In 1913, German artist Winold Reiss landed on American shores with aspirations common to many immigrants: he was looking for the opportunity to have a better life. But unlike the countless others who reached the United States in the early 20th century, Reiss brought with him an artistic revolution. A force of modernism that was thriving in Germany at the time, Reiss was destined to have a profound and lasting impact on the American art form, showcasing his talents in fields as varied 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 was. “I want to show the audience the breadth of Winold’s life,” said show co-curator Marilyn Kushner. “For people to recognize that he’s an important part of the canon.” To that end, he has summoned a major comeback for Reiss, with a 150-piece exhibition that begins to showcase the full extent of the man’s immense talents and prodigious output.
Reiss immigrated when he was 26, and by then he had long been immersed in the modernism that swept Germany throughout his youth. He was taught that anything could be art, and that’s the philosophy he put into his work in New York, founding a magazine, designing bold and bright book covers and advertisements, creating wild furniture and above all raising its star. himself by painstakingly constructing remarkable restaurant interiors. Through the dozens of interior spaces he created, Reiss was able to redefine the dining and drinking experience in New York. He interpreted his spaces as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a single unified work of art that included everything from ornamentation and murals to lighting, seating, mirrors and even ventilation. He did it all with bright, bold colors that couldn’t be more different from the dreary, gravy-like brown that had dominated the restaurant scene.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in New York saw Winold’s work, but they 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 sauce, they wanted them to look happy.
Although Reiss was widely known and celebrated in his time, in the decades following his death in 1953 he was forgotten. The restaurants he worked so hard to create have been torn down to make way for new styles, and his work has dispersed among private collections, archives, and small 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 a great place to see Native Americans practicing their particular way of life, he came to America with great naivety. He also always felt on the fringes of society, speaking with a German accent all his life and never really feeling at home as an American. According to Kushner, he managed to make his self-identification as an outsider a work in favor of his art. “Because he came to New York as a foreigner,” Kushner said, “he was able to enter people’s minds and give them elegance and self-respect. He was able to touch their souls, and it’s important for us to think about it today, to really appreciate the different ethnicities.
This outside perspective is at the heart of the New York Historical Society’s expansive exhibit, whose extensive collection of diverse exhibits is constantly surprising and invigorating. The work runs the gamut from interior design prints and plans to woodcuts, advertisements, dozens of portraits, wild art nouveau cityscapes, even striking iron doors and wooden chairs. Reiss’ mastery can be seen in evocative portraits of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, a spellbinding love-themed expressionist woodcut, a book cover for Knut Hamsun’s Shallow Soil, and lushly beautiful imagination by Woodstock. Overall, the New-York Historical Society exhibit has a freshness and eclecticism that is worth seeing and lingering over.
For Kushner, who worked as a curator all over New York for nearly 30 years, Reiss’ work was immediately captivating. “I remember one afternoon I walked into the library manager’s office, and he showed me Winold’s work and asked if I would be interested. I said ‘absolutely!’ As soon as I saw him, I wanted to do an exhibition of his work. Kushner found Reiss’s art so complicated and vast that it took him about six years to properly assess everything and mount a full-scale exhibition. “He was so curious about everything, and you see that curiosity showing through in the wide range of subjects he chose for his art.”
Although Kushner acknowledges the genius of Reiss’ work in a variety of formats, it is her portraits that stand out as the most spectacular for her. Citing their intensity and simplicity, Kushner admires them for their ability to pierce a viewer, while delivering a breathtakingly beautiful experience. She also admires their psychological complexity and the way they dig deep into the depths of their subjects. “The way Winold was able to express his subjects’ personalities through those little details was, I think, brilliant. He was able to really get inside their heads.
For Kushner, this is hopefully just the beginning. While the New-York Historical Society exhibit focuses solely on New York-based Reiss’s work, he traveled extensively across the United States, painting what he saw and leaving his mark through large-scale works such as murals. Kushner intends to continue to expose and promote Reiss, eventually attracting collaborators who can give Reiss the treatment his work deserves. “This isn’t Winold Reiss’ last exhibit. I haven’t brought as much of his work with indigenous people, or the fantastic mural he did in Cincinnati. There’s a lot more research to be done. on Reiss. There really is a gold mine of future research to be done on him. This exhibition opens the doors to all sorts of possibilities.