In Spring Plowing, the artist plays a variation on one of his favorite themes of the 1930s – the fertile rolling hills of Iowa farm country. The drawing was a project suggested by New York art dealer Reeves Lewenthal of Associated American Artists and marks the intersection of a number of strands in Wood's biography.
Wood's creation of a textile design was a particularly appropriate response. A farm child uprooted to small town life after the early death of his father, as a would-be schoolboy artist in Cedar Rapids, Wood avidly read The Craftsman (1901-1916), Gustav Stickley's magazine bible of the American arts and crafts movement. Taking a Craftsman correspondence course while still in high school, Wood headed, immediately after graduation, to Minneapolis for summer study with Ernest Batchelder, the author of both the correspondence course and of an influential 1904 textbook, The Principles of Design. Although Wood's subsequent formal training in art was minimal and sporadic, constricted by his need to earn a living, the lessons and values of his early arts and crafts training remained central to the core of his understanding of art. Wanda Corn notes that throughout his life "Wood's work reflected Batchelder's insistence on simplicity, repetition of form, beauty of contour and use of pattern. [These same principles] became the basis of Grant Wood's regional style. Wood in fact, called his late style 'decorative' a testimony to his grounding in the fin-de-siècle aesthetic (The Regionalist Vision, 1983, pp. 5-6).
The influence of the arts and crafts movement extended far beyond the formal qualities of Wood's painting and drawing. He designed and built houses in Cedar Rapids for friends and clients, and decorated interiors in a variety of styles to suit their function and their owner's preferences, including his own quintessentially arts and crafts home and studio in a converted stable where he lived from 1925 to 1934. Wood's trip to Munich in 1928, where he saw the German Renaissance art that is credited with inspiring his ultimate regionalist style, was, in fact, occasioned by his need to supervise the production of a stained glass window he had designed for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial. After his marriage in 1935, Wood moved to Iowa City and restored an 1858 Victorian House. It was entirely natural then, in 1939, for Wood to take a much loved motif and turn it into a prototype textile design.
The present drawing, Spring Plowing, shares a title with a 1932 oil painting by the artist, one of a group of regionalist pictures Wood created in the 1930s celebrating the carefully cultivated Iowa agricultural landscape. James Dennis notes the "wide-angle view" that characterizes these landscapes and describes Wood painting a "span of earth, creased and folded in gently undulating contours, that continues indefinitely. . . [Details] of surface decoration have been minimized to no more than tiny points of reference across an open plane. Abstract design, or as Wood termed it, the 'decorative', now applies to the picture as a whole; light, shadow, and the patterned imprint left on the land by clearing and cultivation have been generalized into ornate forms" (James Dennis, Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture, 1975, p. 92).
In Spring Plowing Wood summons the man-made geometries of Midwest farming practice to create a design that conjures, on a small scale, the image of a handmade quilt, and on a grand scale, the rolling, midwestern landscape that is the hallmark of Wood's most iconic works.
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