Gyorgy Kepes, an influential designer, photographer, painter, educator, writer and aesthetic theorist, died on Dec. 29 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 95.
Mr. Kepes was best known as the founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, an organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dedicated to creative collaboration between artists and scientists.
Established in 1967, the center was the culmination of Mr. Kepes's long-held view that traditional art forms could no longer adequately speak to the problems of the modern world, a world too much conditioned, he believed, by chaos and alienation. It was a decade when many artists became intrigued by the possibilities of cross-fertilization between art and technology -- most famously Robert Rauschenberg and his Experiments in Art and Technology, or E.A.T.
The center served as a forum and laboratory where artists like Otto Piene, Jack Burnham, Takis and others who would stay for residencies could exchange ideas with physicists, engineers, mathematicians and other sorts of scientists and create kinetic, electrical, environmental and interactive artworks using new technologies and materials.
It was not technology per se, however, that fascinated Mr. Kepes (pronounced KEP-ish). He was driven, rather, by utopian aspirations. He wanted the center not just to produce novel art forms but also to promote a more expansive sense of connectedness among separated communities and to foster a more holistic awareness of the world as a complex ecological system.
One of the center's most attention-getting efforts happened in 1969 when it was picked to represent the United States at the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, then the world's largest international art fair. Mr. Kepes and his team planned not to showcase individual artists but to produce a two-part installation divided between ''Information,'' a multimedia show representing the state of art in the United States, and ''Community,'' a walk-in environment of interactive sculpture.
As it turned out, the São Paulo venture didn't take place because 9 of the 23 artists involved pulled out to express their objections to what they viewed as Brazil's repressive government.
Mr. Kepes's interest in new technologies for art developed early. Born in 1906 in Selyp, Hungary, he studied at the School of Arts in Budapest. In the aftermath of World War I, he became convinced of the irrelevance of painting and determined to go into film. In 1930 he went to Berlin to work with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the principals of the Bauhaus School. With Moholy-Nagy, he worked on film and stage projects.
In 1937 he accepted a position as head of the Light and Color Department at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, the design school founded by Moholy-Nagy in 1936. (The school's name was later changed to the Chicago Institute of Design.) In 1945 he went to teach in M.I.T.'s School of Architecture and Planning. He served as director of the center until 1972.
Throughout his career, Mr. Kepes took commercial assignments, producing designs for objects from books and bathroom tiles to major stained-glass windows for St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco and the First and Second Church in Boston, the city's oldest continuous church. He also persisted in more avant-garde forms, focusing particularly on photography.
Working without cameras, he experimented with direct application of fluids and objects to photographic paper, producing luminous abstractions. In 1984 the International Center of Photography in Manhattan organized a retrospective of Mr. Kepes's photographic work.
Around 1950, he overcame his misgivings about old-fashioned technology and returned to painting, producing abstractions with lyrical hints of landscape. He made flat, sandy-textured pictures with organic shapes generated by pouring glue and paint over which he spread richly colored glazes. His paintings are included in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Mr. Kepes also expounded his theories through writing. His books included ''The Language of Vision'' (1944), a discussion of his educational theories and methods; and ''The New Landscape in Art and Science'' (1956), in which he formulated ideas leading to the creation of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. In 1965 and 66 he edited a seven-volume series of essays by writers working in many different disciplines addressing issues of creativity and the social function and meaning of art.
Honors received by Mr. Kepes include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 and the Medal of Honor from the Republic of Hungary in 1996.
Mr. Kepes is survived by a daughter, Juliet Stone of Watertown, Mass.; a son, Imre, of Pelham, Mass.; six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Mr. Kepes did not deny the difficulties of earthly existence, but he held to an optimistic view of art's purpose.
He once said: ''It is not important for me to echo Auschwitz, Hiroshima or the Russian slave camps. We can't compete with such brutality and we shouldn't just mirror it. What we can find are the seeds of something clean and pure.''
Photo: Gyorgy Kepes (Beta Kalman, 1977)

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György Kepes (October 4, 1906 – December 29, 2001) was a Hungarian-born painter, designer, educator and art theorist. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1937, he taught design at the New Bauhaus (later the School of Design, then Institute of Design, then Illinois Institute of Design or IIT) in Chicago. In 1967 He founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he taught until his retirement in 1974.
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Early years

Kepes was born in Selyp, Hungary. At age 18, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, where he studied for four years with Istvan Csok, a Hungarian impressionist painter. In the same period, he was also influenced by the socialist avant-garde poet and painter Lajos Kassak, and began to search for means by which he could contribute to the alleviation of social injustice, especially (as he later recalled) “the inhumane conditions of the Hungarian peasantry.”

Berlin and London

Not unlike William Morris, a founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, in whose writings he found inspiration, Kepes gave up painting temporarily and turned instead to filmmaking. In 1930, he settled in Berlin, where he worked as a publication, exhibition and stage designer. Around this time, he designed the dust jacket for Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim’s famous book, Film als Kunst (Film as Art), one of the first published books on film theory. In Berlin, he was also invited to join the design studio of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian photographer who had taught at the Dessau Bauhaus. When, in 1936, Moholy relocated his design studio to London, Kepes joined him there as well.

New Bauhaus

A fortunate consequence of moving to London was that Kepes found his future wife, a 17-year-old British woman née Juliet Appleby, an artist and illustrator. By chance, he saw her on the street, introduced himself, and soon the two began to date. The following year, when Moholy agreed to become the director of a new art school in Chicago (which Moholy dubbed the New Bauhaus), Kepes was invited to join the faculty and to head a curricular area in Light and Color. Kepes asked Juliet to join him. While teaching at the Institute of Design (or New Bauhaus) from 1937 to 1943, Kepes enlarged and refined his ideas about design theory, form in relation to function, and (his own term) the “education of vision.” Kepes was lured to Brooklyn College by Russian-born architect Serge Chermayeff, who had been appointed chair of the Art Department in 1942. There he taught graphic artists such as Saul Bass.
In 1944, he published Language of Vision, an influential book about design and design education. Widely used for many years as a college textbook (it had thirteen printings, in four languages), it began by acknowledging Kepes’ indebtedness to the Berlin-based Gestalt psychologists, and by asserting that “Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate…[The visual arts, as] the optimum forms of the language of vision, are, therefore, an invaluable educational medium” (p. 13). In part, the book was important because it predated three other influential texts on the same subject: Paul Rand, Thoughts on Design (1946), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (1947), and Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception (1954).
In 1942, Kepes had been one of a number of people (Moholy was another) who were asked by the U.S. Army to offer advice on military and civilian urban camouflage, in the course of which he viewed Chicago from the air. He alluded to this experience in Language of Vision, when he talked about natural camouflage: “The numerous optical devices which nature employs in the animal world to conceal animals from their enemies reveal the workings of this law [i.e., perceptual grouping] of visual organization” (p. 45).

Years at MIT

In 1947, Kepes accepted an invitation from the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT to initiate a program there in visual design, a division that later became the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (c1968).
While teaching at MIT (where he remained until his retirement in 1974), Kepes was in contact with a wide assortment of artists, designers, architects and scientists, among them Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, Rudolf Arnheim, Marcel Breuer, Charles Eames, Erik Erikson, Walter Gropius and Jerome Wiesner. His own art having moved toward abstract painting, he developed a parallel interest in new scientific imagery, in part because it too had grown increasing “abstract.” In 1956, what began as an exhibition became a highly unusual book, The New Landscape in Art and Science, in which Modern-era artwork was paired with scientific images that were made, not with the unaided eye, but with such then “high tech” devices as x-ray machines, stroboscopic photography, electron microscopes, sonar, radar, high-powered telescopes, infrared sensors and so on. His theories on visual perception and, particularly, his personal mentorship, had a profound influence on young MIT architecture, planning, and visual art students. These include Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City) and Maurice K Smith (Associative Form and Field theory).

Vision + Value

In 1965-66, Kepes edited a set of six anthologies, published as a series called the Vision + Value Series. Each volume contained more than 200 pages of essays by some of the most prominent artists, designers, architects and scientists of the time. The richness of the volumes is reflected in their titles: The Education of Vision; Structure in Art and Science; The Nature and Art of Motion; Module, Symmetry, Proportion, Rhythm; Sign, Image, Symbol; and The Man-Made Object.
In his lifetime, Kepes produced other books of lasting importance, among them Graphic Forms: Art as Related to the Book (1949); Arts of Environment (1972); and The Visual Arts Today (1960). He was also a prolific painter and photographer, and his work is in major collections. In recognition of his achievements, there is a Kepes Visual Centre in Eger, Hungary.

Writings

  • Language of Vision. Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1944. Reissued: New York: Dover Publications, 1995. ISBN 0-486-28650-9.
  • Graphic Forms: The Arts as Related to the Book. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.
  • The New Landscape in Art and Science. Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1956.
  • Vision + Value Series, including The Education of Vision. Structure in Art and Science. The Nature and Art of Motion. Module, Symmetry, Proportion, Rhythm. Sign, Image, Symbol. The Man-Made Object. New York: George Braziller, 1965-66.
  • The Visual Arts Today. Wesleyan University Press, 1966.
  • The Lost Pageantry of Nature. Artscanada, pages 33–39, Dec 1968.
  • Arts of Environment. New York: George Braziller, 1972.
  • György Kepes: The MIT Years 1945-77. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1978.
  • György Kepes, Lucian Bernard, and Ivan Chermayeff. The 60th Art Directors Annual. New York: ADC Publications, 1981

Sources and Links

See also