by Graham C. Boettcher, PhD, the William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art
While the majority of the BMA’s purchased acquisitions come from commercial galleries and auction houses, occasionally museum-quality works of art surface in unexpected places. This past October, I found such a work in a Chicago antique store. While scanning the display cases of Broadway Antique Market, a popular shop in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, a small, but striking black and red print on white paper caught my eye. Entitled Drawing in Two Colors, the print—an offset lithograph and halftone on Japanese paper— was the work of the German-born American artist Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Known for his portraits of major figures in Jazz Age Harlem—including poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen—Reiss was also a pioneering designer whose Art Deco interiors used strong patterns, bold colors, and angular geometry. In this rare print, created between 1915 and 1920, Reiss demonstrates his interest in both the Art Deco style and the vibrant cultural scene among Harlem’s elite.
An immediate Google search on my iPhone confirmed the rarity of the work. While it was reprinted on a larger scale on thicker paper around 1925, as Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I, the only known example of this version in a public collection was given to the Library of Congress in 1998, by the artist’s son, Tjark Reiss. I acquired the drawing for an extremely modest sum. According to the curatorial code of ethics, when a curator buys a museumworthy work of art with his or her own funds, that curator must offer the work to the museum for the purchase price. That is, if a curator buys an original Norman Rockwell at a garage sale for $5, it must be offered to the museum for that same price. Because the amount paid for the print was negligible, I decided to donate it to the BMA’s permanent collection rather than request reimbursement. It is the Museum’s first work by Winold Reiss, and an important addition to a growing collection of early 20th-century American fine and decorative arts.