The Whitney To Present Grant Wood: American Gothic And Other Fables
The upcoming Grant Wood retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art will reassess the career of an artist whose most famous work, American Gothic—one of the most indelible emblems of Americana and perhaps the best-known work of twentieth-century American art—will be making a rare voyage from the Art Institute of Chicago for the occasion. Organized by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, with senior curatorial assistant Sarah Humphreville, this exhibition is Wood’s first museum retrospective in New York since 1983 and only the third survey of his work outside the Midwest since 1935. It will be on view in the Whitney’s fifth-floor Neil Bluhm Family Galleries from March 2 through June 10, 2018.
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables brings together the full range of Wood’s art, from his early Arts and Crafts decorative objects and Impressionist oils through his mature paintings, murals, works on paper, and book illustrations. The exhibition reveals a complex, sophisticated artist whose image as a farmer-painter was as mythical as the fables he depicted in his art.
Grant Wood (1891–1942) achieved instant celebrity following the debut of American Gothic at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. Until then, he had been a relatively unknown painter of French-inspired Impressionist landscapes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His relatively short mature career, from 1930 to 1942, spanned a tormented period for the country, as the United States grappled with the aftermath of an economic meltdown and engaged in bitter debates over its core national identity. What emerged as a powerful strain in popular culture during the period was a pronounced reverence for the values of community, hard work, and self-reliance that were seen as fundamental to the national character, embodied most fully in America’s small towns and on its farms. Wood’s romanticized depictions of a seemingly more innocent and uncomplicated time elevated him into a popular, almost mythic figure, celebrated for his art and promotion of Regionalism, the representational style associated with the Midwest that dominated American art during the Depression.
As Barbara Haskell has noted, “The enduring power of Wood’s art owes as much to its mesmerizing psychological ambiguity as to its archetypal Midwestern imagery. An eerie silence and disquiet runs throughout his work, complicating its seemingly bucolic, elegiac exterior. Notwithstanding Wood’s desire to recapture the imagined world of his childhood, the estrangement and isolation that came of trying to resolve his loyalty to that world with his instincts as a shy, sexually closeted Midwesterner seeped into his art, endowing it with an unsettling sadness and alienation. By subconsciously expressing his conflicted relationship to the homeland he professed to adore, Wood created hypnotic works of apprehension and solitude that may be a truer expression of the unresolved tensions of the American experience than he might ever have imagined, even some seventy-five years after his death.”
“This exhibition is an interrogation—not a reification—of stereotypes, values, and reputations,” writes Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director, in his foreword to the exhibition catalog. Rather than celebrating a nostalgic American past that never was, the exhibition is “a quest to understand how a remarkable artist created mythic images, images that are not as unequivocal or as unambiguous as some might think or, yet, as some might wish…What one discovers, looking deeply into Wood’s paintings, is that, for all their apparent clarity and precision of style, in the best of them what is depicted is not at all straightforward. The images put forth are often conflicting and ambiguous. They reveal a collision of amplified meanings, sublimated feelings, and layered evidence.”
Wood began his career as an Arts and Crafts decorative artist. Even after he shifted to fine arts, he retained the movement’s ideology and pictorial vocabulary. To it, he owed his later use of flat, decorative patterns and sinuous, intertwined organic forms as well as his belief that art was a democratic enterprise that must be accessible to the average person, not just the elite. Wood’s training in the decorative arts began early. He studied at the Handicraft Guild in Minneapolis for two summers after graduating from high school before moving to Chicago to join the Kalo Arts and Crafts Community house. In 1914, he opened the Volund Crafts Shop with a fellow craftsman and began to exhibit his jewelry and metalwork in the Art Institute of Chicago’s prestigious decorative arts exhibitions. Despite this recognition, commercial success eluded him and he closed the shop and returned to Cedar Rapids in 1916 to begin his painting career. The decision did not mean the end of his work in decorative arts, however, as is evident from the 1925 Corn Cob Chandelier included in the exhibition and the 1928 stained-glass window he designed for Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Building, replicated at half-scale in the exhibition. Even after the success of American Gothic, he continued designing objects for popular use. His Spring Plowing fabric design, armchair and ottoman, Steuben glass vase, eight book covers and illustrations for two books—all made after 1930—are also included in the exhibition. Continue reading