Exhibit of the week
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, through June 10
In Grant Wood’s art, “it’s hard to separate homage from mockery, nostalgia from bitterness,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. “An uneven talent,” the Iowa native was barely known outside Cedar Rapids when the 1930 unveiling of American Gothic, his signature work, made him a national celebrity overnight at age 39. The two glum figures in the painting, most often interpreted as a heartland farmer and his wife, could be read as exemplars of admirable sobriety or of a repressive small-mindedness, and knowing more about the artist doesn’t settle the matter. In this and many of his other paintings, Wood “ennobled the Bible-bound agricultural life he was raised in,” but “as a gay man, he also experienced its menace.” A “hugely rewarding” retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum reveals how such ambivalence informed all his best work.
Wood needed years to hit his stride, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Initially a craftsman and designer, he dabbled in impressionist painting after traveling in Europe, but then found inspiration in the Flemish Old Masters and developed a “self-consciously American” style that combined hard lines and rural iconography. Well after he gained renown, he created a print, 1939’s Sultry Night, whose depiction of a male laborer bathing was deemed so homoerotic that the U.S. Post Office wouldn’t distribute a catalog containing the image. More often, though, Wood’s “wonderfully queer” take on the world manifests in more interesting ways. Death on the Ridge Road, from 1935, shows a truck barreling around a turn toward two onrushing cars while storm clouds loom above the warped road. “It is an ominous image, and also one of the most gender-fluid he ever made”—a dramatic commingling of masculine and feminine forms. “There’s no clean or simple way to sort out the dichotomies.”
Still, there would be no Grant Wood exhibition were it not for American Gothic, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. It remains Wood’s most effective picture “by a very wide margin,” and the notoriety it brought him “pretty well wrecked him,” eventually driving him to drink. A hint of fame’s toll can be seen in a self-portrait Wood completed in 1941. The painting seems tragicomic: a show of macho resolve from a baby-faced sensitive man who would die of cancer a year later at 50. “The longer I look at the picture, the more I feel that its subject is about to burst into tears.” ■