Winold Reiss: Painter of the Harlem Renaissance

And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen by Charles Molesworth considers the extensive body of work and unpublished correspondence, as well as the life of Harlem’s legendary poet-citizen. Cullen’s volume Color (1925) was a watershed moment for the Harlem Renaissance; his translation of Euripides’ Medea was the first by an African American of a Greek tragedy; and his tumultuous existence, which included estranged ties with his mother, a short-lived marriage to the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, and an untimely death at the age of forty-two, shadowed his role as one of the chief voices of his generation.

A complicated life often demands more than simple illustration. This is evident in Molesworth’s biography, but also in the unattributed cover image gracing the book. The sketch of Cullen, credited to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, is by German–American artist and designer Winold Reiss (1884–1953), who painted over 250 images of Native Americans (most notably the Blackfeet), traveled to Mexico to portray Aztec revolutionaries, and contributed dozens of portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures during the first-half of the twentieth century, when racial prejudice and tensions undermined much of American culture. His interior designs ranged from cafes at the Hotel St. Moritz to murals commissioned by the Cincinnati Airport, and his illustrations graced the covers of mainstream magazine’s like Scribner’s.

More on Reiss’s role in the Harlem Renaissance comes from an introduction by Jeffrey C. Stewart, Reiss scholar and author of o Color America: Portraits by Winold Reiss (Smithsonian Institution, 1989), and Winold Reiss: An Illustrated Checklist of His Portraits (Smithsonian Institution, 1990):

In 1921 he visited his native Germany on the only trip he made back to Europe. Here he drew many portraits of German and Swedish folk types and colorful characters. After his return to New York City in 1922, he was chosen by the editor of the social welfare journal Survey Graphic to portray the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance for a special issue entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro [March 1, 1925]. Dr. Alain Locke, Howard University philosophy professor and literary critic, was so impressed with Reiss’s portraits that he chose him to illustrate The New Negro: An Interpretation [1925], the most important anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, Survey Graphic asked Reiss to illustrate a special Pacific issue with portraits of Asian Americans.

As Reiss wrote in the September 1950 issue of The Native Voice, “To understand life, we cannot have prejudice.” Many of Reiss’s most iconic images stem from his work for Locke’s The New Negro, including his portrait of Locke himself (below). Perhaps more fascinating, though, is the role played by this German immigrant artist in helping to visualize race at a moment when one of America’s most important black arts movements gave us the permission to truly see ourselves as a nation, which could, as Cullen wrote with anger and earnestness, “make a poet black, and bid him sing!”

"These works have led some critics, journalists, and art-lovers to speak of Turrell as a ‘sculptor of the sky.’ He bends it and shapes it, bringing forth novel appearances, but without laying a hand on it. His work is in invitation to the sky to condescend to show itself to us. This invitation is made by offering it a frame, a limit or edge that can contain its immensity and thereby let the uncontainable sky appear. Turrell’s work works around the sky and is always about the sky. Being always about the sky that one is seeing, Turrell’s own work is not what one looks at when one is there. You do not look at what he has made, for what he has made is just the edge circling around what is not made: the sky that his work is alwaysabout.
This sky that is not made is what we are made, patiently, to see.”
—from Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity—Walter De Maria, Diller + Scofidio, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy by Jeffrey L. Kosky

"These works have led some critics, journalists, and art-lovers to speak of Turrell as a ‘sculptor of the sky.’ He bends it and shapes it, bringing forth novel appearances, but without laying a hand on it. His work is in invitation to the sky to condescend to show itself to us. This invitation is made by offering it a frame, a limit or edge that can contain its immensity and thereby let the uncontainable sky appear. Turrell’s work works around the sky and is always about the sky. Being always about the sky that one is seeing, Turrell’s own work is not what one looks at when one is there. You do not look at what he has made, for what he has made is just the edge circling around what is not made: the sky that his work is alwaysabout.

This sky that is not made is what we are made, patiently, to see.”


—from Arts of Wonder: Enchanting SecularityWalter De Maria, Diller + Scofidio, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy by Jeffrey L. Kosky

On the Animated GIF and the V-P Debate

In On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extensions of Life, Sypros Papapetros argues for an abridged history of animated life, locating the “peripheral” and “eccentric” animated objects at the margins of modernism someplace between Freud’s overdetermined elements and diagrammatic, simulating metaphors of life and movement. He willingly takes on the complimentarity between subject and object that animation infers (at one point citing the response of a young victim to a kind of Pokémon hysteria induced by the rapid flashes and hypercolor intensity of the Japanese cartoon as a seizure both “spatiotemporal and epistemological”). Positing the animation of inanimate objects as part of a deeper project of how twentieth-century modernist culture repressed empathy, Papapetros suggests that the animation of the image comes at the expense of its human subject—which got us to thinking.

Watching the commentary—literally watching, since so much is the product of YouTube clips and re-Tumbled images—following last night’s vice-presidential debate has been a stupefying morning experience. My brain has long since been trained to ride the contours of Papapetros’s epistemological shockwaves—more often saturated than not by animated-GIF culture and the new media aesthetic, I’m more profoundly taken aback when my generation’s response to realtime socio-poliltical engagements takes a detour from fragmentation (screengrabs, Twitter), ornamentation (digital manipulation of images), repetition (memes), or juxtaposition:

Tumblr “live-GIFFED” the debate last night, and responses were immediate and forthcoming—part of this “new” aesthetic could be said to argue for the speed at which these GIFs circulate, displacing the circuits of a lost high-art superhighway, and discombobulating the relationships between animate and inanimate, subject and object. Papapetros writes on William Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907), and like Worringer, cites the polarity between abstraction and empathy as “the product of two different external worlds, both of which appear to be equally treacherous.” In this sense, thinking about the rapidity of satirical GIF assemblages last night, I can’t help but consider its relationship to early Italian Futurism, with its peculiar patriotism, embrace of directional tendencies of an object through space, and the heightened emotions surrounding technology, speed, and “the smear of madness.”

The majority of GIFs circulating last night and this morning on Tumblr revealed a pro-Biden bias—so much so that part of what became jolting for me was the role of their obvious use of humor in caricaturing Paul Ryan. For turn-of-the-century thinkers like Worringer, Theodor Lipps, and Sigmund Freud, empathy is complicated perceptual process with an important and problematic relationship to our ability to abstract ourselves as subjects and negotiate otherness through shared acknowledgements that defer our own objectification. For Freud, especially, the relation between empathy and humor was incisive, if complicated. Worringer, though, thought our modern sensibility thrived in a climate of “empathic abstraction.” I follow Papapetros’s dismissal of empathy as the immediate channel of animation, and find myself taken up by his account of how “every instance of animation is complemented by an equivalent occurrence of paralysis.”

I wonder, then, if part of the har-har at Ryan’s expense is a coming-to-terms with our emotional surplus, in an era where we are pre-disposed into a cult of abstraction, or even distraction. The unfathomable navigation of internet channels—to blog and reblog, “like” and retweet—permits the image to perform a sort of infrastructural violence. At the same time, the animated GIF itself seems unlike the myth of Daphne cited by Papapetros, where excitation reaches such a level that the subject instantly freezes and is unable to react. Although in suspended motion, both Biden and Ryan can’t escape the truncated movements of these clips. Overwhelmed by the possibilities of the Internet but bound by its penchant for fragmentation, is this kind of animation, as Papapetros claims, at the expense of its subjects, no matter our own political position? Or does GIF culture, acting in its prescient sphere of spontaneity, abide by a different set of rules?

“Animism spiritualized the object, whereas industrialization objectifies the spirits of men,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Papapetros takes on this notion, in a conclusion that might here be apt:

There are no truly animated objects in modernity, yet we are inundated by cartoons—mere semblances of animation that conform to Warburg’s “you live and do me nothing.” Perhaps then the paralysis or the “arthritic” effect of modern culture diagnosed by Horkheimer and Adorno is in the epistemological divisions that disallow all forms of being other than the human to live and have a language of their own.

Laura Letinsky: Venus Inferred

Laura Letinsky, Untitled #54, 2002. © Laura Letinsky

“People want perfection, even if it’s a falsehood,” is the observation proffered by photographer Laura Letinsky in a recent New York Times overview of her work, establishing the stakes her images subtlely, and often intimately overturn. The article goes on to consider Letinsky’s assignments for a variety of glossy magazines—Bon Appétit, Brides, and Martha Stewart Living, among them—that would seemingly eschew her favored aesthetic: the banal objects of our everyday (foods, bodies) in states of disarray, consuming and consumptive, half-eaten, leg-locked, caught mid-meal or in flagrante delicto.

But instead of rejecting Letinsky’s painstakingly detailed dis-compositions, these otherwise static, commodity-infused, well-coiffed periodicals have embraced the “tiny details” of her “chaos.” If there is room in late-capitalist culture for a movement like slow food, with its preservation of traditional cuisines and pursuit of sustainability, it might be worth asking if Letinsky’s work responds to a virtual slow cultural hegemony—here the dominant worldview, with its norms that sustain our existence (how we view the rules of eating, sleeping, sexing) still impinges its implications upon us, but our resistance is to strip them bare and backward. Letinsky’s photographs show the world as it is—contextualization isn’t lost, but for a moment it seems profoundly deferred by the immediacy of legs intertwined or a cantaloupe slowly (though not yet visibly) rotting, once glasses have clinked, and bodies have left the table.

In 2000, we published Letinsky’s Venus Inferred, a selection of 46 photographs of lovers in their inhabited domestic spaces, a realm some theorists call “the intimate public sphere.” The images are instantly recognizable as “ordinary,” in that what they portray is the version of these lovers as seen by themselves, were the camera substituted with a mirror: private/public, slightly undone, discomfited in their creature comforts, imperfectly absorbed by their human skin, parts, bodies. Like Letinsky’s food series, they might jolt us with a particular kind of vulnerability, as the most animate kind of still life.

In her essay accompanying the images “The Sublime and the Pretty,” scholar Lauren Berlant writes:

“What ensues is a kind of fetishism. The body, the scene of the a desire to cultivate civic personhood, nonetheless overwhelms the principles of education that become associated with it. This links the crisis of politico-aesthetic form to the ontology of the photograph. Walter Benjamin suggests that photography always enacts violence on its object, but not only because it rips objects from their original reality. His bigger concern is in the way that the object’s meaning then leans heavily on the caption and the captioner. Likewise it could be said that the body at the center of the aesthetic training in subjectivity becomes socially intelligible by being trained to photograph itself, to zone itself like, again, the couples who pose themselves to be witnessed by Letinsky’s work. Their bodies become meaningful insofar as they get captioned, clothed, or contextualized within the syntax of propriety. The hierarchies of value that caption in order to normalize sensual self-understanding become then, one way or another, names for what the human expresses in his encounters with beautiful and painful or sublime processes or experiences. At this juncture any debate that opposes cultural and materialism politics seems to miss the point—that they collaborate, even when in apparent antinomy.”

Laura Letinsky, Untitled (Adrienne and Stephan), 1992. © Laura Letinsky

Later, in the interview between Berlant and Letinsky that closes the collection, Letinsky’s attention to our ability to supersede the norms of our human experiences gets drawn out:

LB: So on the one hand, you’re like some ethnographer of the normal, and on the other hand, you feel like you’re encountering and picturing the enchantment of love that lifts the normal from itself, to what feels like a unique space?

LL: Right, it’s about the relationship between privacy and particularity. At first I had a sense of being a scientist or an explorer going into people’s private space. Then I wondered whether it was a private space, since its conventionality works against that. Not only in love’s promise, but in the singularity of the spaces, the sheets, the pajamas, the coffee cups. These details evaded the generic and particularized the couples. I became interested in the desire to be normal, and how people tried to live that dream out. And I saw how people could never quite do this, and yet still tried.

Sex is normal as shit; sex is un-normal as shit. Sex is the hounds of hell, and intimacy—those feelings cauterized around bodies enmeshed and ideas enabled—is a never ceasing bark, yipping, chasing, trying.

Sigmar Polke, Supermarkets (Wir Kleinbürger), 1976.
"Among West German artists of the second postwar generation—those who came of age in the 1960s—Polke most definitively expressed in his paintings that the first true lapse in the tenets of modernism had occurred. Emerging during the heyday of pop art, Polke toyed with the forms of high and low, simultaneously drawing comic attention to the gap between them and attempting to break down the perceived opposition. With this shift came a marked embrace of the trivial and an accompanying perception that seriousness need no longer be the primary goal for postwar German artists. Polke’s parodic sense of humor and comedic dismantling of numerous modernist visual tropes made him a key figure in the West German variant of pop. Polke’s work stands for the early phase of postmodernism, when an acceptance of the inevitability of stylistic repetition led to a critically effective version of humor.”
—from Permission to Laugh: Humor and Politics in Contemporary German Art by Gregory H. Williams

Sigmar Polke, Supermarkets (Wir Kleinbürger), 1976.

"Among West German artists of the second postwar generation—those who came of age in the 1960s—Polke most definitively expressed in his paintings that the first true lapse in the tenets of modernism had occurred. Emerging during the heyday of pop art, Polke toyed with the forms of high and low, simultaneously drawing comic attention to the gap between them and attempting to break down the perceived opposition. With this shift came a marked embrace of the trivial and an accompanying perception that seriousness need no longer be the primary goal for postwar German artists. Polke’s parodic sense of humor and comedic dismantling of numerous modernist visual tropes made him a key figure in the West German variant of pop. Polke’s work stands for the early phase of postmodernism, when an acceptance of the inevitability of stylistic repetition led to a critically effective version of humor.”


—from Permission to Laugh: Humor and Politics in Contemporary German Art by Gregory H. Williams

"[Mies] has a cardboard model of Park Avenue between 46th and 57th Streets will all the buildings on the Avenue and some going in the blocks and then he has a number of towers for different solutions that he places in the empty place of the old 375 [the Park Avenue address], and this model is up on a high table so that when sitting in a chair his eye [sic] is just level with the table top which equals the street—and for hours on end he peers down his Park Avenue trying out the different towers.”
—from Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition by Franz Schulze & Edward Windhorst

"[Mies] has a cardboard model of Park Avenue between 46th and 57th Streets will all the buildings on the Avenue and some going in the blocks and then he has a number of towers for different solutions that he places in the empty place of the old 375 [the Park Avenue address], and this model is up on a high table so that when sitting in a chair his eye [sic] is just level with the table top which equals the street—and for hours on end he peers down his Park Avenue trying out the different towers.”


—from Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition by Franz Schulze & Edward Windhorst

John Heartfield: Agitated Images

John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld, 1891–1968)—montagist, rotugravurer, shock animator, and inspiration for the song “Mittageisen” by Siouxsie and the Banshees—literally changed the face of political art in the twentieth century. For Heartfield, the montage form he famously adapted not only allowed him to maintain control of legibility—by jarring expectations of genre and content in order to solicit the gaze—but to expose fascism by harnessing images as weapons capable of disseminating information in discursive ways, on as broad a scale as possible.

In John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage, Andrés Mario Zervigón charts the evolution of Heartfield’s photomontage from an act of antiwar resistance into one of the most important combinations of avant-garde art and politics in the twentieth century. What follows below is a short excerpt from the book, which traces then-Herzfeld’s opposition to the war to new acts of performative resistance, found in both new forms and new stakes w/r/t personal identity.

***

John Heartfield, The Performance

Perhaps not coincidentally, near this moment in June 1917, Helmut Herzfeld informally Anglicized his name as a brazen protest against the war. The first extant mention of this new moniker is in a letter from Else Lasker-Schüler to Franz Jung dated “middle of August 1917.” there she refers to her young artist friend as “J. H.” Seemingly inspired by Jung’s aggressiveness and following on the model established by Herzfelde and George Grosz, Heartfield now began the mature phase of his lifelong performance.

Heartfield’s name change constituted an act of resistance against the waves of nationalist jingoism that had washed over his countrymen since the declaration of war in August 1914. For example, Ernst Lissauer, one of the poets who had collaborated with the “hurrah patriotism” that Lasker-Schüler’s circle so earnestly despised, penned an anti-British song with the catchy refrain “We love in unity, we hate in unity, we all have but one enemy: England!” The sentiment took hold of the popular imagination and even led to a transformation of public salutation. Whereas before the war, people in Germany generally greeted each other with the familiar “guten Tag,” now they often bellowed, “God punish England!” The expected response was “He’ll do so.” This everyday exchange saw Lissauer’s lyric “we hate in unity” realized in the country’s streets, stores, and parks. In expecting or even demanding a suitable response to this aggressive greeting, the average patriot could coerce those he greeted to participate in the general discourse of martial unity.

With the last issue of Die neue Jugend and Heartfield’s dramatic—but still informal—name change, we can see that the most accurate reflection of the moment came in the compositional-cum-performative force that we today recognize in the broadest sense as montage, a process of appropriation, juxtaposition, and transformation normally made at the level of spectacle. Exactly which medium was subjected to this assault seemed unimportant. Language, the written word, visual art, and photography had all failed to convey the moment’s harsh reality and instead had been used to distract Germany’s civilians with sweet and boastful visions. All of these media now demanded reinvention. The most important aspect of montage’s assault on each was the impact of the slicing itself, the snipping and jumbling that conveyed what the moment’s retrieved and transformed detritus obscured.

In this regard, Heartfield and Grosz’s postcards seem to have showcased photography’s failure, demonstrating that the medium could approximate reality only if torn from its initial context and subjected to the brutal physical conditions of the moment. The postcards had thus marked the advent of montage as a formal strategy that as not yet specific to one medium. Heartfield’s typographic inventions then realized this operation as a public gesture that seemingly reflected the moment’s chaos as a harried visual and syntactical jumble.

The situation would soon change, but not in a manner we might anticipate. In 1918 Heartfield decided that photography had become so complicit in ameliorative misrepresentation that even montage could no longer salvage it, at least in the context of Wilhelmine censorship. Thus, he turned to animated film, where the age’s extreme violence could finally find its most shocking realization in exploding moving images.

"When Warhol’s work is convincing, it does what Beuys’s does: it promises nothing; it testifies. The American dream can of course do nothing without promises; it needs to be real only for those who know now to get ahead. It might seem that Warhol’s work is content to expose it and strip its cynicism bare. The yuppies who collect it obviously understand it this way and take pleasure in it accordingly. The leftist criticism that castigates it precisely for not promising a beyond to the commodity understands it the same way. But to testify is neither to promise nor simply to expose; it is to attest to reality as it is. It is also to reopen the possibilities of interpreting reality and forcing a retranslation; it is, in Warhol’s case, to test the possibility of an art condition "below" or "before" the commodity. The field where this unfolds is, as with Beuys, that of political economy, and the text we must retranslate—not into the myth of emancipation but into its antithesis, the American dream—is, as always, Marx’s."

—Thierry de Duve, Sewn in the Sweatshops of Marx: Beuys, Warhol, Klein, Duchamp