Kepes went on to teach without Smith in the successor of the New Bauhaus, the School of Design, which opened in 1939. At the regular and evening classes, the Light and Advertising Workshop, where “a thorough re-evaluation is made of the elements of visual expression,”31 he was helped by several assistants: Frank Levstik, and two students, Leonard Niederkorn and Nathan Lerner.32 Beside the vividly imaginative photograms, which he devised from the most diverse materials, Kepes conducted important light experiments, which employed the distorting and reflexive effects of prisms, concave and convex lenses and glass pieces, and easy-to-mould polished metal surfaces. With a signature move, he forced the lyrically abstract, amorphous shapes into a balanced order by combining them with geometric forms. “The phenomenon of light is capable of an apparent spontaneity which is difficult, if not impossible, for the manual artist to achieve,” he wrote on the back of a piece made at the time.33 It followed from the nature of light that the form was not the only thing to appear in Kepes’s compositions: there was also a secondary image that emerged from the motion generated by the form – a virtual trace of space-time, which also referred, through our senses, the unknown processes in the world around. This reflected, purely intellectual quality that makes perception fluid when we look at the picture is a clear sign of how deeply Kepes’s aesthetic was influenced by a key figure of Gestalt psychology, a lifelong friend, Rudolf Arnheim.34
Kepes’s study in a 1942 issue of Popular Photography provided a summary of his experiments with light. In discussing the effect-making mechanisms of modern design, he called attention to modeling with “plastic light,” in which, he claimed, the point is not to grasp the object to be represented but to record the light reflected by the object.35 “The goal of this play with light,” he writes, “is to find out the varying light-modeling capacities of the objects which surround us.”36 The first illustration in the study demonstrates the interaction of metal fragments sprinkled inside a horseshoe magnet, which recalled the artist’s photogram Magnetic Fields (1938). The latter not only showed “the hidden face of nature,” but was such an eye-catcher that it made it to the front page of a magazine (PM, 1939).37 The same year, Moholy, Kepes and Lerner presented a workshop-exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art under the title “How to make a photogram,” which was probably the most appropriate presentation of the method used in the school. Between 1941 and 1943, the show travelled through the cities of the East Coast, and brought popular recognition for the School of Design.38
The experience Kepes garnered whilst teaching the theory of design, a part of the Chicago curriculum, was solidified into a unified theory by those two fields that are crucial for the photogram’s mode of expression, light modeling and interpretive vision. He crystallized his views in his 1944 book Language of Vision, which is to this day an essential source for visual education.39 The artist’s first book – in which one of the forewords was written by Siegfried Giedion, who had looked at the mechanization of the human environment through the lens of Kepes’s findings – outlined a history of the physiology of vision, emphasizing the importance of new means of visual expression and technological media. The tool of a new order of image making, he concluded, is the “dynamic iconography,” an optical message that is arranged plastically and has a symbolic and deeply social commitment, being “one of the strongest potential means both to reunite man and his knowledge and to re-form man into an integrated being.”40
The Expansion of Light: From the Studio to the Environment
György Kepes’s interest in the theoretical and practical application of light dates back to his Berlin years of the early 1930s, diligently conducting studies in the field of photogram, photography and film, but by that time he wouldn’t imagine to enlarge the scope of the medium to an environmental scale, not even in his wildest dreams.
It was in the end of 1941, just after the attack of Pearl Harbor that made United States to enter WWII, when the School of Design in Chicago announced a program in civilian defense.41 Developed by Kepes in the following year, his Camouflage Course was a remarkable intersection of art and science, offering a diverse account in the psychology of light and color perception that was combined with a “research ... in nature and animal camouflage; surface covering; mimicry; visual illusions; … basic photography course; investigation of camouflage techniques.”42 The most notable plans sought to deceive enemy pilots with floating light sources in city parks, artificial islands on Lake Michigan off Chicago, and lights on buoys in the lake that would have imitated the night-time aerial view of the city.43 Kepes’s preoccupation with camouflage technology was a prerequisite of his experience of seeing night-time Chicago, by hovering above the city in a helicopter, as part the preparation of the school’s military assignment.44 Several of those works he later devised for public space he came to realize refer to the cosmic sight of flying over the city at night.