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Other fables

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Sophie McKinnon reviews the first retrospective of Grant Wood's work, in 35 years, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

2 March - 10 June 2018

It is a scene you can picture immediately. Gaunt, grim-faced farmer in wire-rim glasses with pitchfork stands next to equally grim-faced woman in front of a farmhouse. American Gothic shot Grant Wood into the limelight when it was exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute in the autumn of 1930, praised for its compositional austerity and restrained narrative power. It subsequently entered the global consciousness, incessantly parodied, and perhaps the most recognizable image in the American canon. Amongst dozens of works in a large-scale retrospective, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, American Gothic itself is the least remarkable. The intense realism of facial expression and intricacy of detail are present elsewhere, mixed with a fondness for highly stylized theatricality and artifice.

Grant Wood (1891–1942), American Gothic, 1930. Oil on composition board, 30 3⁄4 x 25 3⁄4 in. (78 x 65.3 cm). 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

The exhibition includes a variety of work, from an exhibition replica of Wood’s Veteran Memorial Hall stained glass window, to his decorative work at the height of the arts and crafts movement in rural America − including a corn cob chandelier, now breathtakingly kitsch. One of the more striking pieces is Arnold Comes of Age (Portrait of Arnold Pyle), 1930, which depicts a young man in a sweater and open collar against a vivid teal sky. His thoughtful gaze looks beyond you, his back to a still, lush Italianate landscape. In the bottom right corner, two androgynous nude bathers dip in the river, and a tiny butterfly hovers near his elbow. It is twee, but also heartbreakingly tender. The image is intensely alive in colour, compelling in its honesty, and tinged with sadness. We are persuaded that this is a real person, in fact, Arnold Pyle was Woods’ studio assistant, painted upon his turning 21. But the factual portrayal of the subject is less interesting than its intimation of imaginative yearnings, its gentle persuasion, and its confidence in an idealized reality.

Arnold Comes of Age, Grant Wood, 1930

Wood’s sexuality is still disputed, and although his work appears to include obviously homo-erotic references, they were not out of place in context. Wood’s loyalty to classical forms that he Americanized, and to the rural rhapsody of folk art mean that a perfectly formed torso or buttocks in contraposto can be read formally, and also as bound up with traditional ideals of man in perfect union with nature.

The paintings all share a wholesome allusion to the European landscape tradition, particularly that of Bruegel and the Dutch school. Edges are crisp and surfaces are finished in rounded gradations of color. Lawns and door frames have a clean texture, skin tones are flat and even, and fur collars seem almost air-brushed (for example, in The Appraisal, 1931).

They are filled with symbolism so rich it becomes laborious to unpack each piece in succession. Dinner for Threshers, 1934, resembles a horizontal scroll, depicting multiple characters and stories in a kind of diorama or stage-set incorporating farmyard, porch, dining-room and kitchen, minus the fourth wall. For all of the work’s apparent domestic regularity and banality, there is also a profound strangeness – a sense that while the image is storybook in character, the whole story is not being told.

The bucolic European landscapes become increasingly exaggerated as Wood pushes the genre toward dramatic extremity. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931, shows a village at night from above, the church steeple jarring in its angularity, a tiny horseman darting off stage right. Other scenes become dioramas of epic proportions, with roads bending and curving at impossible angles, between dotted and bulbous toy-like trees. Harvest rows cross the canvas in obsessively tight striations of order and repetition. Spring Turning, 1936, is barely recognizable as a landscape, with huge, ploughed partitions stamped dark onto lurid green mounds, nearly crowding a slice of blue sky and clouds out of view.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Grant Wood, 1931

Wood’s self portrait from 1932/1941 is at once arresting and guarded. He glances just to the left of the viewer, eyes shadowed by his spectacle frames, a pale windmill behind him to one side. Wood was born on a farm in Iowa but did not work the land himself. Biographers have noted that he had a stutter, and frequently avoided eye contact. He had a painful marriage late in life and travelled frequently. It seems as if his inability to forge for himself the life he idealised resulted in a kind of pictorial hyperbole. It was illustrative and sometimes contrived. He appears, in almost every photo, jovial and in blue overalls, while his work moved from committed realism to subtle satire and back again. He died of cancer at age 50, having created icons enshrining the American idyll for most his life.

In 2015, New York Times critic Holland Cotter pleaded for 'no more triumphs' in the art world. Iconic work, he argued, became definitive, monumental, and most importantly, unchanging. Barbara Haskell, curator of the Grant Wood show at the Whitney, has addressed just this rigidity of interpretation, offering enough work and objects to allow a thorough exploration of Wood’s deeply nuanced world, beyond the oppressively familiar American Gothic. What is irresistible about Wood’s work is the promise of intimate revelation, never quite realised – an intimation of what is concealed, or perhaps denied, by the obvious. Even now, certain details evade explication. In and through work so archetypal, so recognizably of its time, and often heavy-handed to the point of cliche, lives an indisputably queer soul. This is what keeps the work alive and potent.

First published ArtZone #74


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