A Body of Work—elec­tric

Wi­nold Reiss eludes clas­si­fi­ca­tion at Hirschl & Adler Gal­leries exhibition in Newyork

American Fine Art Magazine - - My View - By James D. Balestri­eri

Wi­nold Reiss eludes clas­si­fi­ca­tion at Hirschl & Adler Gal­leries exhibition in New York

The new exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Gal­leries in New York takes its ti­tle from an in­ter­est­ing, and quite funny, ar­ti­cle in the March 1931 is­sue of Du Pont mag­a­zine, the trade pub­li­ca­tion of the man­u­fac­turer of chem­i­cal com­pounds and coat­ings ti­tled,“wi­nold Reiss will not be clas­si­fied.”as the au­thor finds Reiss in his stu­dio, he is teach­ing a class, pre­par­ing portraits, wrap­ping up il­lus­tra­tions, look­ing at swatches and sam­ples for a hotel lounge, planning a new ex­pe­di­tion to the West and talk­ing on the phone to his wife. He even gets a plug in for two of Du Pont’s prod­ucts: Fabrikoid, for up­hol­stery, and Mu­ralart, as a wall cov­er­ing.the more you study Reiss, the more you see him as a Re­nais­sance man in the tra­di­tion of artists like davinci, Michelan­gelo and Cellini (the au­thor calls Reiss “A Modern Cellini”) who worked in many fields. But while he is well known among art his­to­ri­ans, cu­ra­tors, deal­ers and col­lec­tors, it is cu­ri­ous that he is not better known to the Amer­i­can pub­lic at large. Be­cause with­out any real stretch,wi­nold Reiss could be, and per­haps should be, to Amer­i­can art what Walt Whit­man is to Amer­i­can po­etry and let­ters.

Reiss was not only open-minded, but re­lent­lessly op­ti­mistic, paint­ing portraits from Na­tive Amer­i­cans to Mex­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and peas­ants, from the lead­ers of the Har­lem Re­nais­sance to fashion mod­els, from artist friends to ho­bos he ap­proached on the street, rev­el­ing in the di­ver­sity and see­ing the dig­nity in every one of his sub­jects. A glance through Jef­frey C. Ste­wart’s Wi­nold Reiss:an Il­lus­trated Check­list of His Portraits, which ac­com­pa­nied the 1989-1990 Reiss exhibition at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, will con­firm the artist’s mul­ti­form fas­ci­na­tion with the hu­man face and con­di­tion.

A very good place to be­gin to take in both the phi­los­o­phy and artistry of Reiss can be found in an ex­cel­lent es­say written by John Hem­inway to in­tro­duce the Thomas Ny­gard Gallery’s 1997 Reiss exhibition, Na­tive Faces. Hem­inway quotes Reiss’ son,tjark, “I can remember walk­ing through Union Square on our way to Lu­chow’s. In­vari­ably, Dad would spot some­one sit­ting on a bench or on the curb… Ne­go­ti­a­tions would be­gin…the first ques­tion he ever asked any­one pos­ing for him, whether it was a fash­ion­able Newyork so­ci­ety lady or some­body he’d found on the street, was their eth­nic ori­gin. It was im­por­tant to him to know this back­ground and he

felt peo­ple should be proud of who they were. He had ab­so­lutely no racial prej­u­dice. He de­fended every race, ex­alt­ing in racial dif­fer­ences.”

De­spite there be­ing no ma­jor mono­graph on his work—a se­ri­ous over­sight in Amer­i­can art his­tory—the ma­te­rial facts of Reiss’ life are read­ily avail­able. He was born in Karl­sruhe, Ger­many, in 1886. His fa­ther, a painter whose sub­ject was the Ger­man peas­antry and land­scape, was Wi­nold’s first teacher. Later, Reiss trav­eled to Mu­nich, study­ing with Franz von Stuck at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and with Julius Diez at the School of Ap­plied Arts. Be­tween the two, Reiss re­ceived train­ing across artis­tic dis­ci­plines and me­dia, in­clud­ing in­te­rior de­sign, tex­tiles, mu­ral paint­ing, and print­mak­ing, skills that would al­low him to ad­vance his ca­reer in nu­mer­ous di­rec­tions af­ter he sailed for Amer­ica in 1913.

Reiss brought the strong, of­ten­re­peated pat­terns, long, curv­ing lines, splashes of bright color, of­ten termed “imag­i­na­tive sym­bol­ism,” that char­ac­ter­ized Art Nou­veau and the Ju­gend­stil move­ment in Euro­pean art but was acutely aware of newer cur­rents, in­clud­ing cu­bism, that were taking Western art by storm.

Avoid­ing the hor­rors of World War I that would be­gin in 1914, Reiss met with early suc­cess in Newyork but suf­fered for a time once Amer­ica’s po­si­tion and even­tual par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war against the Triple Al­liance be­came ev­i­dent. But this idea of avoid­ing the hor­rors, of miss­ing the war, is a for­ma­tive one that shouldn’t be over­looked. Paci­fistic if not an out­right paci­fist, Reiss’ pos­i­tive, hope­ful out­look, his abil­ity to embrace and see the dig­nity in dif­fer­ence, might have taken the dark turn that in­flu­ences much of modernism af­ter the war. Com­pare Reiss’s work, for ex­am­ple, with a quick in­ter­net search of im­ages of the works of Max Beck­mann or Ge­orge Grosz and see the desta­bi­liza­tion of the self, the strug­gle to main­tain dig­nity, the feel­ing that, per­haps, dig­nity is a pose, a mask.

But why did Wi­nold Reiss come to the United States in the first place? The one-word an­swer is: In­di­ans. In­fat­u­ated, as so many Ger­man artists were, by Karl May’s Ger­man-lan­guage dime Westerns and by the trans­la­tions of James Fen­i­more Cooper’s Leather­stock­ing Tales, Reiss ap­par­ently ex­pected to be met at the boat in Newyork by a war party and was dis­ap­pointed when he was not.

But it wasn’t un­til 1919 that Reiss headed to Mon­tana, where he turned his am­i­ca­bil­ity onto the Black­feet, com­plet­ing some 35 portraits in 30 days and earn­ing the name “Beaver Child” for his as­siduity when, on one of his many Mon­tana so­journs, he made a mem­ber of the na­tion.a 1928 work, Trip­tych De­sign for a Mu­ral Com­mis­sion, a ma­jor work in­tended for the Chrysler Build­ing but de­railed by the De­pres­sion, com­bines portraits of Buf­falo Hide, Bob Rid­ing Black Horse, Chief Shot Both Sides, and Mike Lit­tle Dog, four Black­feet el­ders, sur­vivors of the last bat­tles of the In­dian Wars. The faces and hands of the men tell their sto­ries, but Reiss dresses them in their bright­est re­galia as they sit and stand be­side te­pees that re­count buf­falo hunts and bat­tles.the land­scapes be­hind the four chiefs ex­plode with pat­tern and color, a pre­cur­sor to Pop Art, maybe, but also in line with 1930’s an­i­ma­tion. At right, Mike Lit­tle Dog looks at the story un­fold­ing across the hide of the te­pee. His right hand is cu­ri­ous, as if he is imag­in­ing him­self hold­ing a brush of some kind, as if he is an artist adding his story to the story on the skin.the mat­u­ra­tion of Reiss’s style, seen in the Trip­tych, is dis­cussed in the lit­er­a­ture ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Hirschl & Adler exhibition,“as he trav­eled, Reiss’s style be­gan to re­flect the in­flu­ence of the aes­thet­ics, color pal­ette, and pat­terns of in­dige­nous Amer­i­can vis­ual cul­ture. He blended this into his now hy­phen­ated Ger­man-amer­i­can vo­cab­u­lary, reach­ing for an artis­tic lan­guage ex­pressed in the most uni­ver­sally ac­ces­si­ble terms that would con­vey the re­spect he felt for all his sub­jects.”when Reiss died, his widow sent his ashes to Mon­tana.the Black­feet hon­ored “Beaver Child” and scat­tered his re­mains to the winds.

Reiss was a walker and hiker—what better way to find sub­jects than to en­counter them on foot?—and in 1920, Reiss walked through north­ern Mexico, paint­ing vet­er­ans of the Rev­o­lu­tion and pe­ons, peo­ple who, like the Ger­man peas­ants his fa­ther painted, were tied to the land.

Back in New York, Reiss took note of the artis­tic rev­o­lu­tion taking place in Har­lem and he be­gan to doc­u­ment key fig­ures in what has come to be known as the Har­lem Re­nais­sance. Among many oth­ers, Reiss painted Langston Hughes,w.e.b. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston. He also taught Aaron Dou­glas and en­cour­aged the young painter to look to African art for in­spi­ra­tion.

The sub­ject of Short Hairedy­oung Man in Col­lar­less Shirt isn’t a cel­e­brated poet or thinker, but you can see many of the hall­marks of Reiss’ por­trai­ture. Out­lines of the young man ra­di­ate out like rip­ples, as if his like­ness has been dropped into a still pond. Or, per­haps, de­spite his stolid ex­pres­sion, these rep­re­sent the sit­ter’s life force, his “body elec­tric,” as Whit­man wrote, charg­ing the very air around him.

Even as the Har­lem Re­nais­sance oc­cu­pied him, Reiss be­gan to in­cor­po­rate as­pects of cu­bism and other mod­ernist prac­tices in what he called his “imag­i­na­tives,” un­ti­tled wa­ter­col­ors and draw­ings with par­al­lel lines and curves, wild Art Deco cities of fan­tasy with jazz age rhythms.these are ex­plo­rations, ge­om­e­try meet­ing phys­iog­nomy in an ar­chi­tec­ton­ics of ra­di­ance that con­nects in­di­vid­u­als with one an­other and with their sur­round­ings. It will come as no sur­prise, then, that Wi­nold Reiss was some­thing of a fu­tur­ist, al­most a kind of sci-fi op­ti­mist and City of the Fu­ture (Panel I) of­fers a glimpse into Reiss’s dream­like vi­sion in which beau­ti­ful de­sign would unite the world.

This union of per­son and place comes to­gether in the por­trait of “Mon­tana Red” Shy. Gun­man, cow­boy cat­tle rustler, a son of his soil, Reiss pic­tures him with his hand on his six­gun, his hawk-like eyes look­ing off. As the sa­loon he once shot up ap­pears be­hind him in a hazy, sur­real dream, some­thing about the bold, pink, can­dys­triped shirt—clean and pressed—hints at an­other side to the old out­law who may have out­lived his time. In­tel­li­gi­bil­ity, mak­ing sure his art read to his au­di­ence, whether that au­di­ence was look­ing at his portraits or hav­ing a drink at the bar he de­signed, was im­por­tant to Reiss. Mak­ing sure that he wasn’t con­de­scend­ing to those who looked at his work went hand in hand with his no­tion of hu­man dig­nity. Wi­nold Reiss’s vi­sion is pos­i­tive, com­mu­nal, and gre­gar­i­ous, run­ning counter to the romantic myth (and it is a myth) of the soli­tary, alien­ated artist, ever at odds with so­ci­ety and its forms. As in­di­vid­u­ated as his portraits are, they are meant to con­nect the in­di­vid­ual to hu­man­ity as a whole. For Reiss, there is no race other than the hu­man race. This, Reiss’ lib­eral yet pa­tri­otic vi­sion, is the key to his artis­tic legacy; it is the rea­son for his rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity and it is one of the best rea­sons to re­visit him and his work.you can al­most hear all the peo­ple Reiss painted, singing the words Walt Whit­man wrote in For You O Democ­racy in elec­tri­fy­ing uni­son:

I will plant com­pan­ion­ship thick as trees along all the rivers of Amer­ica, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,

I will make in­sep­a­ra­ble cities with their arms about each other’s necks…

Wi­nold Reiss (1886-1953), City of the Fu­ture (Panel I), oil on can­vas, 53 x 112 in.

Wi­nold Reiss (1886-1953), Orig­i­nal Paint­ing for Cincin­nati Union Ter­mi­nal Mo­saic: Ault and Wi­borg (Inks and Var­nishes), 1930-31. Oil on Muslin, 111 x 116 in.

Wi­nold Reiss (1886-1953), Wood­stock, ca. 1916-24. In­dia and col­ored inks on il­lus­tra­tion board, 297/8 x 343/8 in., signed lower left in white gouache: ‘Wi­nold Reiss’; with es­tate stamp lower right: ‘Wi­nold / Reiss’.

Wi­nold Reiss (1886-1953), Black­feet Girl (Sa­cred Bird Woman, Pauline Run­ning Crane, Na­toyepekzaki), 1943. Pastel on What­man board, 30 x 22 in., signed lower left: ‘WI­NOLD / REISS’.

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