Midwestern myths and metaphors
A retrospective at the Whitney argues for Grant Wood’s greatness
BY MARY GREGORY
“American Gothic” is an icon. As such, it’s mysterious, metaphorical, powerful and unexplainable. Yet, explaining it, or at least telling its story, is just what Whitney curator Barbara Haskell has set out to do. She’s introducing a painter we’re all familiar with, but few really know, in “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables.” It’s a sweeping survey of Wood’s paintings, drawings, metalwork, stained glass and other pieces, and it constitutes just the third retrospective of this great American artist’s work.
Grant Wood was born in 1891 into a Midwestern and Quaker farming family. He saw the world through that lens, but differently. He was shy, gentle and talented, and liked drawing more than plowing. He worked a bit as an artist, found a local undertaker who became his patron, and was able to travel to Europe to study Old Masters like Van Eyck and Durer, falling in love with soaring arches and Northern Renaissance precision and crisp, clear atmosphere.
He returned to Iowa and painted an astonishing picture. Through classical techniques like glazing and the use of almost imperceptible brushstrokes, he created heroic images of American archetypes. “American Gothic,” like all Wood’s paintings, is seductive and seditious.
It’s filled with technical virtuosity. Note the vertical lines of the pitchfork repeating on the farmer’s shirt and overalls, and again on the Gothic arch-shaped window and the siding of the house. A smooth, pale blue sky contrasts with the couple’s worn, dark clothes. The woman is clearly younger than the man. What’s their relationship? And then, there are the gazes of two of the most inscrutable pairs of eyes in art. The woman looks away, past him, past the viewer, to something unseen, off to the right. He stares directly out, holding the pitchfork (symbolizing the devil, sustenance or both?) between them and the world outside.
“It doesn’t resolve into one superficial dimension.... It has that sort of emblematic quality of America, but at the same time, it’s so complicated. What is actually going on? Scholars have probed the picture and come up with a range of interpretations, but the fact that they have and the range is so wide and diverse, shows that it’s a compelling picture,” Haskell said.
Wood’s sister and his dentist were the models, but the spirit of the country was the subject. And it was a complicated, conflicted one. It was painted in 1930, into a darkening Depression where countless farmers had lost their land, and as the culture was morphing from agrarian to urban. Meanwhile, European Modernism was the au courant flavor for the smart sets in New York and Hollywood. In the heartland, it was a taste they hadn’t developed.
Those who tilled the soil saw in this couple the kind of gravity and fortitude they aspired to and admired. Those who filled bookshelves with novels, museums with art, and movie theaters with films, saw it as a satire. One thing both sides agreed on: it was a great picture. It became an overnight sensation, was published nationally, and made Grant Wood famous. Stories, particularly American ones, filled Wood’s imagination and define the works in the exhibition. There’s a painterly retelling of “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” a bird’s eye view of a tiny town. Wood used a hobby horse to set up the scene before painting it, helping it retain a fairy-tale quality. “Parson Weems’ Fable” shows Weems in the foreground pointing to a surrealistic little George Washington, with a child’s body and a man’s head, confessing to cutting down a cherry tree. The tree in question is covered in cute red pom-poms that stand in for cherries. The same pom-poms decorate the curtain Weems pulls back to reveal the scene.
“The abstraction of that cherry tree was like a round, minimal ball that somebody in the ‘60s might’ve created ... and then Parson Weems pulling back the curtain, that’s a very typical kind of trope,” Haskell said. But again, there’s an unresolved tension. “In this case the father is not the Washington senior that’s forgiving the child, saying ‘I’m so proud of you. You told me the truth.’ It’s a very menacing gesture.”
In “Appraisal” a lovely, young woman in a threadbare coat held together by a safety pin offers a chicken for sale. The potential buyer, portly and older, dressed in furs and tightly clutching her purse, considers it. It’s a tale of haves vs. have-nots, city vs. country, youth vs. age, fecundity vs. barrenness, purity vs. corruption, all told through a barnyard transaction.
Beyond these more familiar works, two galleries are filled with glorious magical realist landscapes that extend Wood’s mythologizing to the countryside. All seen from above and filled with emerald green grass, funny little trees and crops in fields neatly lined up like decorations on cakes, they’re a mixture of America and Oz, and absolutely delightful.
Possibly the most telling tale is found in Wood’s own self-portrait, “The Return from Bohemia,” a pastel, gouache and pencil on paper done in 1935, some years after his trips to Europe. The artist glares out from behind his easel, brushes in hand. Surrounding him are men and women, boys and girls, young and old, all literally looking down on him.
If you ask people to name a great American painting, “American Gothic” would probably come up a lot, but if you asked about a great American painter, Grant Wood probably wouldn’t. “Isn’t that crazy?” Haskell asked. “The work is so compelling. I think people all of a sudden are going to see this artist. I’m really hoping for a much greater appreciation of Grant Wood.... There’s a reason why ‘American Gothic’ is mesmerizing, but the whole body of his work is mesmerizing. I think it will change people’s appreciation of him, and the timing is right. America is kind of grappling with its own national identity again.”
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