Grant Wood’s painting "American Gothic" has filled me with both pride and unease since I was a kid.
I want to be a fan of Wood because he is Iowa’s most famous painter, because his family and mine share a Jones County heritage, and because Wood holds the distinction of creating arguably the most recognizable painting in the world besides Leonardo da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa."
The wary unease on the faces in "American Gothic" summed up my relationship to Wood as a painter and person — that is, until a new retrospective opened this spring at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.
The Whitney exhibition, running until June 12, touts 120 pieces of Grant Wood’s work, showcasing the broad depth of his talent. Curated by Barbara Haskell and aptly titled, “American Gothic and other Fables,” the Whitney show is the largest retrospective ever of Wood’s work and the first major exhibition in over 30 years.
Wood's work was beloved by the general public but denigrated by art scholars. It appears many artists were dismayed, if not jealous, when this unknown from the prairie captured the imagination of the American public in 1930. I find it a remarkable story. After four trips to Europe during the 1920s, Wood returned to Cedar Rapids determined that all the inspiration he needed could be found in the fields and people of Iowa.
"American Gothic" was one of the first examples of his new style and also was the first painting he entered into a competition outside the state. "Gothic" became an overnight sensation, catapulting Wood to national fame and profoundly confirming his belief that painters should paint from material they know best.
It is said that Wood (who died in 1942) was shy and soft-spoken, and yet he was an adept self-promoter. He wore overalls promoting his homespun image and famously quipped: “All of my best ideas came to me while milking a cow,” even though he doesn’t appear to have worked a farm since childhood. Scholars speculate that his father’s death when Wood was 10 is something he never recovered from. From his magical realist landscapes of late 19th century Iowa to the wistful faces in Wood’s portraits, it is hard to imagine his work did not mirror his emotional state.
As a professor, Wood was revered by many — yet others once signed a protest letter claiming his style was dictatorial and inflexible. It was reported that he smoked three packs a day and could down two fifths of whiskey. He lived with his mother into his 40s. A brief marriage at 45 to a woman several years his senior ended in divorce. His sexual orientation was an open question. His boss at the University of Iowa repeatedly tried to have him fired. Though Wood was a veteran and a New Deal Democrat, some artists called the Regionalist style he championed fascist, comparing it to the art Hitler’s Nazis promoted. Critics brutalized him in their reviews.
All the while, crowds poured into The Art Institute of Chicago to see "American Gothic."
Like Wood, my father grew up on a farm in Jones County. My great-great grandfather came west in the 1880s to labor in the Stone City quarries — walking distance from where Wood would later found the Stone City Art Colony. The Whitney exhibit triggered in me a native love for the Iowa land but also awakened occasional tensions of feeling out of place returning home as an adult. Haskell said of Wood there was a “conflicted, complex relationship between the artist and the homeland he professed to adore.”
Her show brings Wood’s emotional density into focus, alternating between fanciful landscapes, work dripping with satire and psychological portraits seething with isolation, melancholy and a stoic sense of bucking up against the odds. Wood’s real genius may have been in his ability to paint what he called "types" as opposed to individuals. Perhaps this is the key to "American Gothic’s" enduring popularity.
I’m most curious about what Wood was saying in his self-portraits. In “Return from Bohemia,” three generations of farm folk stand behind a seated Wood as he determinedly, if not defiantly, works at the canvas in the foreground. Each person’s eyes are cast downward as if embarrassed, even ashamed by the painting. Of “Self Portrait,” the New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Wood looks as if he is about to burst into tears.
Haskell spoke of Wood’s challenges, first for being an artist living amid the farming culture and secondly for being anything but the prototypical Iowa male. Despite it all, Wood was deeply loyal to Iowa. In him I see our pioneer values emulated: resourcefulness, industriousness, and self-reliance coupled with a great sense of humor. He celebrated our rural lifestyle and mythologized the land. One critic denounced his landscapes as “manufactured,” but they speak to how the land makes one feel. For me, they conjure idyllic recollections of my grandfather’s Jones County farm.
Wood demonstrated a resolve that would make any farm father proud. He displayed a dizzying array of talent in painting, glass, metal and silver work, furniture and interior design. He built homes with his own hands — including converting a Cedar Rapids hayloft into a 1,000-square-foot apartment ingeniously capable of supporting himself, his mother and his sister.
Attorney Jim Hayes has lived in Grant Wood’s Iowa City home since 1975. Over the years, Hayes bought surrounding properties and founded the Grant Wood Art Colony — an artist fellowship program with few peers in the world, now at the University of Iowa.
I asked Hayes to comment on Wood: “He was vilified for only having a high school education and for (possibly) being a homosexual, but Grant Wood was distinctly his own person who went on thinking and creating beautiful pictures despite the critics. I am most impressed that he was both a dreamer and an imaginative self-starter who told us stories about his beloved state and those living here through his art. He loved being surrounded by interesting people from all walks of life. Long after his death his works are still causing people to inquire deeply about their meaning — that is a great testament to Grant Wood.”
This simple house, pictured June 21, 2007, in Eldon, was made famous in Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic." (Photo: Associated Press file photo)
Famous sculptor and painter Elizabeth Catlitt, the first African-American woman to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from Iowa, said Wood was the reason she came to the university. He taught her to have courage to paint what she knew best, which was being a black woman in America decades before the Civil Rights Act. She credits Wood with assuring that racial bias did not interfere with her receiving an MFA degree.
Nearing death, Wood told fellow Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton he wanted to change his name and transform his painting style. I was reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald: When the roaring 20s gave way to the hangover of the 30s and people no longer cared to read about the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald asked his editor to publish his work under a pseudonym. Both Wood and Fitzgerald would die struggling with their demons in an era preoccupied by the specter of world war.
"American Gothic" has probably done as much as anything else to put Iowa on the map. Wood was an uncommon talent with a gift for portraying psychological depth and satire. Though Wood is still an enigma to me — and I suspect he would have wanted it that way — I’ve come to appreciate his creative brilliance, shining through in spite of a closeted personal and a conflicted professional life.
I left the Whitney inspired but wondering whether the broad appeal this impressive show generated is due to a new appreciation for Wood and his body of work, or simply because "American Gothic" is an iconic, archetypal image which, much like the "Mona Lisa," has become one of the world’s foremost art destinations.
Either way, Grant Wood is an Iowan I’ve come to respect and admire, one I am proud to claim as our own.
Jon Darsee, a frequent contributor to the Register, has held a lifelong interest in art. A member of several American museums, his passion and curiosity have led him to visit art museums in nearly 30 countries.