Imagine being a sophisticated New York art critic in 1931 during the Great Depression, pushing the case for the strange and wild new painting arriving from Paris. It must have been particularly galling then, when an unknown, 40-year-old painter (living in Iowa no less) rocketed to national recognition with a single painting of a dour farmer in overalls with his prim companion. To make matters worse, this seeming hick — Grant Wood (1891–1942) — quickly and cannily capitalized on this popular success. Along with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, he articulately promoted an artistic agenda emphasizing a regionalist, anti-urban esthetic as being the then new American art. Though a Roosevelt leftist, Wood eventually alienated the eastern art establishment so thoroughly that, leading up to and during WWII, his work was pilloried as too similar to neo-realist Fascist esthetics to represent America. Sadly his decline was as swift as his rise. Wood’s reputation suffered; he fell into debt; there were innuendos about his sexuality, and then a sudden early death from pancreatic cancer. His entire mature career spanned eleven years. Finally, the triumph of the New York School after the war sank his stature as a serious artist to a regionalist footnote, into the present century.
But context changes a lot in art, and context is always shifting. Values get recalibrated as new ideas gain currency, old ideologies and their proponents die off, and polemics come to be seen as merely misguided business strategies for staying solvent. The exhibition of work by Grant Wood, organized by Barbara Haskell at the Whitney Museum, offers an opportunity to reconsider a very unusual artist who has been pigeonholed as irretrievably conservative and sentimental. The exhibition is silhouetted against a new critical background that has reconsidered the work of artists marginalized by gender, sexuality, race, region, or class status — artists whose work might even include illustration or employ practices formerly considered belonging solely to the decorative arts. So why shouldn’t the work of a queer, savvy, regional artist who was an adept silversmith, designer, muralist, and illustrator be looked at with fresh eyes? Grant Wood was an artist full of contradictions who offered ambiguity at every turn.
The show title, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, acknowledges the elephant in the room. “American Gothic,” (1931) is the painting that launched Grant Wood’s career as well as a million parodies. It is the painting everyone thinks they know by heart, even if they have never actually seen it in person. Wood himself equivocated about the depicted relationship of the two protagonists. Originally intending them to be father and daughter, and using his sister as model for the woman, when people assumed the couple was married, he didn’t demur. He insisted however that the American Gothic of the title referred to the house in the background, and claimed the painting was not intended as satire, even though critics imputed a negative portrayal. He later acknowledged how the couple might appear fanatical, but insisted he intended them to be “good and solid people.” Viewing the painting in person however, one is struck by the incredibly subtle details, cues, and complex formal structure that undermine any simple reading.
For instance, though adding a pitchfork, with its demonic symbolism, immediately seems overloaded, the form of the pitchfork perfectly mirrors the design of the farmer’s overalls and the stripes in his shirt, one prong ending just shy of his neck. The shape of his head rhymes with the roof of the house, down to the thin outline of his balding hair mirroring the dark line of the end shingles of the roof. The pattern on the woman’s dress echoes the pattern of the lace curtains in the upstairs gothic window, while the shapes of the trees in her immediate background echo her head. The tines of the pitchfork almost but not quite line up with the vertical lines of the house, as well as the vertical edge of the farmer’s jacket. Wood also finely delineates the potted plants on the porch, the cameo at her throat, as well as the one sinuous strand of hair that dangles provocatively from behind her ear and just grazes her neck. The buttoned-up intensity of this couple that look like they might have something illicit to hide, combined with the one visible hand grasping the shaft of the pitchfork as if it were an erect cock ending in three sharp points, gives the painting a perverse charge, making either answer to the question of wife or daughter equally creepy.
Whether or not Grant Wood can be claimed as a gay artist, there is a definite sense of several alternative narratives that are not overtly homoerotic constantly lurking below the surface of work. It makes the “And Other Fables” of the title resonate throughout the exhibition. (He certainly did not want to be labeled homosexual; Richard Meyer in a catalogue essay prefers “queer” to describe his esthetic attitude.)
Still, a deeply layered, rigorously controlled formal structure undermined by a strange embarrassing whimsy occurs in almost every painting. While accepted in outlier artists like James Castle, or (more aptly for the 1930s) like Henri Rousseau, it is a quality that mainstream art has tended to eschew, until recently. But it does create a feeling that contemporary artists (especially ones that grew up in the Midwest, and particularly in Iowa, like me) respond to. This contradictory dynamic of wacky sincerity is recognizable as something that the Midwest surreptitiously instills. It might have been what stymied Chicago-born Elizabeth Murray‘s international career. Or narrative absurdity may just be a clumsy self-protective denial of the inevitable earnestness that is the heartland’s gift. On the one hand, complex formalism conveys gravity, but then is betrayed by an inability to resist slipping a banana peel underfoot.
No matter what he claimed as the intention behind the painting “Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939), this parable of George Washington confessing to chopping down the cherry tree is the looniest painting in the show. While you have the young, little George Washington with his recognizably adult head, and cherry trees as bizarre lollipops, the painting is full of weird structural curves from the arcs of the revealing curtain (fringed with cherry-like balls) and the splayed tree, to the series of small, visually connected events of hands and arms that move in congruent arcs. The incongruous appearance of black slaves in the upper left corner simultaneously makes me realize just how thoroughly white Wood’s work is, but then lets me forgive him for it because it seems he understood how creepy adding them would seem. That Wood tried to collage together all these strange characters existing in several states of fictional reality (his initials are even the same as Washington’s), makes this work deeply and uncomfortably irresistible.
It is hard to pick favorites in this exhibition which dishes out so many levels of weirdness my head starts to spin. There are serious book illustrations done for Sinclair Lewis, and a corncob chandelier for a hotel dining room. There is elegant silver work paired with painted metal machine parts wired up as eccentric flowers in clay pots. And learning details from the catalog about his life, like the tale of him attending a costume party dressed as an angel with wings, a pink flannel nightie and a halo, makes a definitive understanding of this work fruitless.
But because I initially viewed the exhibition backward, having mistakenly entered through the wrong archway, I was able to notice two, small, riveting paintings hanging adjacently in the penultimate room: “Rural Landscape”, (c. 1931), and “Iowa Landscape” (1941) that together are an enigma. Their facture is uncharacteristically spontaneous, unmannered, and wildly inventive, with quick and confident, juicy brushstrokes mixed with some deft scrapings of a palette knife. But the compositional structure is immediately recognizable as Wood’s. The rapid paint application indicates a plein air experience coupled to an idiosyncratic vision. It is nevertheless totally different from his initial, adept but derivative Impressionist paintings done after his early trips to Europe.
These two paintings don’t seem to have been intended as studies; in the exhibition there are no precisely finished landscapes that mirror them. Besides, we soon learn that Wood’s studies are mostly done in charcoal on paper and differ only slightly from his finished paintings. Wood’s approach in these is far too developed and refined for more not to exist. But then where are the others like them? Haskell says she didn’t encounter any. Done ten years apart at the very beginning and very end of his career, they have a strikingly similar touch but are unlike anything else in the show. Another unsolvable riddle. It is finally one more indication that something mysterious was always running parallel to or underneath the surface of his work.