Whitney Museum of American Art, 271 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Grant Wood became famous pretty much overnight in October 1930, when American Gothic was included (a last-minute choice after being initially rejected) in the annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Chicago Evening Post slapped a photo of it on the front page of its art section under the headline: “American Normalcy Displayed in Annual Show; Iowa Farm Folks Hit Highest Spot”; the image was picked up by newspapers across the country, all quick to underscore the painting’s corn belt authenticity. Wood—whose most notable previous achievements had been successive first prizes in art at the Iowa State Fair—found himself at thirty-nine not only a celebrity but the embodiment of a movement, or at least the journalistic notion of a movement, steeped in patriotic overtones.
Few artists have been worse served by their defenders. “If you love America, you will love this show,” a newspaper critic wrote of his first New York exhibition. Boosterish critic Thomas Craven hailed him as “the only American artist who is perfectly adjusted to his surroundings.” Time ran a cover story upholding Wood as part of a revolutionizing wave also said to include Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, upstarts rejecting “deliberately unintelligible” and “outlandish” modernist abstraction in favor of plainly depicted American realities.
Among those defenders was the artist himself. Once in the spotlight, Wood, a bookish man known to his Cedar Rapids acquaintances as diffident in manner and halting in speech, applied himself dutifully to elaborating a “born-again” narrative of how he had rejected his early European influences and embraced homegrown sources of inspiration:
I began to realize that there was real decoration in the rickrack braid on the aprons of the farmers’ wives, in calico patterns and in lace curtains. At present, my most useful reference book, and one that is authentic, is a Sears, Roebuck catalogue.
He had made repeated trips to France and spent years mastering the techniques of Impressionist painting, yet could dismiss that experience with a sort of “aw shucks” reductionism: “I came back because I learned that French painting is very fine for French people and not necessarily for us, and because I started to analyze what it was I really knew. I found out. It’s Iowa.” He confided to the Herald Tribune that “all the good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow”—eliding the fact that he hadn’t lived on a farm since he was ten years old.
Nothing had prepared Wood for becoming a national figure. He can easily be imagined continuing the kind of career he had already achieved: a mainstay of the Iowa art scene, a skilled craftsman adept at shaping everything…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.