Roland Reiss, whose practice spanned Abstract Expressionism, the plastic arts, and representational painting, died on December 13 in Los Angeles at the age of ninety-one. Best known for his dioramas of the 1970s and ’80s, Plexiglas-encased miniature sculpture assemblages examining the human condition and modern American culture, Reiss investigated various modes of making as he became enchanted by them, and remained a prolific artist on the cutting edge to the end of his life, for the last twenty years almost exclusively painting large, stylized flowers in works that critic James Scarborough described as “not still lives but Vanitas paintings for a digital age.”
Born in Chicago at the height of the Great Depression, Reiss during World War II moved with his family to Pomona, California. After attending the American Academy of Art in Chicago, he graduated from Mt. San Antonio College in Pomona and was forthwith drafted into the army during the Korean War, where he oversaw forty artists working at the Camp Roberts base in Central California. Shortly after he and fellow artist Robert Irwin won an army prize, Reiss saw his orders to transfer to active combat in Korea canceled. On his return to civilian life, Reiss enrolled in UCLA on the GI bill, earning his MA in art in 1956.
That same year, Reiss took a job teaching painting at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he brought Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, Nancy Graves, and Hilton Kramer to teach summer courses. In 1971 he returned to California, where he headed the graduate art program at Claremont Graduate University for thirty years, implementing a community-minded approach that brought national recognition to the program. An endowed chair in art was established in his name at the university in 2010.
Over the course of his widely varied sixty-year career, Reiss exhibited work at the 1975 Whitney Biennial and Documenta 7 (1982). He received fourteen solo museum exhibitions, among them The Dancing Lessons: 12 Sculptures (1977) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A 2014 retrospective at the Begovich Gallery at Cal State Fullerton highlighted his career of continual self-reinvention. His works are held in the permanent collections of LACMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Hammer Museum, all in Los Angeles; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana, CA; and the Palm Springs Art Museum, California, among others.
Writing in the pages of Artforum in 1977, critic Peter Clothier compared Reiss’s dioramas to the “disnarrative” novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. “The viewer’s participation, then, is not simply that of putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (whose final piece may be missing), since all the necessary elements are present. The process is rather one of continuing reconstitution, with the realization that each reconstituted structure is a provisional one,” wrote Clothier. “Beyond the fantasy of the work, it thus becomes a model for our experience of reality itself.”