A Cold War Bauhaus

John R. Blakinger
publication date: 05.2020

Bauhaus Diaspora

What happened to the idea of the Bauhaus in the decades after the Bauhaus? This essay examines a key figure at the center of the global spread of the Bauhaus idea after the Second World War: the Hungarian-American artist, designer and visual theorist Gyorgy Kepes (1906–2001). Through his unusual experiments with science and technology, Kepes promoted ideas about interdisciplinarity and collaboration that first originated with Bauhaus modernism in the interwar period. But the conflicts and confrontations that defined Kepes’s career in the United States demonstrate how the Bauhaus—despite its significance as the single most important model for postwar arts pedagogy—also became a fraught ideological battlefield during the politically contested years of the early Cold War.[1]

Kepes was only tangentially connected to the famed German art school. Neither a student nor teacher at the original Bauhaus, he was linked by proxy through his work as assistant to Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy, known simply as Moholy. Born in Hungary in 1906, Kepes first trained as a painter before leaving Budapest for Berlin in order to join the artistic avant-garde. Once in Berlin, he worked in Moholy’s design studio before following Moholy to London in 1934 and, again, to Chicago in 1937 to teach at Moholy’s New Bauhaus (later known as the Chicago School of Design and finally the Institute of Design). During the Second World War, Kepes set out on his own, eventually landing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he taught from 1946 until 1974 (fig. 1). Kepes’s journey across the world reflects a core experience in the twentieth-century spread of the Bauhaus: the rise of fascism prompted the diasporic migration of artists and artistic ideas out of Germany. As Kepes succinctly explained in a set of lecture notes made decades later, “I am vagabond. Budapest Berlin London USA.”[2]

Kepes was unique among the key figures of the Bauhaus diaspora in the United States, which included such luminaries as Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus founder who joined Harvard University’s architecture department, and Josef Albers, who taught at Black Mountain College before moving on to Yale. Unlike Gropius and Albers, Kepes devoted his work to a very particular aspect of the Bauhaus project: the synthesis of art, science and technology, especially through interdisciplinary collaborations. Relating the visual arts to science and technology was, however, not a neutral endeavor; these efforts often became entangled with debates over military power and the politics of the Cold War. MIT during Kepes’s time was the archetypal “Cold War university,” its agenda closely aligned with military research and development.[3] The school was a key institution within the emerging military-industrial complex. In this setting Kepes had no choice but to work with some surprising figures, from Cyril Stanley Smith, a metallurgist who prepared plutonium for the first atomic bomb, to Stanislaw Ulam, a mathematician who invented novel ways to simulate thermonuclear war. Such relationships reflect the formation of an entirely new version of the modernist avant-garde—a “Cold War avant-garde” that was literally and not just figuratively militaristic.[4]


Kepes at MIT

Kepes’s key projects at MIT reflected the presence of military power as an unavoidable constituent feature of interdisciplinary exchange. For example, Kepes studied photographs of scientific phenomena collected from laboratories at MIT and Harvard in the late 1940s; he considered these images not as scientific records but aesthetic objects that could create new perceptual experiences. He used them in his visual design courses and compiled them in an extraordinary 1951 exhibition called The New Landscape (fig. 2). He then reproduced them, often alongside artistic analogues, in a 1956 book titled The New Landscape in Art and Science. Many of the images Kepes collected, however, had origins in weapons and warfare. More than a few were created for use in studying phenomena with military applications or were produced in scientific research bankrolled by defense contractors. How do these militaristic origins frame the images Kepes collected and studied, or change the meaning of his later artistic interventions?

This question points to a crucial tension structuring all of Kepes’s work at MIT. On the one hand, Kepes’s critics compellingly critiqued his projects as an attempt to aestheticize science and technology by glorifying their visual culture, making images and ideas derived from scientific research appear beautiful. According to these arguments, Kepes wielded Bauhaus aesthetics only to generate cultural value that would distract from what actually was happening at MIT—the fact that the Institute was pouring a substantial part of its money into military research. To put it bluntly: Kepes provided a humanistic gloss to an otherwise inhumane institution. On the other hand, we might also understand Kepes’s work as a unique and nuanced intervention intended to convert, transform and fundamentally alter science and technology—including their connections to military research—through the power of aesthetic experience. The ambiguity between these two interpretations is a persistent feature of the reception and understanding of his work, both historically and in the present. Kepes’s role as MIT’s first tenured artist placed him in a unique position to make critical interventions, even while, more broadly speaking, he remained complicit in the Institute’s role within the military-industrial complex.

These tensions are clearly reflected in the response to Kepes’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), the art-and-science think tank he established at MIT in 1967. The idea for the Center had its roots in the Bauhaus and was based in part on a concept put forth by Moholy for an “Institute of Light.”[5] One of the Center’s most significant activities was inviting visiting fellows to MIT to collaborate with scientists on the design of massive urban spectacles using technology to generate sensorial effects. Kepes hoped, above all, to create a massive light tower situated in the urban environment (fig. 3).

But the CAVS also became enmeshed in political battles, especially around the anti-Vietnam War movement that exploded across MIT in the late 1960s. The Center’s first realized project, for example, was an art-and-technology exhibition called Explorations. Kepes had originally designed it for the 1969 São Paulo Biennial, but the show was canceled after participating artists, including CAVS fellows, boycotted the exhibition as a protest against Brazil’s reigning military dictatorship. The debate over the Biennial also revealed the Center’s proximity to military research. CAVS was dependent on specialized knowledge from MIT scientists who also worked on military projects. In the aftermath of such controversies, Kepes became a target of antiwar activism, seen by some—whether fairly or not—as a personification of establishment power and authority.


Sibyl Moholy-Nagy vs. Gyorgy Kepes

Kepes’s most emblematic and enduring project was Vision + Value, the series of seven edited volumes on modern vision he published in the 1960s and 1970s. The series also reflects the tensions that structure all of Kepes’s work. Assembled with texts contributed by hundreds of thinkers representing a dizzying array of disciplines—from artist Robert Smithson to physicist Philip Morrison—the series includes images from across disparate fields, from biology and physics to graphic design. The books’ eclectic contents inspired a sense of confusion for some readers but also a sense of intellectual excitement and creative possibility. For a time, they were a standard fixture in artists’ studios and designers’ libraries. They built on Kepes’s own writing—for instance, his 1942 book Language of Vision—but also repeated the visual design program of the original Bauhaus; they should be understood as a mid-century iteration of the “Bauhaus books” produced decades earlier, with titles such as Education of Vision making clear the serie’s pedagogical ambitions (fig. 4).

Sifting through the pages of Vision + Value remains thrilling. But not all readers appreciated them. The most compelling critique of the series was put forth by none other than Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Moholy’s widow and a prominent architectural historian and critic in her own right. Moholy-Nagy had publicly rejected Kepes’s projects before—in the 1950s, she questioned the basis of his book The New Landscape in Art and Science because of its attempt to reconcile science with the arts. “Much as this reviewer admires the pictorial message of this book, its ideological message arouses a most emphatic protest,” she wrote in one published review. “No ‘corrective measures’ in the world will and should bridge the gap between art and science.”[6] Moholy-Nagy’s review was the opening salvo of an argument with her compatriot that lasted years. In a series of explosive letters sent to Kepes after he gifted her with the first three volumes of his Vision + Value series, Moholy-Nagy expanded on her critique of the “ideological message” embedded in Kepes’s projects. Her response was contemptuous:



The overall idea behind the books as outlined in the introduction to Education of Vision is so absurdly contradictory to the actual content that I would have stopped rather then and there. What you say in this introduction is a mere paraphrasing of what Moholy said in his introduction to Vision in Motion and what you said in Language of Vision. Not that I accuse you of any plagiarism. These ideas developed logically in the 1920’s and ’30’s, and all I am saying is that you or anybody else are harping on the same string. This is beautifully demonstrated in the fact that most of your authors are the ancient oldtimers[sic] from yesterday, starting with Itten, and that what they have to say does not vary from anything they have said over the last 30 years or more.

The trouble is that this clashes stridently with your vaunted claim at “the reintegration of all aspects of our life through 20th century knowledge and power.”

Now, all of this eulogizing of this century stands side by side with your highly justified denouncements of the devastations this selfsame century has wrought on human environment and human vision. If one would take you seriously, it would boil down to a process by which science and technology offered untold riches of social, personal and material happiness to mankind, and mankind—through failure of vision—failed to accept and use these riches. You then call for the old old[sic] moral panacea of personal salvation, man-to-man morality, the inner light and everything else that has been mixed up with art, design and architecture.[7]



This remarkable letter—a brilliantly written attack on everything Kepes stood for and represented—was motivated in part by its author’s personal grievances. She resented the fact that Kepes had not invited her to contribute to his series. She also resented Kepes’s abrupt departure from the New Bauhaus on poor terms with Moholy during the war.

But the attack was not just personal. It also concerned the legacy of the Bauhaus, and what avant-garde modernism meant in the context of the early Cold War. For Moholy-Nagy, Kepes’s project seemed like nothing more than an escapist fantasy, a retreat into the esoteric and arcane, into the depths of the library and meaningless visual knowledge—old, old Bauhaus knowledge from long, long ago. “Book puzzles,” she derisively called the series.[8] She continued with a critique that brings us back to the crucial, unavoidable issue of ideology:



But how can you reconcile this kotow[sic] before the 20th century plunge into self-annihilation, and then fill 3 books with all the antiquated totally personal, totally “prima donna” observations on CREATIVITY. Christ, if only there were a way of putting an embargo on this word which you bandy around as any other EDUCATOR. If anything, this is an age of analysis and tabulation. Is this why we have to rub the old lamp from the Third Avenue Antique Store to conjure up the geni[sic] of “Creative art”?

But even if it made sense to worship MIT while denouncing what its graduates have done to society, isn’t the whole premise of your books completely obsolete? … Does it not occur to you that the computer boys of MIT are playing a game of words and figures that could kill every last instinct for sense values? …

I am sure the books will sell like hotcakes because teachers and designers are so shellshocked[sic] by the accusation of “renouncing the new scientific efforts and technological achievements” that the compromise between verbalization and ancient ancient[sic] visual solutions you offer will be a welcome straw. No matter how many new puzzles you publish, Gyuri, they will never make a total picture that is a perspective in the future. What you need more than anything else is to get out of MIT and Cambridge as fast as you can to save your soul and your talents and your integrity. You have no idea how silly and 19th century deterministic their programs look from the outside. …

I still hope for your disenchantment with the Bauhaus program.[9]



Moholy-Nagy’s shocking letter must have stung Kepes. But his response was characteristically muted and measured. Rather than engage with her in a direct way, he instead offered a general defense of the Bauhaus idea—even decades after the end of the Bauhaus and in the drastically changed circumstances of the 1960s. According to Kepes, the Bauhaus “stood for the effort to juxtapose centripetal forces against the centrifugal forces that ran rampant early in this century. … In spite of all contrary signs, some of the twists in our life can be straightened out by pulling constructive efforts together.”[10] In another note, he contemplated the deeper, essential value of the Bauhaus idea: “Today centrifugal force tearing apart. …[U]ncontrolled … scary. Need centripetal forces—new meeting points, joints, anchors, structural pattern.”[11]

But things do fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. There is no real stability, no ultimate control, no meeting points, joints, anchors or structural pattern that could ever keep the world from accelerating, turning faster and faster.

By the late 1960s, students and faculty at MIT had begun connecting the dots, tracing the outlines of a new formation: the military-industrial-aesthetic complex. In February of 1968, just weeks after the Tet Offensive had begun and weeks before the My Lai massacre—events that made clear the utter horror of the Vietnam War—Kepes sent Moholy-Nagy another letter. It was an invitation to a symposium honoring the establishment of Kepes’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. The name of Kepes’s new institution—it was a “center” after all—reflects his understanding of centripetal force as the very core of the Bauhaus program. Moholy-Nagy confirmed her attendance at the event but was also blunt about her suspicions. She had serious doubts about Kepes’s Center, as she did about any other project attempting to restage and repeat the Bauhaus in the postwar world:



I shall come to Cambridge on Thursday and Friday to attend the sessions. I do this out of an honest hope to understand perhaps by personal confrontation what escapes me so completely in written statements—this whole homogenization of art and technology, or rather of designed environment and scientific experimentation. That vehement protest I sent you some years ago (1965?) when I received the first 3 volumes of your Braziller series would hardly be written by me today—not because I KNOW differently but because the dehumanization and impending annihilation of American civilization seems to furnish proof for my life thesis that is beyond argument.

The staggering guilt of Vietnam lies ultimately with the ideologists of technological progress, the way the ultimate guilt of Hitlerism lay with Nietzsche and the ideologists of the Germanic super race.—Science and Technology live by permission of the military establishment. This is the way I feel now; I do hope that the various offerings at the symposia will teach me differently—that the miracle will occur that reconciles what MIT is doing for the war effort with your vision of creativity.[12]



With that, the correspondence ends. There were no more letters. We can only assume that Kepes’s “vision of creativity” ultimately failed to persuade, that no new miracle occurred.


The startling exchange of letters between Kepes and Moholy-Nagy should be understood as among the most significant primary documents concerning the legacy of the Bauhaus and, more broadly, the reception of art-and-technology collaborations in the postwar period. The letters reveal the shifting understanding of the Bauhaus after the Second World War. Divorced from its historical origins, operating instead as a flexible idea, the historical Bauhaus could be adapted to a variety of new ends. But the pedagogical models and interdisciplinary protocols pioneered at the school also became entangled with complex political debates. Does this afterlife of the Bauhaus reflect a corruption of the original program or a militarism latent in the school itself and its earliest ideas? Was the utopianism of the Bauhaus program merely instrumentalized, assimilated into the “culture industry” and “establishment,” offering only a false utopianism disguising more negative realities? These questions—which lack clear answers—indicate how the Bauhaus became a battlefield for ideological confrontation.

Kepes often described his ambitions as “undreaming” the Bauhaus, an unusual turn of phrase borrowed from a letter written by the artist Otto Piene, who Kepes invited to his Center as a visiting fellow and who eventually succeeded Kepes as CAVS Director.[13] Kepes hoped to make the dreams of the historical Bauhaus—dreams for a total art, for seamless collaboration and cooperation, for interdisciplinarity between art, science and technology—become reality. The problem, however, was that undreaming the Bauhaus revealed its core ideas—so compelling in their first iteration—as potentially flawed.





  1. ^ This essay draws from my book on Kepes: see John R. Blakinger: Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2019.
  2. ^ Gyorgy Kepes, undated and untitled note, Gyorgy Kepes papers (M1796), Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford Libraries (hereafter Kepes papers, Stanford), Stanford, California, box 82, folder 6.
  3. ^ The other archetypal Cold War university was Stanford. Rebecca S. Lowen examines Stanford and the broader notion of the “Cold War university” in Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford, University of California Press, Berkeley 1997. David Kaiser presents a parallel history of MIT in “Elephant on the Charles: Postwar Growing Pains” in: David Kaiser (ed.): Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2010, pp. 103–122. More recently, Matthew Levin uses the term in reference to the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 2013.
  4. ^ Ghamari-Tabrizi introduces this term in The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2005. Pamela M. Lee cites Ghamari-Tabrizi’s terminology in “Aesthetic Strategist: Albert Wohlstetter, the Cold War, and a Theory of Mid-Century Modernism,” October 138 (Fall 2011): pp. 15–36. See also Lee’s Think Tank Aesthetics: Midcentury Modernism, the Cold War and the Neoliberal Present, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2020.
  5. ^ László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, Paul Theobald, Chicago 1947, p. 284.
  6. ^ Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: review of “The New Landscape in Art and Science” in: College Art Journal 18, no. 2 (Winter 1959), p. 193.
  7. ^ Sibyl Moholy-Nagy to Gyorgy Kepes, 15 March 1965, Kepes papers, Stanford, box 50, folder 11.
  8. ^ Moholy-Nagy uses the phrase “book puzzle” in a letter commenting on an exhi­bition of Kepes’s paintings. She claims, through a well-crafted backhanded com­pliment, to have enjoyed the paintings much more than Vision + Value: “You have in them[the paintings] a gift for original vision which one would hardly suspect from the book puzzles.” Sibyl Moholy-Nagy to Gyorgy Kepes, 29 April 1966, Kepes papers, Stanford, box 50, folder 11.
  9. ^ Sibyl Moholy-Nagy to Gyorgy Kepes, 15 March 1965, Kepes papers, Stanford, box 50, folder 11.
  10. ^ Gyorgy Kepes to Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, 31 March 1965, Kepes papers, Stanford, box 50, folder 11.
  11. ^ Gyorgy Kepes, undated note titled “Braziller intro,” Kepes papers, Stanford, box 82, folder 5.
  12. ^ Sibyl Moholy-Nagy to Gyorgy Kepes, 25 February 1968, Kepes papers, Stanford, box 50, folder 11.
  13. ^ Gyorgy Kepes: “Kinetic Light as a Creative Medium” in: Technology Review 70, no. 2 (December 1970), p. 31.

Fig. 3: Gyorgy Kepes, simulated light architecture for Boston Harbor, 1966.

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