Born on February 13, 1891 east of Anamosa, Iowa, Grant Wood was an interesting man in interesting times. The circumstances of his life and work exist somewhere between the urban and the rural, the sophisticated and the naive, resulting in a unique amalgamation of the two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.
When his father died in 1901, Wood and his mother moved to Cedar Rapids, a small but growing city. After graduating high school he enrolled in the Handicraft Guild, a local artist collective run entirely by women and from there went on to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When the United States joined the World War I effort, the Army conscripted Wood as a camouflage artist.
There are a million stories contained in the last paragraph and hopefully one day his biographer will write them, but for now they provide a backdrop for the work on view at the Whitney Museum in American Gothic and Other Fables.
It is a strange show. But Wood is a strange artist, and by strange I mean strange. As in one doesn’t quite know what to make of it at first or at last. His works are both representational and surreal, seemingly simple yet incredibly complex.
For instance, in the first room on the right side are several purpose built cases containing some of Wood’s early sculptures.
Entitled Lilies of the Alley, he created the assemblages soon after returning from conscription to Cedar Rapids where he lived in a hayloft of a carriage house behind a mortuary separated, of course, by an alley. Then as now, people left all kinds of things in the alley including bottle caps, lamps, gears, and clothespins which Wood gathered and transformed into whimsical sculptures.
While these are the only works of assemblage in the exhibition, one gets the sense that many of his works are composites of several sites and vantage points, of the real and imagined.
Stone City (1930) is among them.
At first calmly pastoral, a closer look reveals a more tumultuous scene. The nearly arial vantage point creates a dizzying perspective atop a steep hill. One feels like she is nearly tumbling into the painting.
With their zigzagging stripes, the trees to the lefthand side of the canvas are reminiscent of the dazzle ships of WWI that Wood would have been familiar with and perhaps even worked on.
In the center of the painting both in terms of perspective and physical location, the entire side of a hill has been sliced off like a halved loaf of bread.
Indeed, this bisected landmass was the focal point of Stone City, a hamlet outside of Cedar Rapids known for its limestone quarry. As limestone is commonly used in blast furnaces to purify iron in the smelting process, Grant suddenly locates the industrial at the heart of the bucolic.
But Wood was a master at subtle recontextualization, or at times, decontextualization.
Boy Milking Cow (1932) depicts another scene that may be read as quintessentially agrarian, or not.
A teenaged boy milks a cow while sitting on a rudimentary wooden stool with a red barn behind him. But one wonders why his cheeks are so flush. Milking isn’t that taxing of an activity especially for a teenager. Looking not to his task, but without focus into the distance his eyes add further mystery to the composition. Especially as there is no distance in the painting since the boy, the barn, and the cow are floating in an otherwise empty background. Materially, the figures have been cut from their original canvas and pasted onto matting board, heightening the effect of this fissure. Perhaps lost in his daydreams as we might infer him to be, the boy himself feels adrift from his surroundings. Where is his mind wandering?
Historians and curators have ascribed Wood’s latent homosexuality to the interpretation of many of his works, and one may easily read some of this narrative into Boy Milking Cow. Notice his checks reddened from the thought or act of sexual activity coupled with the far off look of erotic fantasy while he works the cows teets which are very much more like a male member than a woman’s breast.
While biography is not always the best measure of meaning in art it does have some bearing on much of Wood’s work that often ventures into the homoerotic subtly or overtly.
But even more, it has bearing on his legacy or the lack thereof. Grant’s career spanning a short eleven years was crippled by critics’ disparagement of his work as merely regionalist and further curtailed by wide spread rumors about his sexuality. Pancreatic cancer brought it to its absolute and abrupt end.
He died in debt and mostly forgotten. If remembered at all it was for one work which is not even his finest or most interesting, but only his most approachable.
American Gothic and Other Fables is a good place to start the unearthing of this neglected American genius.