Winold Reiss: The “Immigrant Modernist” Who Changed American Art | Modernism

IIn 1913, the German artist Winold Reiss arrived on American shores with aspirations common to many immigrants: he sought the opportunity to have a better life. But unlike countless others who reached the United States in the early 20th century, Rice brought an artistic revolution with him. A force in the modernism that was flourishing in Germany at the time, Reiss was destined to have a profound and lasting impact on the American art form, demonstrating his talent in areas as diverse as restaurant interiors, advertising, metalwork, portraiture, fashion, and furniture.

Reiss is the subject of a new show at the New York Historical Society that aims to resurrect his legacy and put him back on the map as the force he once was. “I want to show the public the extent of Winnold’s life,” said show co-curator Marilyn Kushner. “To get people to recognize that he’s an important part of the canon.” To that end, he convened a major re-entry for Reiss, with an exhibition of 150 works that begin to expose the full breadth of the man’s immense talents and prodigious output.

Reiss immigrated when he was 26, by which time he had long been immersed in the modernism that swept Germany throughout his youth. He was taught that anything could be art, and it was this ethos that he brought to his work in New York, founding a magazine, designing bold, bright book covers and advertisements, creating wild furniture and, above all, raising his star himself by painstakingly building remarkable restaurant interiors. Through the dozens of interior spaces he has created, Rice has managed to redefine the dining and drinking experience in New York. He interprets his spaces as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a single unified work of art that includes everything from ornaments and murals to lighting, seating, mirrors and even ventilation. He did all of this with a bold, bright color that couldn’t have been more different from the dreary, gravy-like brown that dominated the restaurant scene.

Winold Reiss – Shellball Apartments, study for saloon, 1928. Photo: Library of Congress/Winold Rice Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington

“Hundreds of thousands of people in New York saw Winold’s work but never knew who he was,” Kushner said. “His restaurants were so recognizable and they knew them. People didn’t want restaurants to look like brown gravy, they wanted to look happy.

Although Reiss was widely known and celebrated in his day, in the decades since his death in 1953 he has been forgotten. The restaurants he worked so hard to create were torn down to make way for newer styles, and his work dispersed among private collections, archives, and smaller museums across the United States.

Part of Reiss’ genius was that he brought an outsider’s perspective to the United States. Believing that New York would be an excellent place to see Native Americans practice their particular way of life, he came to America with a great deal of naivety. He’s also always felt on the fringes of society, speaking with a German accent his entire life, and never really feeling at home as an American. According to Kushner, he has been able to make his self-identification as an outsider work in favor of his art. “Because he came to New York as an outsider,” Kushner said, “he was able to get into people’s minds and give them elegance and self-respect. He was able to get to their souls, and that’s important for us to think about today, to really appreciate different ethnicities.”

Winold Rice - The Librarian, 1924 or 1925
Winold Rice – The Librarian, 1924 or 1925. Photo: Jerry Atnip/Fisk University Museum of Art, Nashville, TN

This outside perspective is at the heart of the New York Historical Society’s extensive exhibition, whose broad collection of diverse works is constantly surprising and invigorating. The work runs the gamut from prints and interior design plans to woodcuts, advertisements, dozens of portraits, wild art nouveau-like cityscapes, even iron gates and remarkable wooden chairs. Reiss’s mastery can be seen in emotional portraits of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, a haunting, expressionistic woodcut on the theme of love, a book cover for Knut Hamsun’s Shallow Ground, and the magnificent, wild imagination of Woodstock. Overall, the New York Historical Society’s exhibit has a freshness and eclecticism that make it worth visiting and leaving.

For Kushner, who has worked as a curator throughout New York for nearly 30 years, Reiss’s work was instantly captivating. “I remember walking into the library director’s office one afternoon and he showed me Winold’s work and asked if I would be interested. I said “absolutely!” The moment I saw it, I wanted to make an exhibition of his works. Kushner found Reiss’s art so complex and vast that it took her about six years to properly appreciate it and organize a large-scale exhibition. “He was so curious about everything, and you see that curiosity come through in the wide range of subjects he chose for his art.”

Although Kushner recognizes the genius of Reiss’s work in a variety of formats, it is his portraits that stand out as the most spectacular to her. Citing their intensity and simplicity, Kushner admires them for their ability to penetrate the viewer while offering an experience that is breathtakingly beautiful. She also admires their psychological complexity and how they delve into the depth of their subjects. “The way Winold was able to express the personality of his subjects through these small details was, in my opinion, genius. He really got into their heads.

For Kushner, we hope this is just the beginning. While the New York Historical Society exhibit focuses only on Reiss’s New York-based work, he traveled widely across the United States, painting what he saw and leaving his mark through large-scale works such as murals. Kushner has plans to continue to expose and promote Reiss, eventually attracting collaborators who can give Reiss the treatment his work deserves. “This is not the last exhibition of Winold Reiss. I haven’t brought that much of his work with indigenous people or the fantastic mural he did in Cincinnati. There is much more research on Reiss. There really is a gold mine for future research on it. This exhibition opens the door to all kinds of possibilities.”

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