Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
504 pp., illus. 163 b/w, 43 col. Trade, $55.00
John Blakinger’s Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus is a welcome reassessment of a major modernist figure. Kepes emigrated first to Germany from his native Hungary, and then to the USA. He came to head MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), seeking deep structural parallels between the sciences and the arts. Giving attention to a later Bauhaus personality requires a reorientation of values, namely, overcoming art history’s deep-seated suspicion of the universalizing modernist movement. Offering a trove of information about Kepes, the author palpably reveals the stress of his interpretive endeavor.
The Introduction familiarizes us with Kepes as “technocrat,” a member of Cold War conformism and a “think tank” mentality at MIT’s CAVS. The first chapter, “Camouflage Aesthetics,” explains Kepes’ role in wartime defense strategies in Chicago. The second chapter, “Pattern and Puzzles,” reviews Kepes’ collection of similar images across domains. Chapter 3, “Vision as Value,” reviews the influential series of books Kepes edited with George Braziller that brought together numerous artists and scientists on common themes. In Chapter 4, “Darkness into Light,” the author reviews Kepes’ infatuation with light. A chapter (5) on the military-industrial aesthetic complex outlines the link between Kepes’ aesthetic and organizational realities at MIT and, beyond that, linked art and technological research in the service of warfare. Chapter 6, “Artificial Natures,” finally sums up Kepes’ last efforts, and an Afterward (“Afterimages”) reflects on the decline of the humanities in the university.
The book is exhaustive, well documented, and attractively published. Perhaps deliberately, this wealth of material leaves us with a conflicted picture of Kepes. Blakinger shows Kepes to be aware of the double-edged blade of modernity, its comforts, and terrible power. With nuclear energy, for example, Kepes is said to capture the “halting movement of the dialectic of enlightenment” (220) but his Light project ended in “confusion” (222). Indeed, the book is full of pejoratives (“strange,” “naivete,” “failure,” “complicity”). The overriding picture is of a hopeful artist victim to his institution, optimism and ambition. Kepes indeed had the “misfortune” of working at MIT, a center of research feeding into military uses. It is not the author’s job to praise the subject of his study. But it is the historian’s task to approach that subject with a knowledge of contingent facts. While the book deals in great detail wartime and post-war United States, it does not engage extensively with the fears of World War II bombing (or a Nazi victory), genuine terror of thermonuclear annihilation, or the joy (and ethical value) of discovery that Kepes aided by connecting artists and humanists with scientists. All these elements are a closed system upon which we as readers are prompted to pass judgment when perhaps we might also recognize ourselves as participants.
This tension is shown above all by the intriguing quotes that start chapters and sections, all taken from Frankfurt School figures like Adorno and Horkheimer. The effect is a nesting of Kepes’ activities within a more encompassing, critical viewpoint. I believe Kepes was entirely aware of the complexities of his situation; moreover, he probably could have discoursed with Adorno about them (indeed, in the early forties Rudolf Arnheim was in touch with both Adorno and Kepes in New York). In this sense, even though the book seeks to affirm modernism, it remains in thrall to a critical postmodernism.