independent publications
on kinetic art.
His Language of Vision has had thirteen printings in
four languages; the Vision and Value series, of which G. K.
is editor and a major contributor, has produced eight volumes.
He has been working for a long time on the definitive book on
light art, a magnum opus whose scale currently forbids it to
says, "Comparing my photographs and film and light work
with my paintings reveals similar, matching or identical characteristics."
Clearly the two media inspire each other, and it is difficultand
maybe idleto determine what precedes what: what is hen
and what is egg. In any case Gyorgy keeps hatching them both.
Robert Preusser wrote: "In painting, Kepes affirms his
resistance to technical and human conformity. Rather than shouting
his fears and hopes for our man-shaped environment, his paintings
speak with contemplative persuasion."
-Photo Courtesy of the
Boston Public Library Print Department
The quietness of the
paintings always struck me as something highly personal. The
colors are muted as autumn leaves. They are not the burning
reds of Indian summer in New Hampshire and Maine but the smoldering
oranges, siennas and fading greens of mid-fall in Hungary, Austria,
Germany. The paintings sound emotional pianos, largos, andantes
in the rich orchestration of the total work. Their titles as
well as those of many photo-graphics express unabashed pantheism:
"Magnetic Field," "What Are Girls Made of?"
"Landscape," "Branch Calligraphy," "Earth
and Sand," "Autumn Notes."
The artist wrote. "I suspect the ego-dominated visual exercises
in personality competition. I am searching for those low-energy
experience which, in their subdued scale, allow more embracing
patterns of order . . . (Painting) The tranquil . . . commonplace
experiencesa sunseta branch of a tree. . .
guides me to the rich potential values inherent in the new landscape
of the scientific world."
Gyorgy Kepes is collecting and presenting visual evidence
in a plea for harmony between estranged relatives, the world
into which man was born to create and the world he created.
His poetic evidence shows that man can walk in the flame
expressly enjoyed teaching M.I.T. students, and he felt respect
and affection for M.I.T. scientist leaders like James R. Killian,
Jr., Julius Stratton and Jerome Wiesner, who like him were
trying to unveil layers of the dark aura of ignorance that
surrounds complacent mankind.
Science appeared increasingly close to art, and this closeness
was becoming mutually felt as in the days when Leonardo insisted
that painting was a science. In a world in which atomic lightning
glared, scientists, engineers and industrialists on the other
hand appeared to need the artist to remind them of the wholeness
of life and creation. In 1959 Gyorgy Kepes proposed the instituting
of a Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T. In 1968
it was officially dedicated.
The growing scale of art in urban settings, the decay of the
conventional art world and the amazing increase in the scale
of communication by means of tile media helped in casting
the Center as a unique place in the world: a meeting ground
for artists, scientists and engineers to integrate their work
The total mobilization of creative energies is a Renaissance
ideal come to new life after decades of a specialism craze.
He has relifted the Cartesian "I ask ergo I am"
to an existential level. To me he is the last visionary.
-From Gyorgy Kepes-Works in Review, Museum of
THE BOSTON GLOBE 1/8/02
Gyorgy Kepes; artist founded
MIT visual studies center; 95
Edgar J. Driscoll Jr.
Scott S. Greenberger
-Photo Courtesy of the Boston
Public Library Print Department
Gyorgy Kepes founded
MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies to break down the
barriers between art and technology, but the internationally
known painter, sculptor, and photographer never learned to
drive a car or even ride a bicycle. His Wellfleet summer home
didn't have running water.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kepes was "always interested in finding
the connection between science and art," said his son,
Imre of Pelham. "He probably felt there was no separation."
Mr. Kepes, who died Dec. 29 in Cambridge at age 95, lamented
that many people fail to see the connections among diverse
disciplines. The result, he said, is a feeling of isolation
and rootlessness in a cold, contemporary world.
what I feel is that the publicartist and scientist,
toohave lost the ability to communicate with each other,"
he said in an interview in 1965. 'What I'm interested in is
how we reestablish communication of ideas."
He spent much
of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
where he was a professor of visual design from 1946 until
retiring in 1974. He founded the Center for Advanced Visual
Studies in 1964 and was its head until 1974.
The Hungarian native was often described as a renaissance
man. He was the author of "Language of Vision"
and "The New Landscape," and was widely known
for his abstract paintings. His work was shown in one-man
exhibits around the world. He produced symphonies of color
and mood in his paintings, which were often sand-textured
(he painted many of them in Wellfleet).
Mr. Kepes's son and daughter say he was fascinated by the
geometry and symmetry in nature.
He was born in Selyp, Hungary, in 1906. After graduating
from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, he joined
the Germany studio of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a famous Hungarian
artist who experimented with many materials.
Mr. Kepes met his wife, the late artist Juliet Appleby Kepes,
on a London street in 1936. In a Globe interview in 1989,
Mr. Kepes said that on the autumn day they met he was a
"restless" soul who had wandered the capitals
He spied 17-year-old Juliet walking with her mother up and
down Shaftesbury Avenue, looking for the studio of a photographer
who was supposed to take Juliet's picture.
Mr. Kepes was smitten. "My life is saved," he
They began meeting and fell in love, and when Mr. Kepes
got an offer to teach at the Chicago Institute of Design
in 1937, he asked her to go with him.
At MIT, the shy, soft-spoken Mr. Kepes discovered that "scientists
have a clearer and richer horizon than most artists have."
"So I started a series of seminars to find meeting
areas for scientists and artists in understanding the world,"
The Center for Advanced Visual Studies, which he described
as his "dream project," was born.
Asked why Mr. Kepes, a man who spent much of his life trying
to bring artists and scientists together, rejected some
popular technological inventions, his daughter, Juliet Stone,
said he was a man of many contradictions.
Stone recalls that the family didnt have a television.
He felt strongly we should use our imaginations and
read and draw, said Stone, of Watertown.
In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Kepes leaves six
grandchildren and a great-grand-child.
Gyorgy and Juliet Kepes were members of the First Parish
in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist
A KEPES GALLERY
A selection of Gyorgy Kepes' work is available in a Notable
American Unitarians Appendix