A Nod to the Heartland, Grant Wood - An American Vision
A Review by Brian Keeler of the Whitney Museum's Retrospective
The show of Grant Wood’s paintings, drawings, and crafts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York included work of this Iowa artist that had become part of my marrow in a way. Although not as prevalent or as ubiquitous as some of the other heavyweights of the mid-twentieth century American Vision or as popular as some, his work nonetheless provided a special place in my own weaning years of artistic development.
His milieu included the other regionalist like John Stuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, but also the Ashcan school painters including Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks and later Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. I was introduced to these artists by my father, William Keeler who had books on most of them in his bookshelves. One wall of his studio was filled with the covers of Saturday Evening Posts of Rockwell’s illustrations.
One of our assignments in art school, at the York Academy of Arts in York, PA in the early 1970's was to make a copy of master painting with the goal of learning from an accomplished painter. My father’s books came in handy for this project and somehow I settled on the iconic image of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. At the time it was known affectionately as the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes painting as it had been appropriated for the cover of that cereal box. The painting has been reproduced countless times for a wide assortment of reasons and it causes me to wonder if Grant Wood's estate received royalties? This painting like other iconic images, for example the Mona Lisa or the statue of David has suffered from overexposure. So the challenge is for us, when in a museum, and confronted with actual art, to cut through our acculturation and see the object afresh.
American Gothic had some connection to my hometown as well. My father, the editor of the local weekly newspaper in Wyalusing, PA penned an article around the time I painted this. The models, the artist’s sister and his dentist were close friends of of Harold Gary and family from nearby Spring Hill, PA. This article from 1974 included a number of anecdotes that the Whitney curators were most likely not aware. For example, the fact that Grant Wood noticed the character of the dentist's hands and therefore cast him in the roll of a rather uptight and dower representative of the conservative swath of middle America. Also noteworthy, in this article by my father was the fact that the dentist did not want the painting to be a recognizable likeness. This a new twist on painting portraits, as the opposite is not unheard of, but not complaints about being too realistic. When the painting portrayed him in keenly observed detail he was reportedly resentful for a long time. Also, the model was reportedly a very jovial personality, the polar opposite of the character he represents in the painting. There was another interesting anecdote that my father sleuthed out about Wood's Sister. Later in life she sued Playboy Magazine as they depicted her topless in the same image.
Also noteworthy is the way Grant Wood portrayed his sister in American Gothic as spinster or school marm with an expression that betrays a rather onerous foreboding. In the Whitney show there is another depiction of her, a large oval canvas, where she is dressed in rather fashionable dress with large polka dots. Her expression is still reserved, but her hairstyle and apparel give her the look of a woman who is about to go out swing dancing to Cab Callaway’s orchestra.
So with this exhibit at the Whitney, the associations and memories of my art school project came to the fore. I recall working on this painting, it was done in tempera or a type of tempera, as it was not the egg tempera that renaissance painters used or that used by Andrew Wyeth. This was the Shiva brand, a water-soluble paint that we used for our art school illustrations. I recall one of my classmates, Dennis Richie guffawing loudly when he noticed my copy of Grant Wood’s work sitting my work area, “ok, who painted this?” The comment, I assumed was to suggest that it was too much in the popular consciousness to merit serious exploration.
My painting teacher, Tom Wise however appreciated the effort and awarded me a perfect grade, a 4.0, which turned out to be the only grade of that caliber that I received during my time at The York Academy of Arts. In retrospect, I can see why Mr. Wise enjoyed it, as his own work, his mature style also has a deep regard for the commonplace beauty of Americana and Pennsylvania rural life. I recall another student in that class, Margie Pagliaro doing a copy of Hopper’s iconic store front, a horizontal format oil, which also is in the Whitney. So as I perused the galleries of the Whitney many of these art school recollections of classmates were surfacing. It amazes me sometimes of how much detail is retained from these years.
The exhibit at the Whitney confronts us with a wide view of Grant Wood’s oeuvre from his crafts, to his illustrative works, commissions and his later allegories, myth interpretations and landscapes. His ability to extract the essence from a motif, while employing a technique of exactitude inspired by the tight work of northern Renaissance masters like Hans Melmling or Jan Van Eyck is to be appreciated for its virtuosity. Many will surely appreciate these fine surfaces along with his paint quality and of course the exactitude and detail as Wood portrays charming minutiae of rural Iowa.
For me however, it is his vision and ability to portray rhythms and the inherent beauty of land, architecture, figures and portraits. His compositional skill in other words and his masterful sense of design really speak to me. As he portrays the undulating hills of freshly plowed fields with men on tractors at work it is the beauty of proportions and arrangements of singular sophistication that appeal the most. He is not slavishly reproducing the visible world, although he gives us an abundance of keenly observed details to make us think it could be mere reportage. He takes the novelist’s approach rather than the journalist’s, by interpreting his world and he creates narratives of incisive drama, or quiet and poetic expressions of the quotidian.
The portrayals of rural life often have a life affirming quality to them as they captures such common place events as planting a tree in a church yard on Arbor Day or cultivating a garden. In other works he portrays the agrarian rituals, like a group of farm hands, threshers, sitting down to a lunch in a view that shows a long horizontal cut-a-way view of a prairie farmhouse. This invented scene crosscuts a house and shows us several rooms at once with many details for us to enjoy.
Even though Wood represents America he sidesteps archetype or stereotype and shows us individuals and specific portrayals of land and homegrown mythologies. Its as if he's putting into practice the adage of approaching the universal through the personal. And as the show curators note, he avoids these tropes by giving us an open-ended imagery which we can grow with and interpret to our own uses.
The vision and perspective that Wood used is most impressive to me. He stylized his rural depictions with rounded trees all with a geometrical kind of spherical look that reminds me of the those three panels of battle scenes by the Italian Renaissance artist, Paolo Uccello. The visualized conceptions of Wood as he portrayed rows of sprouting plants arranged so as to follow the conceived undulations of successive hills shows a playfulness that is marvelous.
The main thing to appreciate here is that these depictions take great liberties with the visual world but ultimately arrive at a believable expression. This quality is most apparent in his bird’s eye vantage points he often employees such as in the painting of a car crash in the making or in his even more iconic nocturne of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. The later portrays a New England town with a tall church steeple envisioned from above so as to look down on a tiny horseman galloping along and townsfolk awoken by the herald. The light, perspective, details and composition we need to understand, are all invented. The results are a highly personal style with evocative content coupled with a playfulness and delight in the process.
His political statements too are refreshing and show us how an artist may employ his work to express topical and relevant issues. It is mentioned in the accompanying text displayed adjacent to the paintings that Wood was disheartened by the inability of Americans or citizens of Europe to confront and stop the rise of fascism in the 1930’s. Of course the parallels to today’s political ineptitude and the growing authoritarian governments around the globe and the spineless nature of the republicans to confront our own tyrant show that the issues vexing Grant Wood have reared their ugly head again.
Grant Wood’s painting of the three spinsters, teetotalers called Daughters of the American Revolution is an outstanding commentary on the hypocrisy of the day and ours in fact. It shows three elderly women raising their teacups in a gesture that is rather empty compared to the painting behind which is a reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington crossing the Delaware. The heroic and dynamic juxtaposed against the empty and duplicitous. We recall that the DAR was the organization that prohibited the black opera singer, Marain Anderson from performing in in 1939 at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. The biting and incisive commentary in this piece satirizes some of the walls of racism and ignorance prevalent during Wood’s era if not our own.
It is interesting to note that so many of Wood’s contemporaries held similar views and expressed these worldviews in their work. Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings were firmly in favor the workingman and showed a disdain for corporate oppression. Benton’s painting of a scene from Tennessee Williams’ play, “A Street Car Called Desire”, a lurid depiction of Stanley Kowalski and a buxom Blanche Dubois is conveniently on view in a lower floor gallery. We can add Diego Rivera to this list and recall his confrontation with John D. Rockefeller in NYC, which resulted in the later destroying the Mexican Muralist’s work that Rockefeller had commissioned. One would be hard pressed actually to find too many artists that would serve the Bourgeoisie. Although in Russia there were plenty of propaganda paintings made, they were in service of oppressive communists authoritarians rather than capitalists. We could also recall Hitler’s filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl who later in life still showed no remorse or conscience for being in service of the Fuhrer.
The show of Wood’s depictions of the American bread basket also evoke other artistic expressions that took on the confrontation of salt of the earth farmers with bank foreclosures during the 1930’s dust bowl. Of course, I am referring to John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath and the subsequent movie with Henry Fonda starring as Tom Joad. We can only shake our heads in dismay today as most of those living in the heartland now have backed the imbecile in the Whitehouse who is the very embodiment of an oppressive demagogue. As the saying goes, there is nothing sadder than seeing poor and middle class Americans line up behind their oppressors. And in regard to the fascism that Grant Wood and others felt a moral imperative to confront, it is here again today in spades. As another saying relevant to this issue goes, attributed to Sinclair Lewis, “when fascism comes to America, it will be wearing a flag and carrying a Bible.” On the upside, this exhibit at the Whitney was well attended and it is heartening to see Grant Wood's work so well received.
In the end, Grant Wood's work transcends divisions and polemics as his art expresses a vision and an aspiration that unites rather than divides. As you can probably tell, I am a fan and it was a special treat to view this well-curated exhibit of this quintessential American artist.