Half a century ago, György Kepes (1906–2001) established the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT as a lab for interdisciplinary art practice and research. As a direct result, more than 200 contemporary artists would form an affiliation with MIT in the subsequent decades.
The Hungarian-born Kepes first came to MIT in the years following World War II, at a moment when the Institute was reimagining its curriculum and cultural role in peacetime. At that time, Kepes was best known as a mentee of Bauhaus legend László Moholy-Nagy and as the author of the influential design book Language of Vision. According to MIT Museum curator Gary Van Zante, Kepes “immediately assimilated into MIT culture: scientific research became hugely influential to him.” In his own art, and in his curating and theoretical writing, Kepes “looked at scientific imagery and traditional photographic imagery with equal interest, in a way that was pretty radical,” Van Zante says. The founding of CAVS fulfilled Kepes’s vision of bringing cutting-edge artists—who spanned many of the disciplines he himself practiced, including painting, photography, stage design, graphic design, and film—into technologically adventurous collaboration with MIT’s scientists and engineers.
To mark the 50th anniversary of CAVS, the MIT Museum has organized two exhibitions of Kepes’s photography, including many works never before displayed to the public, some newly printed from original, vintage negatives. A look at his pre-MIT work closes March 5, 2018. Photographs from Kepes’s MIT years will be on view beginning March 22, highlighting his experimentation with the principles and techniques of image making and the range of scientific imagery that influenced his work. Selected works from the history of CAVS—which is now part of the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT)—can also be seen at the MIT Museum starting February 15, 2018, as well as in a new online archive launched by ACT in fall 2017. ACT will also sponsor a series of campus-wide events and exhibits in honor of the anniversary in spring 2018.
A look back: Kepes, CAVS, VAP, and ACT
1937: Kepes emigrates to the US and begins teaching at the New Bauhaus in Chicago.
1946: Kepes accepts an invitation from MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning to teach visual design.
1967: Kepes establishes CAVS, which moves into a renovated Building W11 at 40 Massachusetts Avenue.
1971–73: The Charles River Project, an early CAVS collaboration, exhibits site-specific proposals intended to provide urban residents with opportunities for interaction with and contemplation of their environment.
1974: Otto Piene succeeds Kepes as director and will hold the position for 20 years. He intensifies the CAVS commitment to “art at the civic scale” while solidifying his place as a leading figure in kinetic and technology-based art.
1989: By the end of his two decades at CAVS, conceptual artist Lowry Burgess has created the first artistic payload to be carried into outer space by NASA.
1989: The MIT Visual Arts Program (VAP) is founded within the Department of Architecture by Professor Ed Levine to provide undergraduate and graduate instruction in the arts.
1994: VAP faculty member Krzysztof Wodiczko becomes CAVS director. He is instrumental in its shift toward questions of geopolitics, identity, and environmental citizenship.
1996: Stephen Benton ’63, inventor of the rainbow hologram, assumes the directorship of CAVS. Following Benton’s death, Wodiczko will resume the role.
2005: Ute Meta Bauer becomes the director of VAP, which grows under her stewardship.
2009: VAP and CAVS merge into the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT).
2018: Alongside Professor Emeritus Joan Jonas and new ACT director Judith Barry, ACT’s faculty includes Azra Akšamija PhD ’11, Renée Green, and Gediminas Urbonas. Eleven graduate students are working toward a Master of Science in Art, Culture and Technology (SMACT) and 103 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in ACT courses in Fall 2017.