Kepes and Malina : Some personal observations on Theory and Praxis (First Draft)

by Roger F Malina

When Nina Czegledy and Rona Kopeczky proposed to me their exhibition on Gyorgy Kepes and my father Frank Malina, I was immediately interested. It seemed a natural coupling of two men of the same era, eastern European backgrounds, both were survivors of the same world war and with over-lapping passions. Both were deeply immersed in both artistic and scientific cultures, living examples of individuals who bridged  the two cultures that C.P. Snow had been discussing since the 1950s (1).

I first met Gyorgy Kepes in 1968 when I arrived as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kepes had recently founded the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, dedicated to promoting the work of artists in scientific and technological culture, within one of the most prestigious science and engineering universities in the world. My father had just founded the Leonardo Journal at the scientific publisher Pergamon Press, a journal (2) dedicated to promoting the work of artists in the deeper context of a techno-scientific world. Both had been making art that appropriated scientific landscapes as integral parts of the natural world that was the raw material of art making.

M.I,T,, and America, were a complicated places in 1968, and the relationship of techno-culture to human values not a simple one. The paroxysm caused by the Vietnam War was very much in evidence at M.I.T, one of the hearts of American military-industrial complex. The student union was occupied to protect a draft evader.  Judith Malina and her Living Theater performed as did the rock band the Grateful Dead. Kepes’ C.A.V.S was very much part of an alternative way of coupling science and the arts at M.I.T, a progeny of the Bauhaus tradition and its own infliential example in German society of the 1920s.

My father had worked for the U.S. Military during the war; he headed the team that built the U.S’s first successful high altitude rocket, the W.A.C. Corporal (3), co founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Aerojet General, a major aerospace company that contributed to success of the Apollo Program. At M.I,T my father introduced me to his friend and colleague Stark Draper. Draper has developed the principle of inertial guidance during the war, and founded the Draper Labs at MIT, one of the major labs that the U.S. military funded for basic and applied research.

One day I found myself demonstrating against the Vietnam War on Massachusetts Avenue outside the Draper Labs. On the roof of the building I could see Stark Draper in his French beret, surrounded by guards, looking down at the crowd of gesticulating students. That same year there  were a parties at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies where physicist Philip Morrison and psychologist Jerome Lettvin mingled with the artists at C.A.V.S. The relationship between art, science and technology was indeed a complicated one at  M.I.T that co-mingled ideas of a search for a new synthetic culture while wrestling with strategic role of  techno-science in the balance of terror.

I recently obtained by father’s U.S.A. F.B.I. files (4) with thirty years of interviews with informants as J.Edgar Hoover sought to convict my father of being a member of the communist party. My father had left the U.S in 1947 to help set up U.N.E.S.C.O as his own contribution to establishing new conditions for world peace. He had resigned his job at UNESCO and lost his U.S. passport because of the F.B.I pursuit. In the F.B.I. files an informant, an informant accuses my father of delaying the winning of the war, by insisting on carrying out too many theoretical calculations before testing their experimental rocket engines. This struggle between theory and praxis was deeply embedded in my father’s scientific and artistic practice; he was surely never a communist.

My father’s Ph.D advisory at the Caltech Institute of Technology had been Thedore Von Karman, a Hungarian émigré, and one of the world’s preeminent applied mathematicians. The ‘Karman Vortex” (5) in turbulence theory is named in recognition of his mastering of the theory of fluid instabilities whose understanding is fundamental in both aeronautics and astronautics. Von Karman has instilled in Frank Malina the deep belief that one needed to deploy advanced mathematics as a tool not only in science and also in engineering.

In another context, physicist Eugene Wigner had called this “the mysterious effectiveness of mathematics” (6). As my father began his art career in the 1950’s he brought this perspective to art making, believing that a theory of art must underlie an artist’s exploration of artistic expression. He was amazed that most artists thought that the theory of art and aesthetics was irrelevant to their work. This attitude led my father to contact Ernest Gombrich, Rudolph Arnheim, J.J. Gibson, but also fractals mathematician Benoit Mandelbrojt and the graph theorist Frank Harary. Fabrice Lapelletrie (7) has documented my father’s continuing seach for the theoretical, and scientific, framework, to contextualize his own art making.

My father’s relationship between theory and praxis in art, in science and in engineering were of one cloth. He wanted theory to guide his understanding of himself and his creativity, and enable his inventions. He started an aerospace company, Aerojet general to commercialise his engineering invention. He started the Electro Lumidyne Company (E.L.I.) to commercialise his inventions in kinetic art which he had also patented, just has he had done in rocketry. His art and his science were both ways for him to appropriate the world around him, to be in it and to understand it but also to allow him to contribute to human welfare.

His interest in rocketry was born from the cultural imaginary that he developed reading Jules Verne in the high school back in the Czech republic, where his parents had returned to between the world wars. His interest in art making was all about bringing science and technology into the home environment; he talked of a kinetic art form that was as deeply ingrained in human psychology with the same sense of intimacy of a fire in a hearth that created sense of home, safety and fascination. The Bauhaus influence was deeply ingrained in his own ways of bridging scientific and artistic world views, and of appropriating industrial and engineering processes into the making of fine and applied arts. As he struggled to exhibit his kinetic art in Paris galleries and museums, I remember my father joking that there was more technology in his kitchen that in the best museum in Paris. It is still true today.

In closing, I think that this exhibition which couples Gyorgy Kepes and Frank Malina, makes visible an important thread of intellectual history that cross couples the arts, sciences and engineering of the twentieth century. It highlights the importance of the Bauhaus ideas of coupling art and industrial society, the interesting confluence of scientists and artist with eastern Europeans roots, and the political history of a turbulence times when theory and praxis were sometimes strange bedfellows.

References and Notes

(1) C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and a Second Look: An Expanded Version of the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution , Cambridge University Press 1969.

(2) Leonardo Journal, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

(3) Zibit, Ben. The Guggenheim Aeronautics Laboratory at Caltech and the Creation of the Modern Rocket Motor. UMI Dissertation Services, a Bell and Howell Company, 1999.


(5) The Wind and Beyond – Theodore von Kármán Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space, Little Brown, 1967 (with L. Edson). ;( one of my father’s art works is an artists representation of the Karman Vortex Street.

(6) “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” in Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (February 1960). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Copyright © 1960 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc

(7) F. Lapelletrie, Ph.D.Thesis, Paris 2010.

(8) I.Hargittai, The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century, Oxford Univ Press,  2006.