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Technology drives every aspect of society, propelling us forward and inciting backlash. When the Industrial Revolution replaced handmade crafts with machine technologies and factory production, we saw the birth of the industrial design movement known as the Bauhaus. Today, the Digital Revolution has similarly restructured science, art and culture, giving rise to innovative imagery that was impossible before. An artistic backlash to the Digital Age has also fueled a resurgence of interest in traditional photographic processes and an increased valuation of the photographic object over ephemeral digital technology. This fervent appreciation for analog art gives renewed relevance to the work of Bauhaus protégé and MIT professor Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001), an influential pioneer whose stunning photographic experimentation laid the groundwork for half a century of visual design.
Whether analog or digital, much of modern abstract photography can trace its origins to the pivotal work of Gyorgy Kepes and his colleagues. The MIT Museum is marking the 50th Anniversary of its Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), founded by Kepes in 1968, with a two-part retrospective of his photographs: From Berlin to Chicago, 1930-1946, on view now through March 5th, 2018 and The MIT Years, 1946-1974, from March 21st – August 2018. For an intimate viewing focused on Kepes’ seminal photographs from the 1980’s, visit Robert Klein Gallery on Newbury Street through March 30st, 2018.
The MIT Museum exhibit traces the historical and cultural forces that shaped the inventive photography of Gyorgy Kepes, whose mentor Laszlo Maholy-Nagy (1895-1946) helped establish an approach to photography known as the “New Vision.” Both Maholy-Nage and Kepes were members of the Hungarian avant-garde who left strife-ridden Budapest in the years between WWI and WWII, first immigrating to the cultural mecca of Berlin, then briefly to London, and finally to the United States. Arriving in Berlin in 1930, Kepes sought work in film, graphic and stage design. It was here that he internalized the aesthetic of the Bauhaus, an art school founded in 1919 by German architect Walther Gropius that revolutionized the world of design by combining the principles of industrial production and fine art. Maholy-Nagy taught at the Bauhaus.
In Moholy’s opinion, photography “perfected” the eye by creating new ways of seeing, using unconventional perspectives and innovative printing techniques. Integrating art forms as wide-ranging as typography, graphic design, kinetic art and film, Kepes expanded on Moholy’s view that photography should go beyond reproducing existing scenery to create novel visual relationships. In his early work, Kepes photographed conventional subjects with remarkable compositional approaches, experimenting with light and cast shadow, distortions of scale, atypical framing and vertiginous angles, enabled by the new technology of the handheld 35mm Leica camera, introduced in 1925.
Starting 1936 when Kepes moved to Chicago, his work shifted even further from representational imagery, forming a modernist vision of photography that shaped his future philosophy and career. Through continuous experimentation with camera-less techniques and darkroom manipulations, Kepes created photograms with unprecedented designs in abstraction. His bold, experimental approach epitomized modernist design, in synergy with Chicago’s burgeoning manufacturing and cultural growth. Kepes embraced photograms for their fundamentalism, the vast tonal range achievable, and their responsiveness to both pinpoint and solarizing light flashes. He introduced multiple exposures, superimposed imaging and elements of chance into his work in a vigorous exploration of materials and methods. When viewing the show, it is fun to guess at his props and to identify some of his favorites like leaves, insect wings, textiles, Lucite forms, and the humble stale pieces of rye bread.
Kepes left Chicago in 1943 and in 1944 published his first book, “Language of Vision”, an influential and enormously popular teaching text that established him as a leading thinker in the field of design and led to his hiring at MIT in 1946. In the book, Kepes regards the volatile 20th landscape as fragmented, chaotic and in need of a unified theory of visual perception and communication, a “grammar and syntax of vision.” The MIT Museum exhibit leaves off here, with an exhibit devoted to Kepes’ photographs during his MIT years opening on March 21st, 2018. Some of his most beautiful and inventive photographs from that period in the 1980’s are on view now at Robert Klein Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston, through March 30th, 2018. I cannot adequately reproduce the intriguing and exquisite imagery in these exhibits, but for a delicious eyeful of Kepes’ remarkable photographs and an edifying history of design, I highly recommend you make a day of it and see both shows. You’ll never look at photography or design the same way again.
For information about the exhibits at MIT Museum, go to: https://mitmuseum.mit.edu/exhibition/kepes
For information about the exhibit at Robert Klein Gallery, go to: https://www.robertkleingallery.com/
Feature Image: “Untitled Photogram, 1981” (Detail) by Gyorgy Kepes (courtesy of the Estate of Gyorgy Kepes and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston).