Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fablesby Jason Rosenfeld
WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART | MARCH 2 – JUNE 10, 2018
Grant Wood was born in 1891 to a Quaker family of farmers who lived near the small Iowa town of Anamosa. His father was a strict disciplinarian of body, behavior, and mind; actively antagonistic to the development of young Grant’s imagination, he disapproved of fantasy or fiction. His death of heart failure when Wood was ten impacted Wood’s emotional and psychological maturation negatively, but it freed his mother, Hattie, to move them to Cedar Rapids where she encouraged her youngest son’s aesthetic inclinations. After training in the fine and applied arts in Minneapolis, Iowa City, and Chicago, and then studying in Europe, Wood was regarded as an American original, and in the short twelve years of his maturity, before succumbing to a previously undiagnosed pancreatic cancer just before he turned fifty-two, became the object of national curiosity along with his fellow Regionalists, local pride and, eventually, achieved iconic status.
His last major New York show was at the Whitney Museum in 1983, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision. It established him as a significant artist while inadvertently reflecting Ronald Reagan’s sepia-toned, folksy construction of a true America located in Wood’s Midwest. The present exhibition, similarly unintentionally, has arrived amidst a contentious national mood, with a divisive President attempting to define not only what makes America great but who constitutes America. The isolationist tendency of this administration to a degree reprises the post-Great War national mood in 1930 when Wood painted his most well-known picture, American Gothic, while privileging the same whiteness that Wood’s world construed as the default for the nation.
Building on decades of scholarship, curator Barbara Haskell with Sarah Humphreville has impressively gathered nearly all the major works, temporarily clearing Iowa collections of their Woods to our benefit, and produced a worthy catalogue and at times inventive display in eleven rooms. Haskell contends that the works contain a “mesmerizing psychological ambiguity,” reflecting a generally pervasive biographical approach to his art while acknowledging his homosexuality. The first three rooms are excellent, proceeding chronologically to around 1930. Subsequent rooms are thematic, but the exhibition loses focus on his artistic development and the man himself. The title presents Wood’s pictures as fables, myths, and legends of the nation, while implying that he was a self-fabulist due to society’s dictates, promoting himself as a farmer-painter and pursuing a manly aesthetic despite his liberal politics and desire for men. The first room features deep plum walls and display cabinets showcasing Wood’s early work as a decorative artist in symbolist landscapes, allegorical images, Tiffany and arts and crafts inspired lighting, and vessels and dishes, the latter reminiscent of Viennese design. An overmantel painting (1930) of a house and its yard and gardens is in a style that melds the touch of porcelain painting with the spiky fantasy vegetation of Henri Rousseau. Characteristic of Wood’s early landscapes, the setting is the imagined nineteenth century, despite the modern suburban house (designed by Wood). A family welcomes home a top-hatted father on horseback. But there is malevolence in Arcadia—a cat on the front steps eyes a robin digging for a worm. Such undercurrents would be evident in much of Wood’s mature production.
The second room shows the development of his early style: en plein air realist landscapes produced in Paris, erroneously described as Impressionist in almost all the literature; and a predilection for unclothed male figures, evident in his fin-de-siècle style mural and stained glass window designs. He would evict these styles from his mature works (but often keep the male nudes). The third gallery features early portraits including the striking Arnold Comes of Age (1930) made the same year as American Gothic, an amalgam of Northern Renaissance works, but also Piero della Francesca, German realist art by Wood’s contemporary Christian Schad, and the idyllic and symbolic American landscapes of Arthur B. Davies and Maxfield Parrish.
The biggest draw is American Gothic (1930) in gallery three, perhaps the most variously interpreted picture in history—a rigid, small-town father guarding his house and spinster daughter as she shiftily looks in his direction posed by his dentist and younger sister, Nan. The so-called Mona Lisa of America, it is on the surface simple but is as difficult to unpack as Leonardo’s portrait of the young Italian wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant and trader in sugar from Madeira, leather from Ireland, property, money, and female slaves, which is now somehow an icon of France. Wood’s image is of a couple who may be married (generally how he described it), or father and daughter (according to his sister); who are town-folk (his version) or farmers (how it is perceived by non-Iowans); and which is a satire (his initial take) or a celebration of Midwestern authenticity (the Depression-era interpretation). It is marvelous to have access to this picture, and to see in the flesh the reason why it has been so readily parodied and granted iconic status: like Michelangelo’s oft-lampooned image of the creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it is a superb piece of design, and undeserving of the kitschy associations it has since accrued. Wood’s Iowan couple is precisely painted in a descriptive manner that resembles tempera and carefully staged from the background house flanked by church steeple and barn (faith and work) to the mail-ordered garments, with Nan’s patterned apron paralleled in the shade in the upper floor gothic sash window. First exhibited in 1930 in Chicago at a time of rising competing and antagonistic ideologies to democracy across the Atlantic, and in the midst of the Great Depression, it joined a national critical debate about the direction and form of American art, as Steven Biel has shown in his compelling study of the picture, American Gothic: (A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting) (2005).
What the exhibition does not explain is why Wood was never again able to repeat the success of American Gothic. In his subsequent twelve years of life he ranged far and wide in his productions, from images of historical Americans (Paul Revere, George Washington), to original depictions of local scenery, to illustrations for books and magazines, to public murals, to Victorian-style furniture (his preferred period), and drawings. All of this is here, but nothing after 1930/1931 resembles American Gothic. It may be that Wood, who was both wary of being seen as stylistically modern or aping photography, consciously pushed himself away from such formal approaches.
The exhibition’s overall presentation is disappointing both visually and didactically. Many of the pictures, prized possessions of smaller institutions, retain their protective glazing. But this means glare is ever-present, exacerbated by the use of white walls in all but two of the rooms; this also misleadingly associates Wood with modern art. His works do not benefit from being hung as if they were Mondrians. By contrast, the fifth room is a highly sympathetic deep blue. It features Wood’s Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) from the Metropolitan, along with the intriguing and sexually loaded Appraisal (1931), a skeptical self-portrait (1932/1941), and Return from Bohemia (1935), his complex design for the cover of a never finished autobiography. However, and despite Paul Revere gracing the cover of the catalogue, there are no wall texts nor explanatory labels in this room, and unless one chooses to listen to the audio guide of the latter picture (and in multiple visits it appeared that most do not), visitors are left at sea regarding these compelling works. Paul Revere in particular is barely discussed in the catalogue and this is a great deficiency—how does such an important work fit into the theme of the retrospective? How does it fit into Wood’s oeuvre?
Subsequent galleries are devoted to his murals and decorative work and illustration, important aspects of his practice that reveal his populist streak in terms of making fine art accessible and affordable and continued reverence for Piero and Fra Angelico and the like. But the two concluding rooms of landscapes are frustrating, and by then the crowds have thinned. The first contains works from the early 1930s and the second from the last years of his life. There are a couple of fine pictures—the compelling Stone City of 1930 is a reworking of El Greco’s magnificent View of Toledo (ca. 1599-1600), which entered the Metropolitan’s collection in 1929, and here Wood established the rolling terrain, absence of weather, curving forms, and antiquated touches (a man on horseback, grounded billboards) that would mark his Iowascapes with his own brand of expressive mannerist naturalism. In the last room is the iridescent Spring Turning of 1936, as modern as Wood gets, as if Josef Albers’s geometric abstractions met the rolling farmland, and Death on the Ridge Road (1935), with its spooling roads, attenuated cars, and menacing sky that is surely indebted to film noir. But Wood’s strongest works are in the early part of the exhibit, and no visual connection is offered between historical subjects and portraits and landscapes: a sense of the artist’s evolution is absent. This should be inherent in a retrospective. For example, the well-known Parson Weems’ Fable (1939), with a young George Washington confronted by his father over that ill-fated cherry tree, is a picture which would have been better-located in the last room than in gallery four. It signaled a new direction in his truncated career with its abstracted forms, more artificial treatment of nature, and less descriptive touch, and would have given weight to the last years of his production.
Nonetheless, the catalogue is a worthy instrument, though marred by nine plates that go across the gutter—a practice inimical to looking at reproductions and which should be retired. It would have been useful to have entries on individual or grouped works in order to advance the claim of “mesmerizing psychological ambiguity,” another element of the show that apes publications on contemporary art, with their reluctance to discuss individual works. But Haskell’s introduction and especially her extensive chronology are essential, and absorbing individual essays by Emily Braun on the broader European references of Wood’s works and on his sexuality by Richard Meyer, productively expanding on R. Tripp Evans’s moving biography of 2010, are significant additions to the voluminous literature on the artist.
It is a welcome moment of reappraisal of the moral scope of American artistic traditions in New York, with a newly politicized Thomas Cole on view at the Metropolitan Museum, and Norman Rockwell’s paintings of the Four Freedoms (1943) set to be displayed at the New-York Historical Society from May. Seeing Wood here, with all that is now understood of his family life, connections to Iowa, and the nature of his same-sex desire, evident in his male bodies and suggestive landscapes, at the very same time that the Whitney continues its own self-examination of its holdings and joins with institutions across the city in showing the work of women artists and artists of color and various orientations, should be revelatory. Wood will never join the American artistic pantheon; in truth he did not have the focus to do so, but a more lucid display would have helped us to understand how much he did manage to achieve in his often compelling art, in the dozen years he had been given, while saddled with family obligations, an inability to live the emotional life he was entitled to, animosity at work, and a stealthy disease which killed him.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.