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.
The basic tension in all of Wood’s work is a generative one: between representation as distortion and as celebration. On the one hand, Wood is clearly interested in the ways in which portraiture involves exaggeration and often deformation. On the other hand, Wood’s public persona as a sort of people’s painter, honoring the rectitude and propriety of his fellow Iowans, was a clever piece of self-fashioning (designed in large part to stave off the assumption that American Gothic was meant to mock its subjects), but at some level also true. He chose, after all, not just to paint Iowa, but to return and live there.
Self-consciously rejecting the dominance of European traditions—real or perceived—is a classic move in American self-fashioning, and one in which Wood took part eagerly. Beginning his career as a painter in a vaguely post-impressionist mode (he studied in Paris in the 1920s before returning to Cedar Rapids, Iowa), Wood developed his signature style in tandem with his return to the States and to an all-American subject matter. With some modifications, it would last through the rest of his short career: all flat surfaces, simple but not particularly bright colors, an absence of visible brushstrokes. The style is a large part of what makes his work slightly weird and off kilter, like a dark Norman Rockwell or a more mannered Edward Hopper.
But in contrast to his straightforwardly Midwestern subjects, Hopper’s stylistic vocabulary departs rather less from European influence. Famously, Wood drew on Northern Renaissance portraiture, especially Jan van Eyck’s, whose work he encountered during his European studies. Once this connection is suggested—as the Whitney’s display texts do—it’s hard not to see it all over Wood’s portraits: half-length images on wood panels, rendered in liquid-smooth oil paint, slightly grotesque faces emerging from shining, perfectly draped fabric. An entire room in the Whitney’s retrospective is devoted to these portraits. In addition to the ubiquitous American Gothic, Arthur Comes of Age, another typical half-portrait, seems to owe much of its luminous simplicity and its simultaneous realism and lack of naturalism to Hans Memling.
But Wood’s art owes more to European influences than his acknowledged interest in the Northern Renaissance. That his early efforts were in a vaguely impressionist and post-impressionist style is telling. By the time he was crafting his own idiom, those styles were nearly three decades out of fashion. Even at the time Wood would have been studying in Europe, Cubism and Expressionism had long supplanted them and were themselves well on the way out. What could be more American than self-consciously rejecting a European style—impressionism—that was already passé on its home terrain? Renouncing Europe in the form of impressionism may have been easy, but it’s hard not to look at Wood’s paintings and see a common ground in the flat surfaces and smooth colors with the Surrealists then-ascendant in Paris. Even more closely aligned—and more explicitly grotesque—are the New Objectivist painters in Germany, who were already well-established by the early Thirties. Otto Dix’s more sober portraits from the late 1920s come to mind as Wood’s closest analogues. (Dix also took the Northern Renaissance as a precedent.)
Perhaps Wood’s Americanism is more a matter of subject matter than stylistic idiom, after all. He certainly painted subjects not depicted in Paris or Berlin. Not just Iowa cornfields and farming couples, but also a satirical depiction of the Daughters of the American Revolution, are on display at the Whitney. The painting—which Wood called, perhaps to the surprise of contemporary viewers, his “only satire”—was a reaction to the local DAR chapter’s protest against German craftsmen’s role in the manufacture of a stained-glass window that Wood designed for a World War I memorial in Cedar Rapids. Four years after Wood painted Daughters of Revolution, the DAR would refuse to allow the black classical singer Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. (She would end up performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—probably a more fitting venue.) The painting’s official target is the group’s chauvinistic provincialism. Its overt commitment to white supremacy is not part of the official backstory; nevertheless, as in so many American cultural objects, even if not at first easy to distinguish, a concern with race runs quietly under the surface of Wood’s works.
Parson Weems’ Fable is a good candidate for Wood’s strangest painting. It is also the only one that includes non-white figures. It depicts the moment of George Washington’s confession to his father about cutting down a cherry tree, a myth concocted by Weems, an early nineteenth-century biographer. Given Wood’s agenda, the painting demands to be read as participating in the creation of an American pictorial mythos. It is framed as a theater, the huge figure of Parson Weems stands to one side of the composition, pulling aside a red velvet stage curtain with a tasseled fringe to reveal smaller figures acting out the actual scene. Washington is the size of a child and with the face of a president—the same powdered wig and thin, close-lipped mouth we are accustomed to from Gilbert Stuart’s canonical portrait of the first president—and the proportions of an adult. He has simply been shrunk, while his father Augustine Washington, looms over him admonishingly. The tree that he has cut down is equally weird, a perfectly round mass of foliage completely covered by brilliant red cherries. Stranger still: the circle is surrounded by a ring of cherries around the diameter, evenly spaced and hanging down in a perfect replica of the spherical tassels of the red velvet curtain.
Two more figures in the background of the composition, small, backs turned to the viewer, but unambiguously black: an enslaved man and woman picking cherries on the Washington family estate in Virginia. Their role in the painting is unclear, at the time of its painting all the more so than now. A wall text at the Whitney cautions against assuming that Wood included them as a subtle criticism, let alone a debunking, of the founding myths of the United States. If these figures are not a reminder that the myth of Washington’s youthful honesty took place against the backdrop of chattel slavery, then the question is what these two nameless, faceless figures are doing in Wood’s composition. They are the only two non-white figures in Wood’s corpus, which is perhaps unsurprising given that Iowa was over 99 percent white in the 1930 census. But Wood’s own racial attitudes are not the most important thing either for interpreting Parson Weems’ Fable or drawing lessons from it. If we accept the Whitney’s suggestion that they are not condemnatory, the figures do not seem to be a glorification of slavery either. If they are not, then whatever Wood’s intentions, they cannot but stand as reminders of the elements of American history usually forgotten and uneasily assimilated into a national mythography.
Hagiographies of early America tend simply to omit mentions of slavery, or if they do, to turn it into an unfortunate side story to be dealt with later on, rather than a fundamental feature of the new republic. Wood doesn’t quite make slavery central to his narrative, but it is unmistakably a part of it. It can’t quite be said that Wood succeeds in finding a way to avoid either omitting slavery entirely or dismissing it as a mere distraction. The figures in Parson Weems’are less a serious engagement with slavery than they are a placeholder. To ask more, perhaps, would be to demand the squaring of a circle: a serious engagement with the history of slavery would rule out crafting a positive national myth from the period. It is this second aim that is of course Wood’s primary one. Nevertheless, the tension between national identity and the history of violence is a real one. Wood’s painting does not resolve that tension, but in bringing it to light he found a subject that is perhaps more American than any other he painted.