Grant Wood wanted to make art American. As with so many attempts to make things American, what this meant was distilling a particular region into the essence of the United States. New England and the Deep South are strong contenders, but the Midwest is perhaps the most plausibly all-American region. The visual and cultural tropes of the Midwest are the commonplaces of American kitsch—corn fields, barns, apple pie, churches, Main Street. By choosing to remain in his native Iowa, Wood was well positioned to do what he wanted, without having to forego success. The current Wood retrospective on view at the Whitney (closing June 10th) is hardly the first time his work has received sustained attention from the highest levels of the American art world. The Whitney itself held its last retrospective in 1983, and during Wood’s lifetime he was arguably the most famous artist in the United States. The current show acknowledges that one of Wood’s paintings dominates all other. The exhibition simply uses the name of American Gothic, adding, appropriately, “and other fables” after the obligatory colon.
Wood’s paintings are satisfying because in addition to presenting scenes of an American farming arcadia they are also, for lack of a better word, profoundly strange. Wood’s faces were and often are still presented as archetypes of solid rural types, but they are drawn in such a way as to suggest something slightly off. Sometimes it is a certain sadness, as in Arnold Comes of Age; sometimes a glint of anger or suspicion, as in his self-portrait from 1932. Often it involves a slight distortion, giving the portraits a grotesquerie, as in American Gothic itself. In addition to these well-known pictures, the Whitney show admirably brings out Wood’s queerness without giving into cheap pop psychoanalysis on the basis of Wood’s life in the closet. A series of lithographs depicting farming subjects against flat red backdrops makes such a move unnecessary. Though several seem to hint at queer desire, the best of them, Spilt Milk, is very obviously gay and very funny: a blond boy standing, looking shocked, in front of a cow. A huge swath of his denim overalls is dark with milk which pools creamy white and thick around the edges of the stain, dripping toward the ground.