Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on composition board, 30 3/4 x 25 3/4 in.
New York - There’s something eerily familiar about the mood in Grant Wood’s 1930 masterpiece American Gothic. The weathered farm couple looking skeptically outward from their rural home, the man’s pitchfork dug protectively in the ground. It is similar to the wary, conservative, even judgmental way that rural America is often portrayed in today’s political climate.
These parallels are part of the reason why the Whitney Museum of American Art decided to stage Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, the largest ever survey of the artist’s work, from 2 March to 10 June. “We’re living in an era so similar to the one Wood flourished in,” said Barbara Haskell, the show’s curator. “The populist reaction against elitism, the urban-rural divide. What is the American character? What are the nation’s values? What is an American? Wood’s work is a springboard for those kinds of discussions.”
The show will go well beyond American Gothic, however, which is just one work that appears alongside some 120 others by Wood. In addition to well-known paintings like The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931, and Daughters of Revolution, 1932, there will be one room devoted to Wood’s arts and crafts work; another gallery that considers his connections to literature, including his book illustrations and covers; and displays of his decorative art objects, such as a Steuben glass vase, a corncob chandelier, and a chair and ottoman.
“People can probably count on one hand the work that they know by Wood,” Haskell said. “I think people will be really surprised and pleased at the range on show. Then I think the second surprise will be the mesmerising power that it has.”
The curators want to challenge the popular notion that Wood is merely a Regionalist painter – a reputation the Whitney itself helped establish with its 1983 show Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision. Back then, there was an idea that Wood’s paintings paid tribute to a Midwest in need of an uplift, providing “images of prosperity and abundance that steadied the nation at a time of crisis, and that suggested he had served the nation well, but once the decade was over he’d lost his relevance”, Haskell said.
Although Wood was raised in Iowa at the turn of the 20th century, he studied art in Chicago and Europe and so wasn’t exactly the farmer-painter he let some people believe him to be. More than paintings of Midwestern prosperity, Wood’s finely detailed work is rich with timeless theatrical elements that makes him more comparable to an artist like Edward Hopper than the Missouri muralist Thomas Hart Benton, Haskell said.
“The real quality of the work is this underlying sense of disquiet, a sense of alienation and apprehension that runs underneath these seemingly bucolic images. The portraits sort of stare out with this menacing, judgmental stare that’s very unsettling. There’s a kind of sadness to all of them, while the landscapes have this eerie stillness,” she said. “I’m amazed that decades went by where people didn’t notice it.”
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from 2 March to 10 June
(Photo: Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on composition board, 30 3/4 x 25 3/4 in., Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934 © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY)