Fritz Winold Reiss, who lived and worked in New York City from 1913 well into the postwar 1940s, has received renewed interest and acclaim. In 2022 he was the subject of the exhibition and publication The Art of Winold Reiss: Immigrant Modernist at New York's Historical Society Museum. Reiss' rediscovery and topicality is largely thanks to his suite of crisp figurative pastel drawings that picture the city's luminous protagonists of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. These include the poet Langston Hughes and the movement's forebear W.E.B. Du Bois, works that are today held at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Frank Mehring's edited and generously illustrated volume, long in the making as the author himself states, thus arrives at an opportune moment in the discipline and the culture at large. Black portraiture and Black critical thought have not only seen ever-increasing visibility but actual purchase in the art market, on social media, in view of institutions' programming and acquisition politics and across syllabi in the humanities.
Mehring's publication convenes fourteen scholars with markedly different interests, ranging from modernist architecture to Native American studies. Jeffrey C. Stewart, formerly of the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. and an early authority on Reiss, having curated there To Color America: Portraits by Winold Reiss in 1989 along with having authored the monograph of the same title, fittingly opens the book's main section. His essay is a wide-ranging journey that tracks Reiss' expatriate life and work, as much as the both promising and troubled American twentieth century as a whole. This includes the author's personal assessments of persistently raced social realities in the U.S., be they contemporary art scenes in Los Angeles or the, in his view, fraught legacy of Gangsta Rap. As for Reiss, the core of Stewart's argument lies in the "transnational" and how this geopolitical term may in turn not only characterize but uniquely qualify a modern(ist) artistic career worthy to be declared as such. Regarding Reiss, transnationality is biographically rather straightforward and conceivable in light of his time and place: the German Empire on the eve of the First World War. Reiss, a native of south-western Germany who grew up in and around the picturesque and provincial Black Forest region, was then an already commercially working and exhibiting young artist in Munich.
Stewart posits Reiss as a creative brother-in-arms in a racially segregated interwar North America, a "transnational artistic personality that was unafraid of the American Other", i.e., its non-white and historically enslaved and disenfranchised population (20). Working alongside the influential Black art critic and educator Alain LeRoy Locke on the transformative 1925 issue of Survey Graphic titled "Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro", Reiss not only contributed the above-mentioned portraits of artists and intellectuals but also of a Black everyday demographic of students, employees and professionals. In so doing, Stewart argues, Americans of color no longer figured as objects of dubious study or subjects to control but represented individual citizens. Whether this groundbreaking collaboration means that Reiss "has internalized the gaze that African Americans use to read their environment based on their experience of America" (26) one might certainly question as an improbable and rather untenable conflation. More to the point is Stewart's claim that "whiteness in American art history is the unwelcomed discourse made visible by Reiss' particular brand of transnationalism" (21).
Julie Kennedy's essay on Reiss' artistic beginnings in southern Germany and Munich specifically, in fact, might provide a clearer outlook of Reiss' creative ethos when she quotes him from a 1915 lecture he gave early upon his arrival in New York. There Reiss would laud the prevalent Reklamekunst - the art of advertising - of the Munich designer Ludwig Hohlwein "as an artist who found access 'to the heart of the customers' without sacrificing his artistic 'ideals'" (49). It's a somewhat troubling role model in hindsight as well as a reference to better double-check, given Hohlwein's embrace of National Socialism and his subsequent career as a principal Nazi image maker.
Compared to the valuable, though thematically more limited, catalogue from the New York exhibition, Mehring's publication is particularly instructive on Reiss' artistic exploration of Native American imagery and subjectivity, allegedly the very motive for his emigration to North America in the first place. From Reiss' first excursion to Montana to draw Blackfeet indigenous peoples in 1920 and onwards, Winfried Fluck argues that "Indians become art objects themselves in Reiss' portraits, for only in this way can an otherwise elusive essence of Indianness be expressed" (91), in view of a thoroughly capitalist and alienated society such as New York City's in Reiss' own émigré perception. Reiss' highly stylized and modern-looking portraits of Blackfeet individuals to Fluck prefigure a "post-modernist" aesthetic characterized by "new combinations of high and low, art and camp, abstraction and significatory excess" (89). This is all very well, though to attribute to Reiss' thinking the conflation of Native Americans with "peasants in the Black Forest" as "exemplary survivors" (91) doesn't quite cohere in light of these distinct groups' surely incomparable struggles.
Julie Levin Caro's discussion of the Winold Reiss Studio and School he founded in 1915 is particularly revealing when she writes that, in the 1920s, "such openness to allowing male and female and white and African American students to work together in a class focused on a nude model would not have been permissible at most art schools in New York, even the progressive Art Students League" (203). Considering Reiss' first studio location in 1915 in close proximity to Alfred Stieglitz's Gallery 291 - a shorthand for New York's avant-garde then invested in Dada and related primitivisms - Caro writes that Reiss' artistic milieu "call[s] into question standard narratives of the development of modernism in early 20th century New York." (194).
It's a point reflected in C. Ford Peatross' essay that covers Reiss' truly impressive legacy as a designer of countless New York social interiors and signage when he wonders "'what distinguished his modern from everyone else's modern'?" (218). Peatross positions Reiss' daring designs and embrace of mass culture "pre-Vegas" and moreover "proto-Warhol" (267-269). I would concur with the former assessment while doubting the latter. Warhol decorated shop windows and drew shoes and jewelry as means to an end: to himself personify the world of materialistic spectacle, the necrophiliac and violent facets of which he equally gave image to. Reiss, on the other hand, appears as an artist not particularly interested in formal avant-gardism and its scenes - whether back in Munich, in (not) looking to Paris or in newly arriving in New York. Instead, after reading Mehring's informative book, he newly emerges as an open-minded, indiscriminating, and highly prolific transplant who seamlessly became a genuine New York creative force.
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