Winold Reiss, the German immigrant artist who immortalized marginalized Americans

An exhibit at the New York Historical Society examines the work of the influential but little known German-American artist, graphic designer, and interior designer Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Title The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernistthe exhibition features 150 works – many of which are on display for the first time – including paintings, drawings, posters, furniture, preparatory sketches and more.

As a young man, Reiss enrolled at the Munich Academy to study with Franz von Stuck, whose other students included Paul Klee, Wasily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers. In 1913, aged 26, he immigrated to America and settled in New York. “He comes here because he wants to bring modern art to America,” explains Marilyn Satin Kushner, co-organizer of the exhibition with Debra Schmidt Bach. “He has his fingers in everything. He sees the importance of painting and sculpture but also of graphics, posters and even woodworking.

The first of four galleries in the exhibition focuses on Reiss’ early work. It includes bold and colorful paintings imported from Germany, as well as graphic works, posters and two wooden dining chairs. The work Decorative Bird Panel (1911-16) – a bright, swirling drawing in tempera on paper – exemplifies this early period, while a 1916 poster advertising a charity bazaar for the widows of fallen soldiers in World War I epitomizes his skill for bold graphic designs.

Winold Reiss, Scallop Edge Low Back Chairs with Arms and Scalloped High Back Chair (both 1914). Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

The second gallery features Reiss’ strongest and arguably most relevant work. In 1925, Reiss was asked by publisher Paul Kellogg to illustrate an issue of the sociopolitical magazine Survey graph. Title Harlem: Mecca of the New Negrothe issue was edited by writer and philosopher Alain Locke, and also featured writing by civil rights activist WEB Du Bois and feminist scholar Elise Johnson McDougald.

Some of the black intellectuals Reiss was commissioned to paint pushed back against the idea of ​​a white German immigrant being chosen to represent them, but concerns were allayed when Locke vouched for the artist. “Locke understood that Reiss, more than any artist he knew, was able to reach into the souls of these people,” Kushner explains. The works are displayed here for the first time since 1925, when they were displayed at the New York Public Library branch on 135th Street.

The adjacent wall features portraits including a famous depiction of the poet Langston Hughes; Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi; and a work on paper of an Aboriginal man known as Turtle (one of 10 works created by Reiss depicting him). After reading the immensely popular Western novels of German author Karl May, encountering and painting indigenous peoples became one of the artist’s main interests, with more than 250 such works known in his work. He made several trips to the Blackfeet reservation in Montana to represent members of the tribe; this body of work remains Reiss’s most commercially successful, although only one example is featured in the exhibition.

Winold Reiss, Alain Locke (1924 or 1925). Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

In the third gallery there are preparatory sketches, metalwork, and ephemera depicting Reiss’s commercial work for New York hotels, restaurants, and homes. Notable pieces include preliminary interior designs and sketches for the popular Longchamps chain of restaurants covering the period 1923-1952, and menus and matchbooks for the Crillon restaurant dated 1919-1926. These artifacts are further evidence of the breadth of Reiss’s skills, with colorful and plunging shapes, graphics and typefaces that exemplify modernist principles par excellence. Almost all of the commercial efforts referenced in the third gallery no longer exist; mockups and ephemera are all that remain.

The fourth and final gallery in the exhibition explores some of Reiss’ influences. It is anchored by a large-scale painting salvaged from one of Longchamps’ restaurants, designed around the theme of “the future”. Rendered in gold paint, the 1936 painting of an airplane, train and car in a vibrant cityscape is reminiscent of Italian Futurism and shows the artist’s imagined interpretation of life in the 21st century. Other highlights include a pair of works imitating German Expressionism and an action-packed Harlem dance scene from 1925, testament to his deep love of jazz.

Winold Reiss,Mural of the city of the future, Longchamps restaurant (1450 Broadway, at West Forty-First Street) (1936). Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

Studying Reiss’ work raises the question of why such a prolific and influential artist is largely unrecognized today. While he enjoyed commercial success and acceptance in artist circles, as an immigrant from a country the Americans fought against in World War I and World War II, Kushner posits that Reiss s felt ostracized from mainstream society at a time of widespread anti-German struggle. feeling. The sense of being an outsider led him to portray minorities and groups on the fringes of mainstream American society, including African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.

Racism and prejudice also meant that there were few outlets and places to publish or show the resulting artwork. Meanwhile, Reiss’ commercial work for restaurants and hotels was mostly unveiled with little fanfare and often destroyed or repainted as tastes changed. Collecting these works now may help address Reiss’ longstanding obscurity.

  • The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernistuntil October 9 at the New-York Historical Society, New York

James R. Rhodes