A new exhibition shows the full evolution of a thoroughly American artist.
The Whitney Museum of American Art didn’t plan for its highly anticipated Grant Wood retrospective—“Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables” (March 2–June 10)—to open during this specific moment in our culture. “It’s luck more than planning,” says Barbara Haskell, the exhibition’s curator and a longtime curator at the Whitney. “It just happened that the world that Grant Wood flourished in is so similar to the world we’re living in now.” The exhibition acts as a “springboard,” says Haskell, for conversations that pervade the current moment as they did Wood’s 1930s, such as the divergent concerns of urban and rural life, notions of anti-elitism, and a general reinvestigation of what the country values. Fortuitous as it may be, the show is also long overdue—Wood hasn’t had a major museum retrospective in New York since the early ’80s (a 1983 show at the Whitney, actually) and barely a handful of surveys outside the Midwest since 1935.
Wood, along with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, led the charge of Regionalist painting. A Virgil-like figure, he helped shape the American mythology of the 1930s and ’40s, in part by looking backward to a seemingly simpler, idealized past. He painted scenes of late-19th-century Midwestern farm life that he culled from his Iowa childhood. Though Wood was a bona fide farm boy—he famously said, “All the really good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow”—his work, with its pristine, rolling fields, endless sunlight, and noble farmers, falls prey to the enduring human folly of nostalgia for a time that didn’t really exist. Far from making it a sham, however, this aspect of Wood’s work is what makes it uncannily relatable; his paintings don’t mirror American life, they mirror the way Americans think about American life.
This month, nearly every painting from Wood’s mature period, 1930–45, will be on view at the Whitney. Many of them will be leaving Iowa for the first time, and the ubiquitous American Gothic (1930) will join them, making a rare trip from Chicago. The painting catapulted Wood to fame after it was first exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. Since then, it has been recreated and riffed on endlessly. In fact, it stands to reason that even if one has been living under the proverbial rock, there’s probably a parody of American Gothic scratched under there somewhere. “It’s the American Mona Lisa,” says Haskell, who adds that the museum is prepared for viewers to take a lot of selfies with it. “It’s so American; it’s a stereotype; it’s humorous; it seems real—Wood had an extremely well-honed formal sensibility that gives it a sharp, almost photographic realism; and there’s a sort of mystery about it,” says Haskell. “But it’s not an outlier, it’s emblematic of the other work.”
The “other work,” including The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, a 1931 oil on Masonite painting that entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950, is fairly famous in its own right. Taking its subject from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1863 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the painting depicts the American patriot and silversmith dashing through a colonial Massachusetts town on horseback. The scene is shown from bird’s-eye-view and illuminated with Hollywood-style spot lighting. Its geometric greenery and block-like houses seem almost like the pieces of an architectural model or play kit. Yet it’s this stylization that makes it seem like such an important part of Americana, as if it were a page in the scrapbook of the country’s history. In Daughters of Revolution (1932, oil on composition board), which travels to the show from the Cincinnati Art Museum, Wood provides a satirical view of American history. It is said that the Daughters of the American Revolution criticized Wood after he sourced glass from Germany, America’s enemy in World War I, for a stained-glass window at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (the window is represented at half-scale in the show). Five years later, Wood painted three models as DAR members in front of a depiction of Washington Crossing the Delaware, a heroic painting created by a German artist. A few critics have also suggested that the three women are in fact depictions of Founding Fathers in drag.
Several of the 130 works in the exhibition showcase Wood’s work outside of painting. Wood began his career as a decorative artist firmly rooted in the Arts and Crafts Movement (these beginnings helped form his view that art is democratic and should be for everyone). His Hanging Lampshade with Peacock Motif (circa 1910–20, stained glass, metal, and wood) reflects the period between 1910 and 1920 when he studied at the Handicraft Guild in Minneapolis, joined the Kola Arts and Crafts Community House, and opened the Volund Crafts Shop and showed jewelry and metalwork at the Art Institute of Chicago—all before moving back to Cedar Rapids in 1916. His Corn Cob Chandelier for Iowa Corn Room, a fixture he made in 1925 that is bound to be a crowd pleaser at the Whitney, shows Wood embracing his home state as subject matter. But his decorative work wasn’t limited to the period before his painting career took off in 1930, as evidenced by his Steuben glass vase, his Spring Plowing fabric design, armchair and ottoman, and the book covers and illustrations, such as those for the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street.
The exhibition also features several examples of the artist’s Impressionist paintings and commissioned work made prior to the development of his mature style, such as The Runners, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris (1924, oil on composition board) and Market Place, Nuremberg (1928, oil on canvas). Wood traveled abroad four times during the 1920s, seduced by the long-held belief of many American artists that Europe was artistically superior to their home country (later Wood would say, “In time, American art will be as different from European art as is American life. . . . Culture can’t be an imported product”). Though the French Impressionists were his leading influences for the first two decades of his career, the work of Northern Renaissance painters, such as Hans Memling and Albrecht Dürer, began to steer him toward the more detailed and orderly style of his mature period, as seen in the pivotal work Portrait of John B. Turner, Pioneer (1928/30, oil on canvas). A 1921 commission for the National Masonic Research Society building in Anamosa, Iowa, The First Three Degrees of Freemasonry (oil on canvas), is particularly evocative of his art viewing in Europe. The triptych’s three panels represent the three degrees; in its left panel Wood reproduces a 1915 sculpture by a Czech artist, in its right Rodin’s The Thinker, and in its center Michelangelo’s David is doubled to symbolize the duality of man.
The Whitney will showcase examples of Wood’s murals through various means. Three panels of Fruits of Iowa, a seven-panel mural Wood painted to decorate the coffee shop at the Hotel Montrose in Cedar Rapids in 1932, will be in the exhibition. The museum will have original film footage of Wood’s celebrated “Ames murals” at Iowa State College at Ames projected in the gallery. Wood’s monumental figures and the way he depicted the back-breaking work of rural farmers as pure and beautiful were hugely influential for WPA artists. “Artists were imitating his work nationally,” says Haskell. “I’ve found articles that refer to his copy cats as “Grant Wood-ers”—and it’s true, that very crisp style that he inaugurated is in almost all of the WPA murals.”
During the early 20th century, critics were calling for American artists to break free from the European canon and create work that was intrinsically American. Wood was hugely instrumental in shaping what seemed like purely American art during the Depression and the advent of World War II, and reciprocally he felt a sense of responsibility to American culture. “Roosevelt said in a speech to Congress that it was important for the people to defend what they believed. Wood took that to heart and thought it was up to artists to revive patriotism,” says Haskell. Parson Weems’ Fable (1939, oil on canvas), which depicts the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, was part of a planned series of paintings focused on renewing American folktales. With the rise of Fascism, Wood decided to create a series of paintings that showed fellow Americans what they stood to lose. Spring in the Country (1941, oil on composition board) and Spring in Town (1941, oil on wood), both in the show, were the only two paintings he completed in that series and the last two he made before he died. In both paintings the sun shines, flowers bloom, and the people work.
Lurking under Wood’s Arcadian confections, however, is an undeniable disquietude. “He represents this bucolic world—the ordered fields and Midwestern archetypes—yet there’s this frozen, airless solitude,” says Haskell. “Both these things operate together to give the work an intensely emotional aspect.” Wood was deeply devoted to the landscape of his home state and the imagery of his country, but he was a shy, deeply closeted gay artist. He was successful but also an outsider, which likely resulted in the unshakable sense of alienation and sorrow in his work. Yet, if one thing has been proven through 241 years of culture, social rigors aside, it’s that America holds special regard for outsiders.
By Sarah E. Fensom