The relevance of art in a world dominated by technology and science was a question that confronted visionary art theorist and artist Gyorgy Kepes in 1946, and art historians say it is still relevant more than ever in the digital age -- and especially in Silicon Valley.
Kepes (pronounced "KAY-pesh") sought to find a visual bridge between art and science that he believed was rooted in nature and particularly in the microscopic worlds that were only available to scientists at the time. Kepes' 1951 exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to demonstrate a potentially shared visual language between science and art. Photographic panels hung from lattices confronted the visitor with previously unknowable worlds: from cells to cloud-chamber tracks, the patterns of electric sparks to a magnification of a camel's tongue. These patterns, shapes and textures, artistic in themselves, were paired with Kepes' own explorations in photographic light and painting.
A new show at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, "The New Landscape: Experiments in Light by Gyorgy Kepes," reconstructs the seminal 1951 exhibition using original double-sided panels hung from lattices as Kepes did. The original panels and photographs come from Kepes' archive of papers, which were acquired by the Department of Special Collections at Stanford University Libraries in 2010.
The Cantor exhibit raises the same question Kepes sought to answer as far back as 1946 when he became the first art professor hired at MIT as part of a new institutional initiative: What role does art have in a world dominated by science and technology?
Kepes sought "to find channels of communication that interconnect various disciplines" and platforms for "confronting, combining and comparing knowledge," something he termed "interseeing," said show curator John Blakinger, Andrew W. Mellon curatorial resident assistant in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University. Blakinger has curated the exhibition through a grant by the Andrew Carnegie Mellon Foundation, which will allow several Stanford doctoral students to get hands-on curatorial experience.
Made from enlargements affixed to particleboard, the Kepes exhibition constructs an immersive environment with layers of images that viewers can walk through, he said. The first series of panels, suspended from the lattices, depicts scientific imagery Kepes collected from his MIT colleagues, which he described as "the new landscape" -- the world newly revealed by science. The second series, which is displayed on the gallery's walls, shows Kepes' artistic experiments in light.
"Kepes used innovative photographic techniques to create startling abstractions, effectively turning the darkroom into a laboratory," Blakinger said.
Seen alongside one another, Kepes' scientific and artistic panels show striking visual affinities, and they demonstrate Kepes' notion of "interseeing," Blakinger added.
Quotations from Kepes' writings, diagrams from his books, drawings from his notes and silver-gelatin prints help to make the exhibition an investigation of motion, symbol, form and pattern, which Kepes believed constitute a common visual language that could reconcile the competing art and science cultures, Blakinger said.
Kepes, who died in 2001, was born in Hungary in 1906. He was an important figure in the avant-garde Bauhaus movement in Hungary, which was started by fellow Hungarian and artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In 1930, he and Moholy-Nagy moved to Berlin, where they remained until the rise of Nazism. They fled to England, and then arrived in Chicago in 1937, where Moholy-Nagy started the New Bauhaus, later called the School of Design, then the Institute of Design and now the Illinois Institute of Technology. Kepes headed the Light and Color department and taught the elements of photography. He became fascinated by light, seeing it as a creative medium that could be shaped, Blakinger said. He experimented with photograms by placing objects on photo paper and exposing the paper to light, and he pioneered a technique of exposing photographic glass plates on which he painted.
When MIT hired Kepes in 1946, the scientific environment created a crisis for him, which led to his lifelong search to reconcile art and science, Blakinger said. He founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT to further this goal.
Since his early days in Europe, Kepes had sought a utopian society after being deeply affected by World War I and its aftermath, he said in a 1988 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo interview for a show on art and science.
"Usually when you are seeing very dark, then you have at least dreams of much light. I was hoping to compensate for the missing part by dreaming about a much better world than I had."
Art was a way to raise social consciousness, he said. Kepes saw art not as just a subjective expression of anger about a misplaced existence but about an optimum existence -- "the scaffolding of existence."
Nature provided the basis for creating that scaffold. Science in the 1950s and 1960s was preoccupied with the atom bomb and space travel. But Kepes also saw that with its growing insights into the elements of nature, science provided a "new landscape" of sights, sounds and forms that were previously unknown, he said in his 1956 book, "The New Landscape in Art and Science." Those forms could be the basis for developing a common culture that would help integrate the inner world of thought and feeling and the outer world of nature, he said.
Walking through the lattice at the Cantor show, one faces a back wall of Kepes' manipulated images: photograms such as "Gate" (1948), with its bold calligraphic design and ovoid egg forms (Kepes placed real eggs on the photographic paper before exposing it to light), and "Photographic painting" (1942). Those forms resonate with the lattice-hung microscopic cells, such as "Transverse section of Osmanthus wood" (1951), or branching electrical charges, such as in "Lichtenberg Figures" (1951).
Blakinger thinks the exhibit could spark a similar search for an artistic and technological language in Silicon Valley.
"To reconcile art and science is really resonant today -- it's hugely relevant and timely," Blakinger said. "It's interesting to look back and see how a figure articulated that in a different context. "Looking back can inform our understanding of our perspectives today."
What: "The New Landscape: Experiments in Light by Gyorgy Kepes"
Where: Cantor Arts Center, Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford University
When: through Nov. 17, Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Also open Mondays after Sept. 21.