The German Modernist Who Painted a Multicultural United States (2023)

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To illustrate Langston Hughes’s poem “The Weary Blues,” a German immigrant artist captured “the lazy sway” of a singer at his piano. Cubist fragments form the background of a cabaret and nighttime New York cityscape. This is the world of Winold Reiss, where European modernism meets African American vernacular culture. Reiss ruptured divisions between cultures and nations as well as applied and fine art. His oeuvre encompassed paintings, book designs, posters, tapestries, and interior and architectural design. His skills and range are so impressive that his relative absence from 20th-century American art history seems unaccountable. 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 that omission.(His work can also currently be seen in The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.)

A chronology of the artist’s life and work follows a thorough introduction by editor Frank Mehring. Reiss emigrated from Germany to New York City in 1913, arriving as the Armory show shook the New York art world into modernist mode. His education in fine and applied arts, and his background in the Jugendstil design movement (which paralleled Art Nouveau), shaped his artistic vision. His eclecticism, argue multiple contributors, has contributed to his relative absence in modern art history. His work is hard to categorize, Julie Levin Caro states, in part because American modernism focused on easel painting in dialogue with France. The stigma attached to commercial art also blinded critics to his innovations.

Diverse essays explore Reiss’s design business, his enduring influence on print culture, his technical methods, including pastel and Conté crayon, and particularly his introduction of vibrant color. “The American public wants color and demands it,” he said of his brilliant tableaus; it “makes the eye joyful and happy.” His color-saturated New York City: on the covers of the magazine he founded, Modern Art Collector, on book jackets, posters, and in the interiors of innumerable hotels, restaurants, and apartment buildings. As C. Ford Peatross recounts, any strolling New Yorker would have encountered his designs, many influenced by African American and Native American cultures and designs.

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Reiss’s political commitment to ethnic diversity and portrayals of people of color also marginalized him among historians creating the modern art canon. Where does an artist who crossed boundaries fit in?

Reiss’s commitment to diversity began in childhood. Julie Kennedy and other contributors stress the influence of his childhood, traveling with his artist father through the Black Forest and sketching peasants in traditional dress. Buffalo Bill’s traveling shows and Karl May’s adventure novels about American Indians shaped his early enthusiasm for the United States. After his first foray to the Blackfeet reservation, he abandoned harmful stereotypes of Indigenous people; his portraits depicted individuals who wore western suits as well as traditional dress. This intention to represent the individual subjectivities, rather than stereotypes, of people of color edged 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 codes of representation as to how they wanted to be seen.” From the Blackfeet reservation to Harlem, Reiss immersed himself in the world of the people he represented, forming close ties with many individuals.

The Harlem Renaissance echoes throughout the book. Reiss became friends with Alain Locke through their collaboration on two groundbreaking publications: the 1925 Harlem issue of the progressive magazine Survey Graphic, followed by the legendary anthology The New Negro. Reiss contributed designs and portraits of the African American community in New York, as did his student, artist Aaron Douglas. Reiss’s portrait “Harlem Girl with Blanket” (c. 1925) depicts a young Black woman draped with a bright yellow Indian blanket. The cultural mix, the girl’s realistic features and natural hairstyle, fused “into one complex visual statement of American identity,” both multifaceted and distinctly modern.

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Sydelle Rubin-Dienstfrey explores Reiss’s portraits amid the early 20th century’s shifting concepts of race. Another German immigrant, anthropologist Franz Boas, had challenged a prevalent belief in racial hierarchies. His theories of cultural relativity and racial equality influenced Reiss, along with Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias. Rubin-Dienstfrey describes both as “ethnographic” for their concentrated observations of daily life in Harlem. Reiss painted workers, teachers, and other professionals but also the major figures of the Renaissance, among them Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

The public selectively embraced Reiss’s portraits of people of color. While a 1920 show of his Blackfeet images sold out, no New York gallery would exhibit his Harlem portraits, his son Tjark lamented. That did not deter 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’s pedagogy challenged the status quo in the art schools he established in New York City, Woodstock, and near the Blackfeet reservation. His legendary Greenwich Village studio/school was a hub where people of different races and genders sketched nude models together, a practice prohibited in established art schools. As Patricia Hills proposes, Reiss hoped for a more democratic America; its basis would be empathy, in art as well as society. Visual art, music, and dance mixed in the studio. One student recalled that Paul Robeson sang and played the piano during class. Jens Barnieck explores Reiss’s portraits of Isadora Duncan’s dancers and of modernist composer and theosophist Dane Rudhyar. Reiss shared some of Rudhyar’s spiritual beliefs, though not publicly. Nonetheless, a theosophist gave the eulogy at his funeral.

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The book avoids hagiography by raising questions. Did Reiss’s 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 ponder how Reiss’s work might inadvertently support a view of Indigenous and African American life and art as more “authentic” or spiritually evolved.

In 1942, Reiss again collaborated with Alain Locke and Survey Graphic editor Paul Kellogg on the issue 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 world’s continents to visualize the hope he, Kellogg, and Locke shared: that a transnational, modernist art could challenge divisions between cultures and communities, and between the professed ideals of American democracy and our failure to achieve them. That goal did not bypass the messiness of cultural exchanges, interactions, and sometimes, confrontations. This anthology explores how fully Reiss captured the complexities suggested in that Survey Graphic cover.

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Each essay highlights Reiss as a pioneer with current significance. Peatross suggests Reiss as a “proto Warhol, in that he made the popular heroic and ennobled the ordinary.” In contrast to Warhol’s fascination with mass production and sameness, however, Reiss celebrated difference.

Few of Reiss’s architectural and interior designs have survived, apart from his 1933 Art Deco mosaic murals created for the Cincinnati Union Terminal. This collection addresses that lacuna with spectacular reproductions of his art from interiors to portraits. The book is an essential guide for understanding modernism in a racially inclusive, transnational context, one that brings an extraordinary artist into its fold.

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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 American art.

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Joanne B. Mulcahy is a writer in Portland, Oregon. Her books include Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz and Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers (with Peter Chilson). She is currently...More by Joanne B. Mulcahy

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