A Conversation with Roland Reiss

Roland Reiss, Los Angeles, California (c. 2011). Photo © January Parkos Arnall for  Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Roland Reiss, in his studio, Los Angeles, California (2011). Photo courtesy January Parkos Arnall for
Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series.

Interview conducted in the artist’s studio at The Brewery, Los Angeles, California, June 7 and July 19, 2011 by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art” was presented in an exhibition Sept. 4-21, 2013 at CGU East and Peggy Phelps Galleries. The series was curated by Dr. Thayer and sponsored by Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities.


In 2010, Claremont Graduate University celebrated the life and work of CGU Art Professor Emeritus Roland Reiss during a weekend of events in September. “Familiar Grounds: Celebrating Roland Reiss and Art at CGU,” (Sept. 10-12), at the CGU campus and art galleries in Claremont and Pomona. Events included panel discussions, receptions, and three Reiss exhibitions, which recognized Reiss’s art and his contributions to making the CGU Art program one of the finest in the country. Reiss was a part of the CGU Art department for 30 years, 29 years as Chair of the Department. He revolutionized the teaching of art with the concept of a community centered program and his design of open, individual workspaces for CGU students. This arrangement remains in use today. 

The College Art Association (CAA) presented Roland Reiss with the 2009 Distinguished Teaching of Art Award noting: “Reiss is a single individual who has managed to have an impact on the entire field of art pedagogy and practice. His most current enterprise as director and founder of the Idyllwild Arts, Painting’s Edge, submerges students into a studio experience guided by some of the world’s most influential practitioners and critics. An educator for over fifty-five years, Reiss’s students can be found throughout the world, carrying on his legacy as critically and expressively engaged artists, educators, and creative thinkers.” Roland Reiss, Professor Emeritus of the Art program at Claremont Graduate University in California, stands out through his legendary energy, passion, and intellectual commitment—and above all for his transformative connection with the individual student. An exceptional teacher can connect with the current generation of students and lead them into the future, and it is a rare educator who can do this generation after generation, deeply penetrating the pulse of the times.

JILL THAYER: What childhood factors contributed to you becoming an artist? Do you remember anything growing up that led to this passion?

ROLAND REISS: When I was a young child, there was nothing other than my grandmother who had come from Italy, who was greatly interested . . . she also had a family of six children. My mother was one of six children, but my grandmother had been raised in a convent and she had an interest in the arts, in general. So, I think that had some effect on me. I always felt that she had something to do with it because my father was very strict and uninterested, and I adored my grandmother.

JT: When you visited her did you see her appreciation for the arts?

RR: Yes.

JT: Any particular memory?

RR: Well, for instance, I was in Catholic school and we were going to sing at the Cathedral in downtown Chicago, and of course, my father didn’t want to go, and this grandmother came and said, “You’re going to hear that boy.” She was the one person in the family that my father could not bully or cross. She was a very powerful woman. [Laughs]

JT: [Roland recalls his experiences as a young man in the 1940s.]

ROLAND REISS: My art teacher’s name was Art McCann. And after the war, at the County Fairgrounds, he was in charge of the school’s exhibits for a year. I worked even before that at the L.A. County Fairgrounds when it was a prisoner of war camp. When I was in High School, they had thousands of German and Italian prisoners there working on war material and picking oranges. I worked in a section where they were disassembling ducks, the big amphibious landing barges that were coming in from the South Pacific. They brought thousands of them back and were cutting them up for scrap metal. I prepared equipment and torches for them. I was also in charge of first aid and once in awhile they would hit a separate round or a grenade behind one of the bulkheads and it would be really bad news.

JT: This was in the mid Forties?

RR: Yes. And then they discovered Dachau and Belsen, and they put up huge billboards all over the fairgrounds so the German prisoners would have to look at them. These prisoners were all caught early in the war and they refused to believe what they saw. After the war they had horseracing and underneath the grandstand, they had the school’s exhibits, which was a kind of payoff for having the gambling above. After the war was over, I got a job working at the school’s exhibits. At first I had a job breaking blacktop, but they found out I could read diagrams so they sent me to the schools’ exhibits where they needed a display man. We collected art and material from all over Los Angeles County and made displays of it and conducted performances. By the way, I went to high school in Pomona.

JT: Yes.

RR: At Pomona High School, Millard Sheets came and talked to my art class. I’ll never forget that.

JT: That had to be something because of your engagement with Claremont later on. Tell me how his visit impacted you.

RR: Well, I didn’t consider it important at the time, only I did know that there were these art people up there. I actually had a funny experience related to this. There was a man in Pomona named George DeBeeson. When this art thing had happened at junior high school, I decided I would take a class at the Recreation Department. So when I arrived, there were about six of us, four older ladies, one old man, and this junior high school kid for a class in painting and actually, a graduate student from Claremont at Scripps who came down to teach this class. He looked at our little rag-tag group and the next week we were told, he wouldn’t be back. I guess he thought the situation was too pathetic. [Laughs] But they said, “Don’t worry! We will find someone for you.” So the next week George DeBeeson showed up. He was about 65 years old. He had been a background artist for Disney, but after he quit Disney, he had opened a ceramics factory in South Pomona where he made black panthers and tigers, and little girls with lambs and things like that, which were sold at Bullock’s and other good stores. He lived with his wife in a tarpaper shack, and between the shack and the house was a plaster fountain with a sculpture of a young boy urinating amidst a group of swans. People could see it from the road and it became a town scandal. Pomona was very conservative in those days. Anyway, I signed up for the class, and I immediately became involved with him as a mentor, and I went almost every day after school to his studio.

JT: Do you remember how old you were at this time?

RR: I was 16 and would hang out there on weekends. He had worked with Lawrence Puthuff painting backgrounds at the County Museum of Natural History and the Disney Studios. He was an excellent plein air painter. And, so, he taught me how to do that, and to this day, I have an appreciation for it. They call it buckeye painting in the Midwest . . . I learned so much from being around George, but eventually, I left and years later, went to UCLA, and I remember coming back and showing him a bunch of my paintings on chipboard and of course, they were much more abstract than anything he was doing. He looked at my paintings and said, “This is exactly what I’d be doing if I were your age. They’re wonderful.” Then he looked at me and he said, “You know, you’re so much better than all those people up at Claremont.”

JT: How old were you?

RR: I was 23 years old at UCLA.

JT: What did you make of that?

RR: Well, in his strange way he felt competitive with the academic prima donnas on the hill. By the way, I forgot to mention that he had a brilliant, wide-ranging mind and he had invented the first automatic pilot for the airplane. He showed me pictures of himself with Marconi. He was testing high-fired ceramics for the government, experiments that turned up years later in the space shuttle and body armor. So he was a Renaissance man who lived a creative life in the present and the future. I think he felt competitive with Sheets, probably because Sheets was always called “the genius,” you know? He had the “rammed-earth” home and was famous and he deserves due credit, but I think George felt this guy’s getting all this attention and I’m down here in Pomona.  But George never got to see me at Claremont, and you know, it would have been very special.

JT: You’ve had, just some tremendous influences. I understand you studied with Jan Stussy?

RR: Yes I did! He was part of the UCLA faculty.

JT: And Stanton MacDonald-Wright?

RR: Yes. Let’s start with Stanton who was, you know, the older figure, my God, he was in his eighties at that time.

JT: Pioneer of American European Modernism.

RR: Like my age now. He was married to a very young woman and he was a curmudgeon, and he scared everyone to death. He invited me to go painting with him on weekends. And because I was a Veteran, and we had a new baby, and my first wife, Betty, was also going to UCLA, I just could not make time for it. I have regretted forever that I wasn’t able to do that. But, quite an extraordinary man . . . a lot of lessons. We were getting it first hand. “Gertrude [Stein] said that . . .” and “Alice [B. Tokias] was the brains behind Gertrude,” and “Pablo [Picasso] told me. . . .” Synchromy was the only American Movement in Paris in those days. So he knew all those people . . . in a funny sort of way, I guess it’s a little like when I talk about artists now . . . when I’m talking about Clyfford Still or Ad Reinhardt, or artists I’ve encountered. It has that same fascination for students because I will say, “You know, Dick Diebenkorn said this to me . . .” and it is first hand.

JT: Yes. the sphere of influence at the time.

RR: And, another important person was Annita Delano

JT: Quinton Bemiller’s aunt.

RR: Yes! I’ve discovered that. He brought a group here and as I talked to the group I felt like saying, “I’m going to tell you who my teachers were.” Well, she was a Victorian lady. She had studied at the Barne’s Foundation and was there when [Henri] Matisse was there, and John Dewey, and so forth. I got that whole thing including the Barne’s System of Analysis. Actually, I discovered her when I was taking an upper division watercolor class. That’s where I went after the Korean War. And I remember she mentioned that she was trying to bring three-dimensional form to Matisse’s color. And I thought, “That’s a really interesting remark!” She was already an elderly lady. I made an appointment to see her about this remark and I think I was the first student in a long while to show an interest in her. You know, older faculty often feel distant from the students. And I think she was very pleased I came to see her and expressed interest. We became friends and she taught me the Barne’s System of Analysis in her seminar. In those days, a seminar would be like two students and a professor.

JT: Tell me about the Barne’s System.

RR: Well, it’s a system of formal analysis, Dr. Barnes, invented it. The problem with Dr. Barnes is that he proceeded to extend the system by making value judgments about artists. That was a mistake. The method consisted of sitting in front of a painting and you always had to be in front of an original.  Now you may not believe this, but in those days we actually had original paintings hanging in the halls at UCLA. Modern paintings like the Matisse at the County Museum called, “Tea in the Garden” [1919]. And, we had a large Courbet, Léger, and so forth unprotected day and night!

JT: We feel that way at Claremont with the extraordinary art collection.

RR: Yes, from the Capital Group.

JT: It’s just amazing.

RR: But the way analysis worked, Dr. Barnes required that you sit in front of an original work of art and you write, and you analyze the work in terms of line, light, space-shape, and color. So, the first step was to write about line as much as you could. Hopefully, you could write all day just on line . . . line as edge, line as a whole variety of things describing every position and nuance of it. And space-shape in every possible dimension and, of course, these things would fold into each other. After writing as much as you could about each element, you did a synthesis of these elements and how they contributed to the artist’s intention. Ultimately, it was about intentionality and practicing that system made it possible for me to critique anything even amateur work in a mall.

JT: I find it helpful to have a rubric, something to actually go by, different theoretical frameworks that one can look at. It opens up so many possibilities.

RR: Well, there was a lot of emphasis on “looking” in those days, and we came in to Wright’s class one day at ten o’clock, and he had a Gauguin on the chair. He sat down next to it and said, “You’re gonna look at this until I say, ‘Stop.’” And after a couple of hours, a student said quietly, but respectfully “Mr. Wright, can I go to the bathroom?” And he said, “Yes, but come right back.” We had other classes, but he kept us there all day. We just sat there staring at that painting. It was a great lesson. And knowing it completely.

JT: The visual perception.

RR: Looking at it, perceptual cognition.

JT: Yes.

RR: And really spending time with it. Now, of course, a lot of work is only produced for one tenth of a second viewing time, but you know, the expectation then was that work would continue to reveal itself over time. And that once you really got going, after you fell asleep at least once, then you would begin to dig deeper into the experience. So that was great too, but, I would say Annita Delano’s approach had more to it. Both were really good lessons. We practiced looking at art for long periods of time. Clinton Adams went on to be the Dean of the graduate school at the University of New Mexico and actually wanted me to be the Chair there as I was leaving Colorado. But my choice was to get back out to California, and I thought that New Mexico would be a lateral move. I wouldn’t be getting back to an art center. I lectured down there a number of times. It was an interesting department. Clinton didn’t know until years later, I named my oldest son for him, because he had an important effect on me. And, of course, Jan Stussy. He and Gordon Nunes were the two protégés of Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and he was the wunderkinder, you know. He was also really into Hollywood . . . Jack Lemon and people like that were his best friends.

JT: He won an Academy Award in 1977 for a Best Documentary.

RR: I was in Colorado by that time. I had him before he did film.

JT: He was multi-talented.

RR: There’s a lot of pro and con about Jan Stussy, I don’t know if you ever heard any of that. But, I want to say something on his behalf. It’s been fashionable to put Jan Stussy down by UCLA graduates. Jan Stussy was a showman and he was a marvelous teacher for undergraduates. He turned students on and got them excited. As artists who studied with him matured, they found other professors who brought greater critical depth than Jan could offer. And, so their tendency was to look back and down on him. You know, I always thought that was really unfair because teachers have different gifts.

And, I think he was very special.

JT: And also, different artists, and mentors, professors . . . everyone has his or her own unique relationship and people don’t realize that.

RR: Yes. I was a student living on the GI Bill trying to figure out how to survive and I realized, he taught extension courses in drawing at night, often for movie stars, by the way. When they bought materials at Flax, they would buy everything you dreamed about. Van Johnson was one of them. I took a class in anatomy with Jan thinking I want to be his assistant, I knew he had an assistant for the night course, and he also had an assistant, a T.A. teaching anatomy in daytime. And I needed those jobs. So I did something, I call “double learning.” You go into class and saying, “I’m going to learn this twice as well as any other student.” And if I do, the instructor will know it. So, I became his teaching assistant teaching anatomy during the day and at night. There are a lot of hilarious sides to it. [laughs] but, he was a great showman, and he could make anatomy really interesting to people. It’s a fairly boring subject for art students, and he could make it live. So much for Jan Stussy. And Gordon Nunes, I would never be a part of . . . Gordon Nunes’ group. There were two currents in the department, Jan’s and Gordon’s. Gordon was the mystic, which meant that students would gravitate to him like being in a cult and there was a lot of nodding in agreement about with the “guru.” It was an exclusive group. A year later, two people showed up––Bill Brice and Sam Amato, both great professors and very important to me. Bill Brice became my friend for life and in the last years I got to spend a lot of time with him. It was one of the greatest pleasures of my life, because he was such an important teacher to me, and such a wonderful artist. Bill brought a staggering intelligence to everything. Bill was brilliant, but also pragmatic and directly connected to visual experience. So, that was the group I belonged to.

JT: Sure.

RR: And it was the group that wanted to bring Rico Lebrun into the UCLA faculty. I actually became an assistant to Rico Lebrun. I interviewed him for a seminar and became an assistant for a while, which was also an extraordinary experience. He was supposed to be hired at UCLA but it didn’t work out. To make a long story very short, certain faculty members were threatened about bringing in an “art star.” The two big stars when I was in graduate school in Los Angeles were Rico Lebrun and Lorser Feitelson. They represented the polarities in the Los Angeles art scene. Bill Brice had been one of Lebrun’s accolytes. But Lebrun was too much of a powerhouse for UCLA. So they lost him, and years later they lost Diebenkorn for similar reasons. That is an interesting story too. Well, basically, when Diebenkorn was hired, he was already a very successful artist in San Francisco and the Chancellor said to him, “Why don’t you come down to UCLA and teach, and you don’t have to do the extra stuff that other people do, we just want you on the faculty. We’ll make you a professor and you won’t have to go to meetings or teach beginners.” Years went by and Dick did everything. He went to faculty meetings and carried all the same burdens, counseling, everything. So, finally it got to be too much for him and he said, “Look, I can’t do this stuff anymore. I just want to do my painting. I will teach several classes and I’ll teach the graduate students. So other members of faculty said, “Oh, no. You are obligated to do other things.” So he said, “Screw you.” It was the dumbest thing they ever did! They had a luminary and lost him. But it was a power issue. He was a sweet man and didn’t threaten anybody. Just the fact that he could have it his way was threatening to the faculty so he had to leave. And, John Paul Jones was there. His first and second year of teaching . . . [Laughs] he was great! A little anecdote about John, he used to send student prints to The Boston Print Annual, which was a big thing in those days. I took up printmaking, but was totally involved in painting. So, I would do my prints in a hurry. But, he came out of the Lasansky tradition. It involved heavy-duty printmaking. I learned all that, but I would go in and put stop-out varnish on the back of a plate, scrape it, and bite the hell out of it [referencing an acid etch] and print it. He sent these off to The Boston Print Annual and I won first prize. [Laughs] I’ll never forget, he said to me, “You could be a really great printmaker if you would just devote yourself to it!” [Laughs] And as I looked at him, he said [mimicking his rusty voice], “Oh, I know, you just wanna paint.” That was the end of that conversation . . . Iowa Printmakers believed you had to dedicate yourself to printmaking exclusively. They placed their printmakers in colleges and universities across the country. Some of us believed, like the people at Tamarind, “You can be an artist and make some great prints. Rembrandt was a painter and he made some pretty good prints. You don’t have to dedicate all of your time to it.

JT:  Tell me how you ended up at CU in Boulder, at the University of Colorado?

RR: I interviewed for several jobs as I graduated.

JT: Is this after your MA in 1957?

RR: Yes, there was no MFA in those days at UCLA. In fact, we thought we were getting the superior degree because supposedly, it was more academic. Anyway, I interviewed for several jobs . . . one was at UC Riverside, which was going to be a small liberal arts college with a three person art department, an historian and two artists, and I thought that department would be too small. Of course they burgeoned into a big department years later. I also interviewed at Cal State San Diego and they offered me the job, there wasn’t a UC San Diego then. And the Chair said, “Gibson Danes, the Chair at UCLA said, ‘You’re really good,’ so I’m offering you this job.” He said, “I really like you but, I teach this concept of music and color, and I would want you to teach it to the undergraduates. I looked at him and said, “I don’t think I can do that.” My friend Art Lingren took the job and spent the rest of his life down there. Unfortunately, the Chair retired two years later so it would have been okay after all. But I didn’t know that. Then Colorado came up. It was a big faculty and I thought it might be good to get away from Los Angeles. In many ways, it hurt my career as an artist by leaving California at that time. Things were just starting to take off on La Cienega. But for me, it was a chance to find myself as a teacher . . . to work on my art. In my last year in graduate school I was in the first new talent issue of Art In America.

JT: Yes.

RR: They used to do a new talent issue. And, I got letters from New York galleries asking me to show. But, I wrote them back saying, “Thank you very much for your interest. I think I need four or five years of work and seasoning before I show. That was our training in those days. There was some humility in it.

JT: See, now that’s the attitude that should have been taken. You knew, early on.

RR: So, three years later, even, I contacted the galleries but they were no longer interested. That was the beginning of [pounding his fist on the table] “We can do something with this person because of the publicity.” That was the old way. The more mature you are the better you’ll be. But, that’s all in the past. What I’ve learned as a teacher today is that it is like rock bands. People learn right in the process, in public.

As students and beginning professionals, in the process of showing, some people get better and some people don’t. You can’t ignore opportunity. You have only so many of them and you’re as good as your best work, whenever it happens.

JT: It’s a learning process.

RR: An artist can have three weak shows and then have a really good show when everybody goes, “Wow!” The bad work is forgotten . . . a new plateau is established.

JT: [We discuss the evolvement of the Claremont Graduate School Art program.]

RR: I came out to Claremont with a building in progress, but not planned and no CGS faculty except for myself.

JT: Harvey Mudd?

RR: At Harvey Mudd, the undergraduate faculty staked out what they could of it. Jim Fuller had taken almost the whole damn floor for a printmaking studio. [Laughs] I had to get along with the undergraduate faculty and rearrange things for the new and separate graduate program. I was in a weird position because most of the undergraduate faculty had wanted my job. It was the highest paid job in Art in Claremont, so a certain respect came with it. And because of that, I was made head of the field committee, which dealt with the Graduate Program. But, it also meant that the undergraduate faculty was my faculty. They held unpaid appointments at CGS and they had a vote on everything. You see my dilemma. Their general view was, “We don’t want anything to happen to the Graduate program, we want it to stay like it is. We want graduate students who can help us with our work.” Of course, that was anathema to me in terms of what a Graduate program should be, but that had been the tradition. It wasn’t all bad, but it bordered on an apprentice system. There were about 12 graduate students, the program was very small and I didn’t have any real authority. All I had was smiling, you know? It was a bit of a struggle to get going as I started by asking Jim Fuller to move back. And they were all protecting their own turf. Then right in the middle of all this, the Presidents of the Colleges asked me to do a study of the Art Programs at all the Colleges and make recommendations about how economies could be effected. It felt like I was doing a doctoral dissertation on top of organizing the department and teaching.

JT: Of course.

RR: Interviewing everyone and analyzing facilities, programs, curriculum, and budgets.

JT: These are the days before the Internet.

RR: So studying the whole thing, I settled on a series of alternatives involving shared classrooms because classrooms stood empty for long periods of time . . . the Scripps drawing studio versus the studio at Pomona. Economies could be effected in a variety of ways. But I was most interested in solutions, which would improve the art programs across the board. It was a problem that Pomona would not tenure its Art faculty. All kinds of things were going on then. So, I showed a number of alternatives, including the most logical solution, which was an art school in Claremont, that would service all graduate and undergraduate art classes for all the colleges, would supervise degrees in art, and which would establish tenure for faculty to strengthen their commitment.

JT: So, what helped inform this realization was this case study, the research that you did of the area and the schools and the influence helped inform your direction.

RR: In some ways, yes. But sadly, when the report got to the faculty, some went ballistic. I had never understood how proprietary faculty members could be. They didn’t want anything to change. They saw my suggestions as a threat to their programs. It was so weird because they would have been stronger for any of the possibilities, and at best, it would have been one large art department putting all the resources together. People got Claremont Art programs confused anyway and still do. Outside of Claremont, people usually refer to art at Claremont and do not distinguish individual colleges.

JT: What was the catalyst that made this work? What approach did you take?

RR: Well, we had a small group of graduate students, and I came in with a new president, Barnaby Keeney, it was his first year. We were starting out together and he liked the Art department because he liked the idea of unpredictable behavior. He liked making the general faculty feel uncomfortable about things, and certainly, some of the faculty were always uncomfortable about art. It was only in later years when we had become a success that they were more accepting. President Keeney’s support really counted for a lot. One of the hard parts for me was being caught in a subvention involving payments to Scripps College for services, but expecting Pomona and Pitzer to teach for free. We did not pay them a significant amount and therefore had little to say about their input. Years later, the Scripps administration attempted to reduce their contribution further and we were forced to hire adjunct professors to replace their offerings. There was a little cottage next to Huntley Bookstore, one of the last little college cottages and I went to president Keeney and asked if we could have it for an Art department office. We needed a rallying point because we were spread out in little rooms across the campuses while waiting for the Harvey Mudd faculty. My office was in McManus behind the School of Religion. Students like Ted Kerzie came there to see me  . . . and they all had dogs. The School of Religion was upset because the art students came through their office with dogs to see me. I was trying to get a program started and I couldn’t ask them to give up their dogs. Pam, my first secretary and I dry walled the inside of the cottage. People could not believe that a professor and a secretary were doing dry wall. Turrell saw it all happening. There were some students working with Paul Soldner at Scripps. Half of the program was in ceramics at that time. Out of 12 students, probably seven . . . six or seven of them were in ceramics. Paul had been a friend for years. By the way, he went to University of Colorado, not as one of my students, but I knew him for 15 years in Colorado. The cottage became a place where I could meet with the students. And I would go out like a country doctor during critiques at different locations. Then, the next year, we went into Harvey Mudd, established ourselves there and started to grow. Very quickly we went to 25, and there was a basement down below us and I asked if we could get into that. So pretty soon we had a whole “Hopi village” of studios and a shop downstairs and the Libra Gallery, printmaking, and offices on the floor above.

JT: This is what John Frame remembers.

RR: Yes.

JT: He was talking about the fluorescent lighting.

RR: He was downstairs at the basement! Some students used incandescent clip ons. So we expanded rapidly. I felt that the department was too small to be viable and the program at Colorado had been about 30 students. Of course, in those days, the University of Iowa had 100 graduate students. I thought that was too big, I thought you needed a critical mass to create energy. That was the beginning of the new CGS Art Program. So, we began to grow and I was able to hire Michael Brewster. I think he had been teaching at Pomona for one year or so after he graduated. He was on a graduate committee and I was impressed with him. I liked the kind of art that he was making. It was different from what I was doing. By the time this actually happened Turrell had left, and I saw Michael Brewster as an heir to that tradition of work. Even though it was sound, it was part of the Light and Space genre, so I hired him as an adjunct. I talked to the undergraduate faculty about getting more CGS faculty and they said, “No, you can’t do that. We are the faculty!” They held appointment to teach graduate students. I was to be the only CGS appointee. So I told President Keeney, “They will not allow more CGS faculty,” But I can’t go on like this. I need some people on my team and I have this young man who is already working for us. He said, “Well, I’m going to put you in touch with a Trustee named Sutro of Sutro Corporation. He said, “You write him a letter.” So I wrote to him explaining that I needed a faculty member and he came up with the money for the position. In those days, faculty could actually do things like that! President Keeney stood behind the hire and the undergraduate faculty had to accept it. President Keeney was a tough cookie. Few people in academia are like that.

JT: What year was this?

RR: I’m guessing it was about ‘73. Michael Brewster can tell you for sure. So then, we were there in that building constantly growing until the recession, which happened in the late Seventies and into the Eighties. We had been such a success we began planning a new building. The meter was running on construction costs so planning became a nightmare. I was on the President’s Advisory Committee when things had become really bad because the endowment portfolios had taken a huge hit. I sat there with four other professors and the President talking about the future of the Graduate School. Of course, we all knew the Trustees would control the solution, but from the President’s perspective, the faculty’s opinion was important. This is where I learned an unpleasant lesson. We talked about various options. Several of the professors suggested that we eliminate the Art department and the Music department.

JT: [sighs]

RR: It was amazing because we were one of the few successful departments, paying our own way and that of the others.

JT: After all this . . .

RR: It was like rats on a sinking ship. They argued that Arts were not an essential part of the CGS commitment.

JT: So much politics that goes on behind the scenes.

RR: A fascinating part of the discussion was that perhaps they should close the graduate school and make it a research institution exclusively. And I thought, that wouldn’t be too bad . . . I would just get to paint! [Laughs] Anyway, completed the new building in 1981 and that gave us more space, and it gave us a better image. It was designed to serve the program developing up to that point, which is pretty much the program that continues to this day.

JT: The program has become one of the top graduate schools in the country engaging theory and practice in the cultural discourse, and I understand it was one of the first where the students have a say in the ongoing activities . . .

RR: Absolutely. When I arrived, there were several things they were doing that I didn’t like, one was that graduate students had to show their work to members of the undergraduate faculty, and the faculty would do appraisals of their work and make recommendations for them to take additional coursework in addition to degree requirements. It terrorized the art students, and I called it “The Art Police.” I didn’t really feel that all historians were qualified to make judgments about graduate students’ work. Obviously, a historian like Meyer Shapiro would be qualified. But a specialty in Medieval Studies isn’t really a qualification for critiquing Contemporary Art.

JT: Art historians versus art practitioners.

RR: This has been a long running question. Art historians and theorists automatically qualified to supervise studio programs in Contemporary Art? I believe it is true only in special instances. Obviously, specialists in Contemporary Art History are qualified. It is amusing to me now that you can’t find an art historian anymore. They all do cultural studies, right?

JT: You make a good point. What about the concept of the open studio, the individual workspaces, and how it facilitated the art community and intellectual exchange?

RR: Yes, open studios came out of my experience traveling around the country seeing how studios were set up at other places. The tradition across the country was that graduate students would lock themselves up in little rooms and professors would come to see what they were doing I thought that art students learned so much by vicarious experience and graduate students had been cut off from that, plus dialog with each other! So those were important reasons for having the studios open. I lost it on something, a subject previously. I had a system for introducing new ideas, which was to say, “Let’s just try it for a year,” and then we will discuss whether or not we want to continue with it. That method worked great through my 29-year tenure as Chair. For instance, I suggested that we do away with “art police” for a year and see how it went. A year later, it was no longer an issue. [Also] choosing new graduate students as potential faculty studio assistants was clearly not a good way to choose. We needed a system that would bring a wider range of viewpoints to the program. So, I suggested that graduate students vote on who comes into the program along with the faculty. Furthermore, we would balance the vote with a ratio of graduate students to faculty members so that faculty and students votes had equal weight determining acceptance and rejection. We built in a safeguard where faculty could argue for an applicant before the Executive Committee if they were unhappy. It turned out the graduate students were fabulous. They wanted the best students to come into the program. They didn’t care what kind of art they did, only that it be exceptional. We were the only program in the country allowing such student participation.

JT: Right.

RR: I was proud of that. In fact, I was at the University of Kansas lecturing and we had a WASC [Western Association of Schools and Colleges] review going on in Claremont. The head of the committee called me [laughs] in Kansas to say that “we” were a model program. I was thrilled! He said, “You are demonstrating what graduate student input should be.” You know, that idea came from two early experiences. When I went to work at University of Colorado, there was an elderly woman teacher named Dorothy Eisenbach who had been a Philip Guston student and who was in charge of the Foundation classes. I was a Korean Veteran probably 26 years old. Faculty members would meet to discuss the teaching of classes and she would call us kids––and it was demeaning because she was in charge. Many of the younger faculty and graduate students were Veterans of WWII and in my case, the Korean War. I got the picture that graduate students and young faculty should be treated like adults. You can trust graduate programs to make important contributions to a program. Fortunately, the older view of young faculty and graduate students is now lost in the past at most institutions.

JT: That’s interesting, eliminating that hierarchical structure really brought community.

RR: Absolutely! Yes. I said, “Graduate students are adults! They have a stake in the program.” The only time graduate input can be problematical is in the area of long-term policy. issues. Over the years graduates brought many fresh ideas to our program. I sat alongside my desk when talking to students, not behind it as a way of democratizing the interactions. I learned a lot about these things when I did the miniature sculpture on corporate culture. I studied proxemics and body language and the psychology of human interaction. I’m interested in ideas, which feed my work as an artist, and they have fed my life as well.

JT: Just those everyday experiences you share with your client, or your peers, or your colleagues, or whomever you work with. It’s second nature. You start to read people and the psychology of that whole interaction. And here you are experiencing that on a student/mentor/professor level. You’re seeing the whole dynamics of that relationship––that psychological development and it’s powerful.

RR: At UCLA, when I was in graduate school, the professors were up there and we were down here. One day, Bill Brice and Sam Amato invited me to lunch, which was a big deal. Not only did they invite me to lunch but, Bill started talking about a problem in his work. And then he turned to me and said, “What would you do about that?

JT: How did you feel when they asked you that?

RR: Well, my jaw hit the floor and I thought, “I cannot believe he’s asking me this.” Then it hit me that they were making me a peer!

JT: Roland, how do you view the relationship of your work to contemporary culture?

RR: This is a very complicated subject. I want my art to be two things in relation to contemporary culture. I want it to be healing. It might sound very romantic, but it’s true. I want to set good forces in motion. I think artists have a choice about things. Artists can do terribly damaging things to culture and I want to generate configurations, which are healing . . . which have a kind of social integrity . . . bring a kind of psychological closure . . . bring a kind of resolution and elevation to the human experience. That’s important to me. I said two things though, the other thing? Art always reflects the creative nature of the culture. You know, when I first studied art we were told Greek art was better than Roman art but eventually you learn that each art is appropriate to its time. Exactly appropriate to its time. We are now, in a time in which our culture is in a moment of stasis, is unsure whether it can continue to be creative . . . there’s a lot of recycling going on. The forward momentum in art has slowed almost to a stop. We’re still seeing progress to some extent in technology . . . and in medicine, but even there, one has the sense that we’re loosing parity. It’s interesting that the dominant culture usually has the dominant art, and we’re seeing the rise of Chinese art right now. We’re seeing the contest develop right before our eyes. There’s no saying where it’s going to wind up. But, the creative nature of culture is reflected in art and I certainly want to maintain creativity as my tiny contribution to this culture. Now, I may be among the people who valued creativity more than the next group coming up.  I don’t know the answer to that. All I can be is what I am. The culture is larger than we are. Wittgenstein said that, “Artists produce the art that society compels them to produce.” We like to think that we are in charge of all of that. Ultimately, we’re part of something much bigger. And, the culture is talking through its artists.

JT: It’s interesting, what’s going on now with the cultural shift and especially with media-driven technologies in how that’s impacted the workings of the culture, but also the creativity and the emergence of artists, and specifically, artists forging their own careers, going online, and social networking beyond the constraints of the gallery system. How has the media and the information technologies impacted you and your work?

RR: Well, it’s affected me in the same way that LSD affected me. I never took it and I’m not into technology. But people kept asking me during the Sixties if I was taking it.


JT: Yes.

RR: Does that make any sense?

JT: It does, oddly enough. [Laughs]

RR: In other words, I think there are all kinds of things about the computer that are in my work, but I don’t really use it.

JT: You wonder if subliminally that technological evolvement affects you. But also, you look back at historical trajectories and how that has influenced your work and where you are today.

RR: Absolutely.

JT: So, you wonder if these are infusing in the consciousness of your creativity.

RR: That is what allows me to find the contemporaneous space of my own in the work. But, there are all these different levels in the computer and the electronic medium. In television we’re looking at images, which are composed of electrons affecting brain activity. There’s nothing substantial there. More and more we’re just transacting ephemeral images and so it’s mediumistic. But, I’m using these older techniques to do my work.

JT: What mechanisms do you find most critical in artist emergence?

RR: Well, I think it’s an artist’s ability to engage the field of Contemporary Art and the people in it. I don’t think you can really stay in a garage or whatever to have anything happen as an artist now. I think those days are gone. I’m not sure you ever could be much of a hermit and produce anything worthwhile. The artist’s ability to interact is a very important element today. Part of what affects an artist’s emergence is who they meet and who will help them if their work is of interest and of quality. Emergence now requires complex social interaction, going to openings and meeting people. It’s almost too social. You might think, why does an artist have to do so much of this, I don’t know. I actually thought, years ago that there would be a group of art agents who would represent the artists like in the film industry. But it has not happened. Many in my generation, certainly would be happy to have an art rep build reputation and find opportunities. There have been a few, and they have done wonderful things for artists.

JT: What advice would you offer aspiring artists?

RR: Well, I certainly would say, go to a graduate school. And go to a good one. Don’t go to one just ‘cause they’ll give you money. Go where they have a really interesting faculty. Go where they do things you are interested in. Go to a place that fully embraces Contemporary Art. It is essential that one study with people who are professional and current in outlook.

JT: What do you wish your legacy to be through your art?

RR: I always thought being and artist was more important than being an art teacher, and I still have that feeling. My rationalization has been that you have to be a good artist to be a good teacher. But, I also love the idea that I can go to a museum and see Vincent Van Gogh’s work long after he’s gone and he lives for me. There is immortality in that work. I can be there with him and I can experience the person, I can experience his vision and his presence, and it’s so extraordinary. It’s just thrilling. It’s like Mozart and music, it’s just thrilling! And I would like my art and my legacy be like that. If my art could make you feel like Matisse still makes me feel . . . that’s all I could ask. And, I know one day, it will all be gone . . . the universe will fry it at some point, but, I would hope my art could be a small part of time to come.


The audio recording and narrative transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Roland Reiss by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 7 and 2011 July 19. Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. Photographs courtesy of Roland Reiss are copyright protected and require expressed permission by the contributors for use. Other photographs and art images are copyright protected and may be used without permission, and cited as follows: [Image title] ©2011 [Artist or Photographer]; Oral history interview Roland Reiss by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., 2011 July 7 and 2011 July 19, Claremont Graduate University, School of Arts and Humanities Oral History Artist Series. 

The above is a partial transcript from the original interview. The full transcript is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution, see: https://rb.gy/vbax3x. For more on the work of Roland Reiss, visit: www.rolandreiss.com; and “‘In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” see: Jill Thayer, Ph.D. – The Artist, Emergence, and Culture: www.jillthayer.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/in-their-own-words-oral-histories-of-cgu-art/.

2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Roland Reiss

  1. This was a terrific interview I really enjoyed it I knew Roland when I lived on Wavecrest in Venice from 1973- 1975 and would go to Roland’s studio now and then with John Gordon and Jay Willis while I was a grad student at USC.

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