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Kepes, Gyorgy (1906-2001)

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Gyorgy Kepes

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

Biography from the
Boston Museum of Science

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 been—only airplanes with their trails of sound and vapor remind you of the bustling trivia outside this sanctuary.

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 years now.

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 forces—and 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.

There are 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.

I have 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.

Juliet Kepes

Juliet Kepes, at right. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

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 inclined—beginning 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 in 1945.

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.

“The 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 get published.

The artist 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 difficult—and maybe idle—to 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.”

Gyorgy Kepes

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 experiences—a sunset—a 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 orchard.

He 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 and projections.

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.

— Written in 1973 by Otto Peine, Artist and Director Emeritus of the Center for Visual Studies, M.I.T. From “Gyorgy Kepes-Works in Review,” Museum of Science, Boston.

Gyorgy Kepes; artist founded MIT visual studies center; 95

By Edgar J. Driscoll Jr. and Scott S. Greenberger

Gyorgy Kepes

Gyorgy Kepes, 1951; 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.

“Essentially what I feel is that the public—artist and scientist, too—have 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 of Europe.

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 recalled thinking.

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,” he recalled.

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 didn’t 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.

A Brief Note on Unitarian Connections

Gyorgy and Juliet Kepes were members of the First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist.