The German modernist who painted a multicultural United States
To illustrate Langston Hughes’ poem “The Weary Blues,” a German immigrant artist captured “the lazy rocking” of a singer at his piano. Cubist fragments form the background of a cabaret and a nighttime New York cityscape. This is the world of Winold Reiss, where European modernism meets vernacular African-American culture. Reiss broke down divisions between cultures and nations as well as applied and fine arts. His oeuvre included paintings, book drawings, posters, tapestries, and interior and architectural designs. His skills and range are so impressive that his relative absence from the history of 20th-century American art seems inexplicable. The 14 contributors — curators, art historians, artists and cultural critics from both sides of the Atlantic — to the eclectic anthology The multicultural modernism of Winold Reiss (1886-1953): (trans)national approaches to his work offer compelling and provocative reasons to rectify this omission. (His work can also be seen currently in The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.)
A timeline of the artist’s life and work follows a detailed introduction by editor Frank Mehring. Reiss emigrated from Germany to New York in 1913, arriving as the Armory exhibition was shifting the New York art world into modernist mode. His background in fine and applied art, and his background in the Jugendstil design movement (which parallels Art Nouveau), shaped his artistic vision. His eclecticism, several contributors claim, contributed to his relative absence from the history of modern art. His work is difficult to categorize, says Julie Levin Caro, in part because American modernism focused on easel painting in dialogue with France. The stigma attached to commercial art has also blinded critics to its innovations.
Various essays explore Reiss’s design activity, his lasting influence on print culture, his technical methods, including pastel and Conté crayon, and in particular his introduction of vibrant colors. “The American public wants color and demands it,” he said of his brilliant paintings; it “makes the eye joyful and happy”. His city of New York saturated with colors: on the covers of the magazine he founded, Modern art collector, on book covers, posters and inside countless hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings. As C. Ford Peatross recounts, any walking New Yorker would have encountered his designs, many of which are influenced by African American and Native American cultures and designs.
Reiss’s political commitment to ethnic diversity and depictions of people of color also marginalized him among historians creating the canon of modern art. What is the place of an artist who has crossed borders?
Reiss’ commitment to diversity began in childhood. Julie Kennedy and other contributors point to the influence of her childhood, traveling with her artist father through the Black Forest and sketching peasants in traditional costume. Buffalo Bill’s traveling shows and Karl May’s Native American adventure novels shaped his early enthusiasm for the United States. After his first foray into the Blackfoot reservation, he abandoned harmful stereotypes about Indigenous people; his portraits depicted individuals who wore western costumes as well as traditional clothing. This intention to represent individual subjectivities, rather than stereotypes, of people of color distanced him from the mainstream, writes Jeffrey C. Stewart. He describes how the artist “reinvented himself as the mirror of America”. Marginalized communities taught him “the representational codes of how they wanted to be seen”. From the Blackfoot reservation in Harlem, Reiss immersed himself in the world of the people he represented, forming close ties with many people.
The Harlem Renaissance resonates throughout the book. Reiss befriended Alain Locke through their collaboration on two groundbreaking publications: the 1925 Harlem issue of the progressive magazine Survey graphfollow-up to the mythical anthology The New Negro. Reiss contributed drawings and portraits of New York’s African-American community, as did his student, artist Aaron Douglas. Reiss’ portrait “Harlem Girl with Blanket” (c. 1925) depicts a young black woman draped in a bright yellow Indian blanket. The girl’s cultural mix, realistic features and natural hairdo fused “into a complex visual statement of American identity” that is both multifaceted and decidedly modern.
Sydelle Rubin-Dienstfrey explores Reiss’ portraits amid the shifting concepts of race in the early 20th century. Another German immigrant, the anthropologist Franz Boas, had challenged a widespread belief in racial hierarchies. His theories of cultural relativity and racial equality influenced Reiss, as well as the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias. Rubin-Dienstfrey describes both as “ethnographic” for their focused observations of daily life in Harlem. Reiss painted workers, teachers and other professionals as well as major Renaissance figures, including Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson and WEB Du Bois.
Audiences have selectively embraced Reiss’ portraits of people of color. While a 1920 exhibition of his Blackfeet images was sold out, no New York gallery would exhibit his Harlem portraits, his son Tjark lamented. That hasn’t deterred Reiss from his lifelong commitment to the diversity of people. Jeffrey C. Stewart calls him an “exile from whiteness.”
Julie Levin Caro explores how Reiss’ pedagogy challenged the status quo at the art schools he established in New York, Woodstock, and near the Blackfeet reservation. His legendary Greenwich Village studio/school was a hub where people of different races and genders drew nude models together, a practice banned in established art schools. As Patricia Hills suggests, Reiss hoped for a more democratic America; its basis would be empathy, in art as well as in society. Visual arts, music and dance mixed in the studio. A student recalled Paul Robeson singing and playing the piano during class. Jens Barnieck explores Reiss’ portraits of Isadora Duncan’s dancers and modernist and theosophist composer Dane Rudhyar. Reiss shared some of Rudhyar’s spiritual beliefs, but not publicly. Nevertheless, a Theosophist delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
The book avoids hagiography by raising questions. Did Reiss’ Blackfeet portraits create an alternative, albeit more respectful, stereotype, asks Jochen Wierich. How did Reiss balance the needs of financial sponsors like the Great Northern Railway with his political and aesthetic agenda? Several contributors question how Reiss’ work might inadvertently support a view of Native and African American life and art as more “authentic” or spiritually evolved.
In 1942, Reiss collaborated again with Alain Locke and Survey graph editor Paul Kellogg on the matter Color: Unfinished Business of Democracy. He created concentric facial profiles of five racial/ethnic groups for the cover. He linked the profiles to images of the continents of the world to visualize the hope that he, Kellogg and Locke shared: that a transnational modernist art could challenge the divisions between cultures and communities, and between the professed ideals of American democracy and our inability to achieve them. . This objective has not circumvented the disorder of cultural exchanges, interactions and sometimes confrontations. This anthology explores how fully Reiss grasped the complexities suggested in this Survey graph cover.
Each essay highlights Reiss as a pioneer of current importance. Peatross suggests Reiss as a “proto Warhol, in that he made the popular heroic and ennobled the ordinary”. Unlike Warhol’s fascination with mass production and sameness, however, Reiss celebrated difference.
Few of Reiss’ architectural and interior designs have survived, aside from his 1933 Art Deco mosaic murals created for the Cincinnati Union Terminal. This collection fills that gap with spectacular reproductions of his art, from interiors to portraits. The book is an essential guide to understanding modernism in a racially inclusive and transnational context, which brings an extraordinary artist into its fold.
The multicultural modernism of Winold Reiss (1886-1953): (trans)national approaches to his work edited by Frank Mehring (2022) is published by Deutscher Kunstverlag and is available online and in bookstores.
The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist continues at the New York Historic Society Museum & Library (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through October 9. The exhibition was curated by Marilyn Satin Kushner, Curator of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections, and Debra Schmidt Bach, Curator of Decorative Arts and Special Exhibitions, with contributions from Wendy Nalani E. Ikemoto, Senior Curator of the American art.