Regional Unreal

Grant Wood: The Return from Bohemia, 1935, pastel, gouache, and pencil on paper, 23½ by 20 inches. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark.

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Perhaps more than any other American artist, Grant Wood (1891–1942) stands out for his work’s mixed—and mixed-up—critical reception. Viewers of various political stripes and artistic predilections take him unreflectively for Norman Rockwell; responses to his paintings include contemptuous misprision on the one hand and guileless admiration on the other. In the minds of many, his output consists of a single painting. His pictures mock and are furiously mocked in turn—or valorized as national icons. His writings are attributed to others, or others’ to him. For decades he was omitted from art history surveys. All this is and is not his fault. Enterprising and adept at self-mythologizing, disingenuously presenting himself as a folksy farmer from Iowa, he created an art of populist appeal, which, when probed for its underlying content, reveals troubling tensions and endless ambiguities.

Those tensions are intriguingly brought out in the retrospective now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Its title, “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables,” signals the fictive nature of Wood’s apparently straightforward American scenes. In a foreword to the exhibition catalogue, director Adam Weinberg announces the revisionist impulse informing this project, refusing what might have been a nostalgic exercise—Wood himself envisioned in his paintings an idyllic American past that never was—in favor of a quest to understand how the artist created mythic images that are by no means unequivocal.1 This nuanced investigation, organized by curator Barbara Haskell, surveys more than a hundred artworks that reveal a surprisingly multifaceted talent. Wood’s best-known pictures are here, including American Gothic (1930) and the bitingly satirical Daughters of Revolution (1932) and Parson Weems’ Fable (1939), as well as early still lifes, portraits, and fantasy Iowa landscapes; in addition to easel paintings, we find highly finished pastel drawings, lithographs, murals, jewelry, metalwork, assemblage, stained glass, book illustrations, and textile and furniture designs. The oeuvre is superbly contextualized in the catalogue, with new insights by Haskell herself and five essayists who had not previously written about Wood—Glenn Adamson on the artist’s decorating projects, Eric Banks on his literary associations, Emily Braun on Wood and Magic Realism, Richard Meyer on recent discussions of his homosexuality, and Shirley Reece-Hughes on his set designs and passionate involvement with theater.

Haskell also includes a narrative chronology of Wood’s life, which builds in detail and momentum as she moves through his humble beginnings and rise to fame to his beleaguered tenure at the University of Iowa. Here are the facts. Wood grew up on a farm outside the tiny town of Anamosa, Iowa, relocating to Cedar Rapids with his mother and three siblings when his father died in 1901. After high school, he spent two summers at the Minneapolis School of Design, Handicraft, and Normal Art. His artistic training was inconsistent; despite study at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago, he never earned a degree. He served stateside in the army at the end of World War I, then taught school in Cedar Rapids while living with his mother, an arrangement he maintained, save during his four trips to Europe, until her death in 1935. He enjoyed decorating projects for several Iowa hotels, businesses, and residences and founded a community theater in Cedar Rapids, where in 1928 he executed the huge, twenty-four-foot stained-glass Veterans Memorial Window (beautifully re-created at half scale for the Whitney exhibition), supervising its manufacture in Munich. Around this time, he switched from painting what he called “Europy” scenes impressionistically to indigenous subjects in a crisp, hard-edge style.

Instantly famous thanks to American Gothic, Wood became associated with Regionalism in the early 1930s, founding the summer Stone City Art Colony in northeast Iowa to encourage art-making and art appreciation in the heartland. He invited the local farmers and townspeople to the colony for weekly exhibitions and sales, hoping to broaden their attitudes toward art.2 The experiment ended after two years, leaving him deeply in debt. With a commission for a mural cycle at Iowa State University in Ames, documented on video in the exhibition, Wood became state director of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1933. Resented by a number of his assistants, who petitioned for his removal, he resigned in 1935. Working closely with his secretary, Park Rinard, he commenced his autobiography, “Return from Bohemia,” for Doubleday, Doran & Company but could not get past his first ten years. Through his employment with the PWAP, he was offered a teaching position at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. This began a series of emotionally exhausting battles—his brief marriage and bitter divorce; financial woes; attacks on his art, teaching, and character by fellow faculty members; and mean-spirited rumors of his homosexuality. Although he was represented by a New York gallery and marketed prints through Associated American Artists, he struggled in the late ’30s to regain solvency. He died of cancer in an Iowa City hospital in 1942.

 

This fraught life story alerts us to the darker side of Wood’s art and challenges the widespread notion of him as an avatar of small-town values—bland, good-natured, and simple. Haskell recognizes not only the artist’s remarkable creativity but also the strangeness and alienation pervading many of his pictures. As an Americanist, she is concerned to point out how his mature career coincided with the Great Depression and heated debates about “true” national identity, drawing parallels to our own historical moment. But she focuses her analysis on Wood the man, treating his works as “primarily expressions of his inner life.”3 From this perspective, she demonstrates to great effect what R. Tripp Evans proposed in his revelatory 2010 biography and what critic Donald Kuspit argued in these pages long before anyone else: “Wood is more an artist of unconscious life than of the consciously known world.”4

Certainly he was at odds within himself, partly on account of his ambivalence toward his own homosexuality, which then-prevailing attitudes forced him to keep secret, partly because he was at once devoted to and disaffected from his family, community, region, and nation. All failed to offer him the sense of acceptance and belonging that home should provide. His choice to return from Bohemia (read Chicago, Paris, or Munich) to a conservative, even puritanical Iowa seems puzzling and poignant. And he never ceased to suffer from the shock of his stern father’s premature death. This loss was grievous and complicated: it left him clinging to his mother as he internalized paternal prohibitions on his sexuality and disapproval of his artistic aspirations. He may have felt that he could never live up to the manly model his father had provided.

The divided feeling Wood harbored toward male authority figures comes through in a number of his paintings in the exhibition. A viewer may shrink before the imposing, supremely self-possessed figure in Portrait of John B. Turner, Pioneer (1928–30), a man known in Cedar Rapids as “Daddy” Turner; Wood depicted him against an historical map of Iowa, which this pillar of his community had helped to conquer, control, and “civilize.” Turner’s bespectacled, steely-eyed gaze predicts the intimidating stare of the dress-coated American Gothic farmer, whom Wood managed so ingeniously to render as both awesome and ridiculous. When he was commissioned in 1931 by a group of Republican businessmen to honor then President Herbert Hoover with a picture of the West Branch, Iowa, cottage where he was born, Wood produced a weird storybook scene falling so short of any kind of genuine tribute that his exasperated patrons refused it.

In 1939, ostensibly to bolster the national spirit as many Americans pondered the possibility of joining a European war against fascism, Wood revisited the uplifting parable of George Washington and the cherry tree in Parson Weems’ Fable. The result was an odd piece of theater, in which showman Weems, one hand behind his back, parts a pair of curtains to reveal his fabulous invention. But the scene Wood has him present ignores all bromides about truth-telling, forgiveness, and paternal pride in favor of an unsettling confrontation between a scolding father and recalcitrant son. Wood endowed the hatchet-wielding boy with the face from Gilbert Stuart’s portrait on the dollar bill, embedding in the intergenerational squabble the son’s future ascendancy over the father: wayward little George would become not a mere patrician paterfamilias like his own but the immortal father of his country.

Whatever Wood’s conscious intentions, fathers are undermined in these works, as in an odd late portrait, The American Golfer (1940). The commission came from one Merrill Taylor to paint his father-in-law, and after three years of fits and starts Wood finally depicted his white-haired subject, “pioneer banker” Charles Campbell, out of doors on his Michigan estate, in sports jacket and tie, poised at the end of a golf swing.5 The horizontal oval format, most unusual for a portrait, accommodates an expanse of manicured green lawn in the background. Campbell’s distant gaze doubles as visionary and, presumably, focused on the soaring golf ball he has just dispatched. His arrested motion only partly accounts for the overall sense of eerie stillness and quietude beneath a wan cloudless sky. The sprig of red-tinged oak leaves over the figure’s right shoulder is a curious element. At once decorative embellishment, naturalistic detail, and clichéd reminder of the autumn of life, it intrudes on the composition almost from nowhere, like the hand of death reaching toward the unknowing portrait subject. Wood makes a point of dangling a long twig from the leaves, terminating in an empty cupule from which an acorn has fallen. The acorn for him was a symbol of virility and strength; accordingly, the acorn-studded crown of an oak tree in the foreground of The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover foretells presidential might.

Conspicuously absent in the Campbell portrait, the acorn appears in abundance among the leaves behind the young cannoneer in Wood’s 1927 study for one of the servicemen in the Memorial Window. This shapely, bare-chested figure, wearing the traditional sailor’s hat with pom-pom and clinging bell-bottom pants, assumes a hip-shot pose and holds a long staff used to clean the cannon bore. Male beauty is gloriously celebrated in this life-size drawing which the artist clearly treasured. Turning over to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum his other preparatory studies, he kept this one for himself and preserved it carefully. His erotic surrender is powerfully suggested in the astonishingly alluring image at the same time that he hints, whether consciously or not, at his own inhibitions or restraint: the peculiar stick protruding up for no discernible reason between the sailor’s legs is tied tightly in two places with the same kind of knot that secures the young man’s fly. The figure’s seductive aspects are suppressed in the stained-glass window, but Wood’s tender sensitivity to the male body comes through again in the later lithograph Sultry Night (1939), in which a naked farmhand, with tanned limbs and pale torso, cools himself with a bucket of water at day’s end. Attracting no extraordinary attention at the Whitney, the lithograph was a scandal in its time, causing Wood much embarrassment when it was banned from the US mail and Associated American Artists abruptly capped its print edition at 100 rather than the standard 250 impressions.

 

Wood had in this case severely misjudged his audience, and one is reminded of why his intimates and supporters had to protect him at every turn. He was already under suspicion in Iowa by virtue of being an artist in the first place, such that his Cedar Rapids patron John Reid, lobbying in 1933 for a mural commission for Wood in Lincoln, Nebraska, felt compelled to protest too much that Grant Wood is “every inch a man and entirely free of the vices that usually go with men of his profession. He is wholesome, red blooded and a man’s man from every standpoint.”6 Yet judging from the works on view at the Whitney, Wood had zero appreciation for female beauty and virtually no understanding of women’s bodies.7 There are no feminine counterparts to the comely cannoneer or the vulnerably exposed farmhand in Sultry Night. Gingham-clad farm wives and daughters in Wood’s “Fruits of Iowa” (1932) and in his large drawings for the Madeline Darrough Horn children’s book Farm on the Hill (1936) are, like their male counterparts in these series, stylized and sexless. When he departed from depicting women as generic types, the results were strange. In one such instance, he tried to make up to his sister for the dour image he had made of her as his model for the daughter/wife in American Gothic, painting what he must have thought was a very fetching Portrait of Nan (1931); but he rendered her as the weirdest of Weird Sisters, in a blouse with gigantic black polka dots and black bows at her shoulders that look like bats, and with sunken breasts that rest just above her belt. Similarly, in American Gothic, the otherwise flat-chested woman possesses one breast—drooping at the level of her waistline. The clumsiest passage of all appears in Woman with Plants (1929), Wood’s homage to his mother as an aged midwestern Mona Lisa. It is a seated portrait in which the old lady’s lap is a flatly painted mound, not willfully distorted or stylized but fumbled, with no foreshortening. Skilled as he was as a realist painter, Wood could not render the maternal body without apparent ineptitude.

He could, on the other hand, satirize women with devilish aplomb, as in Daughters of Revolution where, as has often been noted, the three smug grannies gathered before an image of Washington crossing the Delaware look like geezers in drag. Wood had reason to resent the Daughters of the American Revolution, who had given him grief for employing German craftsmen to produce his Memorial Window, and he skewers them in this painting with vengeful delight. It is a little harder to justify Victorian Survival (1931), a mocking sepia-toned riff on a tintype of the artist’s own maternal great-aunt, Matilda Peet. Wood made of her in this unforgettable image a humorless, thin-lipped, stoop-shouldered, up-tight matron with severely pulled-back hair and an incongruous black choker encircling her absurdly elongated neck. Seated primly and rigidly beside her candlestick telephone, she embodies inhibition and rectitude. It is a very mean picture. Perhaps with her phone the figure personifies the small-town gossip from which Wood himself suffered, and the fact that he could produce such a cruel travesty suggests the degree of hurt he must have endured. Clearly, it was unlike anything experienced by either of the other two Regionalists with whom Wood is less and less convincingly lumped these days, his friends Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.

Likewise his transcendent feeling for the Iowa countryside. Grouped at the end of the exhibition, landscapes such as Young Corn (1931), Near Sundown (1933), and Spring Turning (1936) present the rolling, anthropomorphized earth as an object of corporeal desire. That desire is controlled by an extraordinary tidiness, imposed both on the land by its cultivators and on the composition by its artist, yet the feeling remains intense. Clouds, trees, and all other pictorial elements are subject to a decorative abstraction. In Spring Turning, the green fields are especially vast and undulating, worked by three minuscule farmers, as the rounded hills and meticulously plowed fields are seen from high above. The lofty viewpoint is overdetermined, related recently by Jason Weems in Barnstorming the Prairie to aviation and aerial photography, and by Reece-Hughes in her Whitney catalogue essay to the “balcony perspective” of Wood’s work in theater.8 At the same time, this hovering distance over the earth may have alleviated Wood’s fear of surrender, of fusion or ego annihilation that can accompany an oceanic experience. Closer in, at ground level in Fall Plowing (1931), we see the carpetlike sod sliced and lifted by the penetrating blade of an antique walking plow, strangely abandoned. The hallucinatory passage has been called erotic.9 As Braun observes in her essay on Magic Realism, however, the sexual innuendo in Wood’s landscapes, as in his ironic genre scenes such as American Gothic and the confrontational Appraisal (1931), in which she detects a suggestive spark between the handsome farm woman and a city matron come to purchase a chicken, “may—and did—pass unnoticed.”10

Braun’s thoroughly original and persuasive reframing of the artist’s work within an international interwar artistic tendency dominated by disquieting, uncanny representations of modern reality—she gives examples from German New Objectivity, Italian metaphysical painting, and American Precisionism—should change art history. Wood, an alienated artist torn between tribal allegiance and his own innate difference, took recourse in a subversive kind of populism. Norman Rockwell he was not and could never be: note that when he tackled patriotic subjects he ended, more often than not, with parodies. His midwestern images, Braun argues, “confirm the inadequacy, even the falsity, of the term ‘Regionalism’: they intimated desires and behaviors that knew no borders but because of social, moral, and political reasons had to hide behind reality.”11 Often imprudently co-opted by conservatives to advertise “traditional American values,” Wood was and continues to be misunderstood because, on some urgent level and in spite of himself, he wanted it that way.