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Roland Reiss dies at 91, leaving a 60-year legacy as L.A. artist and educator

Roland Reiss in his studio, 2018
(Eric Minh Swenson)

Atmospheric fields of luminous color emanating from rectangular panels that appear to be torn paintings. Little tabletop stage sets for enigmatic dramas, enacted by doll-like figures and encased in plexiglass boxes. Life-size sculptures of classical figures and architectural elements in disarray. Lush, floral bouquets painted in bright, eccentric colors — hot pink sunflowers, watery blue lily pads.

Roland Reiss cut a wide swath in his art over his long life, moving between painting and sculpture, abstraction and figuration, as his interests shifted over a 60-year career. If there was a through-line in such a diverse array of work, it was a simple commitment to engaging a viewer in the adventures of exploratory perception.

“I am part of a larger group mind, even if I do have an individual focus,” the artist said on the occasion of a 1991 survey at Los Angeles’ Municipal Art Gallery, setting aside common assertions of artistic originality to question one of art’s master narratives. “I don’t have any truths to give people, don’t know anything anyone else doesn’t. But I have what everyone else has — I can share my daily experience. Art is about existence.”

Reiss died Dec. 13 at his home and studio at the Brewery Artist Lofts, a former industrial zone between Chinatown and Lincoln Heights. Diane Rosenstein Gallery, which represented the artist, said Reiss died of natural causes. He was 91.

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A prominent fixture on the Los Angeles art scene, Reiss held an exhibition record that extended from area galleries and museums to national and international outings. His work was included in the 1975 Whitney Biennial in New York; in a 1977 solo exhibition, “The Dancing Lessons: 12 Sculptures,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and, in 1982, at documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. Last year, during his ninth decade, he participated in seven exhibitions.

In addition to being an accomplished working artist, Reiss was a much-admired teacher. For 30 years he served on the faculty and in administration at Claremont Graduate University, where an art department chair in his name was established in 2010. In October, the estate of philanthropist Peggy Phelps, a CGU emeritus trustee and longtime supporter of Reiss’ art, donated $350,000 to further bolster the chair’s $2-million endowment.

Reiss was born in Chicago in 1929, on the cusp of the Great Depression, to Martin and Louise (Strum) Reiss. When he was 13, the family moved to Southern California, settling in Pomona. A youthful ambition to become a writer was nixed by his parents, worried about prospects for employment, so young Roland, proficient in drawing, decided on a related career in commercial illustration. Perhaps he could tell stories through pictures.

After high school he returned to Chicago to apprentice in the advertising department of Bielefeld Studios, a leading local agency. Illustration, however, proved unsatisfying since the art was limited to a predetermined meaning. So, it was back to California and what is now called Mt. San Antonio College, plus a part-time job designing educational displays and dioramas for the Los Angeles County Fair.

A stint in the Army during the Korean War years allowed Reiss to use the G.I. Bill to enroll later at UCLA, where his first serious art studies got underway. There he met and worked with painters Stanton MacDonald-Wright, William Brice, Charles Garabedian and Rico Lebrun, among others, graduating with a master’s degree in 1957. His own history as a teacher was soon launched at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where visiting artist Clyfford Still, the venerable (and voluble) Abstract Expressionist, had a profound impact on his thinking about art.

Reiss embraced Still’s fervent belief that knowledge comes through seeing. Returning to L.A. to take up his post at CGU, he began a series of abstract wall works in cast and colored resin and acrylic, which owed a substantial debt to the perceptual experiments of Light and Space artists like Robert Irwin and Craig Kauffman. Although he regarded himself as a painter and had some early success in the field, Reiss’ first substantial notice came in the 1970s with boxed sculptural tableaux.

Formally related to small, erotic boxed tableaux by sculptor Robert Graham, Reiss’ instead bore down on the charged, often anxious vagaries of modern social ritual. Populated with little people and animals in carefully observed public and private settings, his tableaux suggest rather than describe narratives. They establish witty, open-ended, psychosocial dramas based on sources as distinct from one another as murder mysteries, ballroom dancing lessons and corporate office politics.

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A viewer enters the staged morality tale imaginatively, then forms a conceptual scenario born of his own unique experience.

A 2014 exhibition at Diane Rosenstein Gallery improbably paired five of these expertly crafted tabletop sculptures, which Reiss made between 1977 and 1991, with 13 floral still-life paintings of the kind that preoccupied him since. The still lifes are artificial in the extreme — eccentrically colored, sometimes as architectonically constructed as a building, occasionally evoking a vast landscape contained within the microcosm of a flower vase. Even some negative spaces between stems seem to be recognizable forms, like sensing pictures in passing clouds or projecting constellations from an array of nighttime stars. However unnatural, the florals brim with vivid life.

Roland Reiss' "Domestic Setting," from 2014.
(Roland Reiss / Diane Rosenstein)

Writing in The Times, critic David C. Pagel, who currently holds the Reiss chair at Claremont, described the pairing as “brilliant: It highlights the subtle strangeness of Reiss’ flower paintings while accentuating the abstract impetus at the heart of his dioramas.”

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The start of the flower paintings coincides with Reiss’ marriage to artist Dawn Arrowsmith, who survives him. His daughter Noel and son Clinton from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce, preceded him in death. Survivors include Noel and Clinton’s siblings Adam, Nathan, Talya and Stefan; stepsons Dan and Jim Nielsen; and a sister, Marilyn Austin. A memorial will be scheduled when the pandemic subsides.

John Outterbridge, who has died at 87, was a central figure in the Black assemblage arts movement and former director of the Watts Towers Arts Center.


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