Before Americans liked the iconic painting “American Gothic” (1930), they seemed to hate it. When Grant Wood entered the work in a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, many viewers interpreted the painting as a disrespectful parody of small-town Americans. But within a few years, Depression-era and New Deal patriotism swept across the country, and the image became a national symbol.
Steven Biel, a cultural historian who directs the Humanities Center at Harvard University, described the painting’s unlikely journey in his book, American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting. Later artists made fun of its seeming sincerity; Gordon Parks famously imitated the painting, and pointed out the whiteness of its subjects, with a photograph of Ella Watson, a black woman holding a mop and broom in front of the US flag. “It’s troubling when ‘American Gothic’ stands for the authentic, true, or even average Americans,” Biel said. Still, he added, Wood’s work has more complexity than many viewers give him credit for.
Biel spoke to Hyperallergic about Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, a retrospective currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition puts “American Gothic” in the context of earlier and later works by Wood. Some seem like sincere celebrations of the US, but others show off the painter’s sense of irony and humor.
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Daniel Gross: “American Gothic” was initially received as a parody, even a critique, of small-town life. How did it evolve into an icon of Americana?
Steven Biel: From the time that “American Gothic” makes its first splash, in 1930, until at least ‘33 or ‘34, it’s universally seen as being a send-up of the kinds of people it depicts. People viewed it as deriding, disdaining, ridiculing this couple — whether father and daughter or husband and wife. One New York critic described these people as being the reactionary, puritanical, rigid types who drive artists away from the Midwest.
It isn’t just art critics who were reading it that way. A “farmwife” writing to the Des Moines Register said she was appalled at the way she felt she was being represented. They were outraged by it. That was the pervasive view.
I read Wood’s response as pretty defensive. Saying he didn’t intend it that way, that he intended it to be a realistic depiction of the kinds of people he knew in Iowa, with all their strengths and weaknesses.
By the mid-’30s, the situation in the country had changed dramatically. The sustained Depression is really what accounts for the shift in the understanding of this image. It no longer felt OK to make fun of, or express disdain for, farmers or small-town people.
DG: So when that kind of irony became less popular, the painting took on new, unironic meanings.
SB: Yes. They went from repressive rubes to noble, hard-hit people who were doing their best in whatever way to weather this crisis. It’s a somewhat crude formulation to say that the Depression completely transformed the meanings of “American Gothic,” but I think it’s true.
World War II kind of solidified that unironic understanding. Fortune magazine had an issue featuring potential war posters, even before Pearl Harbor — and one of the proposed posters was “American Gothic” with the words of Lincoln underneath it. As if these are the sort of steadfast, wholesome middle Americans who stand for the nation, and stand for the nation’s strength in the context of fighting fascism.
DG: In a way, Grant Wood’s defensive explanation of his own painting, as a realistic and sincere depiction of Iowa, won out in the end.
SB: It did. And that’s one of the things that makes him a fascinating figure. He cultivates this image of himself as a rooted, well-adjusted “Heartland” painter. What I think what the Whitney exhibition is trying to do, in large part, is to give us a more complicated Grant Wood. So that it’s not either, or. It’s not either ironic, or unironic.
The exhibition portrays Wood as a deeply ambivalent person — about Iowa, about his sexuality, about politics. And it reveals some of that ambivalence in the work.
His public story was that he went to Europe, studied in Paris, and when he came home to Iowa, he realized his true subject matter — his authentic aesthetic, or whatever you want to call it. And then he produced his best work. There’s the painting, “Return from Bohemia” (1935), where he’s looking very solidly placed among these denizens of Iowa.
But it’s increasingly clear that he was a more complicated character than the public version of himself that he helped generate. It’s also increasingly clear that Wood was gay.
DG: How successfully does the Whitney exhibition show Wood’s complexity?
SB: I think it does a good job. Among other things, it shows what a quirky guy he was. You come in, and you see these sort of craft projects he did, long before “American Gothic.” These strange assemblages he made. This corn cob chandelier. You have a sense of a guy who, at the very least, is playful and ironic. That gets you off to a good start, and I think it is conducive to look at some of the work that follows.
I went with my son, who is in his early 20s, and he found “Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) totally creepy. There’s this miniature Gilbert Stuart version of George Washington, holding an axe. For whatever celebration of national mythologies that painting engages in, it’s also bizarre.
DG: And the exhibition sort of primes the viewer to see that in his other paintings.
SB: Yes. “Daughters of Revolution” (1932), the painting that kind of pokes fun at these elderly ladies — that’s after “American Gothic.” “Victorian Survival” (1931) is kind of this play on a tintype. It’s hard to see those things as purely affectionate.
The landscapes, they’re a little bit different. Those, even the best of them, like “Stone City, Iowa” (1930), show this bountiful, highly stylized Iowa in what became his characteristic style. Perfectly sculpted, rounded trees and rolling hills. It arguably is harder to see the irony in that.
Still, I think there’s something about “American Gothic.” It’s not simply that people projected these two diametrically opposed meanings onto the painting. There’s something in the painting that invites those interpretations.
DG: Was there something in the exhibition that showed you a new side of Grant Wood?
SB: I think the great strength of this exhibition is its comprehensiveness. It’s not a surprise to me that Wood had this quirky Arts and Crafts background that precedes his Impressionist phase. But I think for that to be the invitation into Wood’s life and work is a really compelling way of mounting this.
DG: Is there one object that captures the complexity of Grant Wood, other than “American Gothic”?
SB: I think I would say the series of illustrations for the 1936 version of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. Because that’s about halfway through his mature career — long after he has wholeheartedly and publicly embraced his status as an “unalienated” man of the Midwest.
The illustrations show that he hasn’t moved completely over to the side of corniness. Even though he kind of claims that he’s put all that behind him, there he is, still painting these pretty intolerant-looking Midwesterners.
DG: This exhibition will be seen in New York by many people who don’t have a connection to rural America. And it comes at a time when intolerance and racism are incredibly visible. Do you think that our historical moment changes the meaning of Wood’s work, yet again?
SB: I think it’s a good moment for a complicated or ambivalent Wood. It’s a good moment to trouble notions of the “Heartland.” It’s a good moment to embrace the critical as well as the celebratory vision of small-town life.
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) until June 10.