by Max Blue
Can an ideal work of art exist? How might it be made? Questions such as these were central to European artists at the start of the 20th century. The Bauhaus sought to answer them. Founded in 1919 in Germany, to create Gesamtkunstwerk (a “total” work of art”), the design house and trade school saw theory and craftsmanship as integral to artistic production. In its brief existence, the school moved from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin, where it closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime, which considered it a breeding ground for Socialist ideology. Many faculty members subsequently emigrated to the U.S. and continued to espouse the school's ideals, spreading the influence of the Bauhaus across subsequent movements in art and design.
Among these visionaries were Hungarian artists Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes. In 1937 Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago – today known as the Illinois Institute of Technology – and invited Kepes to join the faculty. Kepes was inspired by the work of other Bauhaus artists as well by the Constructivist and Dada movements he encountered earlier in Budapest. Kepes believed that art should encompass both the humanities and the sciences, and his experimental work incorporated these disciplines.
Kicking off a citywide season of Bauhaus-related exhibitions (see below for details) coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the original Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, Robert Koch Gallery (celebrating its 40th anniversary) offers a survey of Kepes and his Bauhaus compatriots. Included are Moholy-Nagy and American photographers Milton Halberstadt, Arthur Siegel and Henry Holmes Smith. All three Americans were affiliated with the New Bauhaus: Halberstadt and Seigel were students; Smith taught there. Most of the work on display, however, belongs to Kepes, with modest offerings from the other four.
Through an examination of design objects such as packaging, letterpress type and tools, Kepes draws attention to the process of design and image-making, primarily through photograms: pictures made by placing objects directly on photographic paper and exposing them to light. In Untitled (Box template), 1939, for example, Kepes has unfolded and photographed a small cardboard box several times, producing a multiple exposure that calls to mind a deluge of consumer products. Another untitled montage (1940) shows a flattened container, the word "CARTONS," a compass, stylus, brush, and paint tubes, as well as the ghostly shadow of a hand. Untitled (Compass and letterpress type), 1938-1939, another photogram of design tools, has a shadowy hand pressing the letterpress type V onto the photo paper. Combinations like these suggest the ascendance, if not the dominance, of heavy industry.
Untitled (Tank silhouette), 1942, a photogram of a model tank, is the most direct comment on WWII and one form of its monetization: toys. Untitled (Hand, mortar and pestle), 1938, an image of an upraised fist grasping a pestle, reads as an ominous (and unmistakable) symbol of resistance. These photograms pinpoint how socialist ideology intersected with consumer culture. By foregrounding the process by which such works were made, Kepes, by intertwining art and design, kept viewers focused on the labor involved in both disciplines.
If there’s a problem with this exhibition, it’s that the prints sometimes appear as little more than test strips for subsequent efforts. Untitled (Hand with crossed lines), 1939-1940 – while compositionally satisfying – still feels like a dry run for Untitled (Hand and crowd), 1938. In the former, Kepes uses gels to expose a print of a hand at various tonal values, while the ensuing photogram shows a hand over a picture of a crowd, referencing the tightening grasp of the Nazi regime.
Kepes also examined the interface of nature and technology. Photograms such as Untitled (Weed and organic abstract), 1938, are reminiscent of the work of Anna Atkins, a cyanotype pioneer who produced similar studies of plant matter nearly a century earlier. Untitled, 1940 is a sparse collage reminiscent of Andre Breton, featuring reproductions of eyes. Here, nature and technology collide. The first is a torn fragment of a photograph; the second an enlarged halftone reproduction; the third, a clipping of a picture of a classical statue. Combined, they bring to the fore differences between object design and image production, offering up a synthesis of both.
Untitled (Still life), 1940, a collaborative diptych by Kepes and Halberstadt, features two prints of the same negative showing a scattering of vegetables and a wooden frame. One of the prints has been solarized – exposed so long that the values become inverted. It's an exciting experiment, but not much more. Halberstadt makes a few solo contributions as well that arrive
in the form of solarized portraits. The only instance where the technique enhances the original negative is Untitled (Olga reflected in tin), 1940-1941. Here, the inversion yields a metallic sheen that you could easily take for a tintype.
Two black-and-white abstractions represent Arthur Seigel. These prints, reminiscent of Cubism, have a kinetic quality that calls to mind the work of Russian Constructivist painter El Lissitzky. They'd be among the exhibition's most compelling, were they not overwhelmed by so many similar studies in light and form.
Maholy-Nagy’s paintings and serigraphs, along with Kepes’s paintings, offer welcome contrasts. They are the largest pieces on display and two of the most colorful. Maholy-Nagy’s Untitled (Study from the photogram on the cover of Vision in Motion), 1941, is a gauche-and-ink illustration of machine parts arranged to resemble a human figure in pursuit of a chicken. Kepes’s Untitled (Box and Eye), 1949, is a collage with gauche and newsprint and another example of his thematic fixations. Untitled (Skeleton in frame with newspaper), c. 1938-1940 is a departure. In this collage, showing a skeleton trapped like a specimen in a clear frame, the natural and the mass-produced combine in an eerie, surrealist still life.
The paintings echo the exhibition's single-color photograph: Untitled (Light Study), 1946, by Henry Holmes Smith. Almost hidden at the end of the show, it would be easy to miss if not for its vibrancy: a bright punctuation at the end of a deluge of black-and-white prints. At roughly 4 x 7 inches, it's the smallest piece here, and also the most contemporary.
Process art – which emphasizes the means of its own production – has long been an accepted mode of art-making, so it's easy to forget how revolutionary it was at its inception. In the attempt to create art from the daily barrage of vernacular imagery, Kepes included science and technology under the "totality" of Gesamtkunstwerk, displaying the results of these experiments as finished work. Given the disjunctions within them, the Dadaist influence shines through – an irreverent response to the technological and capitalist disasters that were the two world wars. His emphasis on both the visual and political vernacular elevates the "totality" of the work, and in viewing it, we can see how little that vernacular has changed. His political sentiments, too, feel equally timely as global tensions now assume the guise of product packaging.
# # #
About the author:
Northern California native Max Blue is a writer of criticism, fiction and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and creative writing at the University of San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America, among others.