Is there a more iconic image in American art? I think not. America’s love for and fascination with this image has endured since it first won its $300 prize back in 1930. Wood always insisted it is an ordinary picture of a farmer and his spinster daughter outside the front of their home. The pitchfork symbolizes a simple work ethic. The title comes from the gabled window which seems strangely elaborate in such a plain home. The house was real, and there is a famous sketch from Wood of the house alone. Wood used his dentist and his sister for models. The picture became a sensation almost right away, and speculation ran wild as to its meaning. Most critics and deep thinkers found it to be satirical and judgmental of the American rural lifestyle, and found all sorts of sub-texts which reportedly drove Wood crazy. It is easy looking back to imagine that this was a case of the “experts” showing off their ignorance in the face of an artist’s honest dismay. But…
Artists are ultimately responsible for their art. Every artist is conscious—both during creation and after—that a given piece lives and works on many different levels, or at least it should. Without that complexity, without that promise of “discovery” then you have little beyond a deft image and a paycheck. Wood was far better than “average” and in my opinion this isn’t even his best work. But this is where the story is. And he damned well knew it. The word “gothic” evokes more than a fillip of architectural style thrown at a farmhouse; it carries extra weight from its connotations of darkness and secrets. A gothic story hints of evil and monsters and men and women who are twisted by their circumstances. It is melodrama writ large and is phony besides, relying as it does on childish manipulative technique and bathos, its images stereotypical and empty. Wood had to know the feelings symbols like pitchforks stir in the public’s imagination. He had to smile privately at the implications of her face, the gaze that looks away toward something beyond her, something she cannot have. I see her face and imagine that her bottom lip is about to tremble. There is no insight into the man at all. He is closed as a box. He is rigid and straight as the fork’s tine that runs in parallel with the material of his coat. It is a picture that seems to insist on a puritan American image even as it mocks that notion as patronizing and untrue. For better or worse, it will be with us Americans—and will label us—forever.
For all American Gothic is the piece he is known for, this is the work I prefer. Anyone who wants to send me a print of this is welcome to do so. I find it stunning. Here, too, is a story and it is a common one, but we are made to write it in an instant from this image. The painting seems pushed into our face. The colors are unnatural, almost CGI in their impact. People are creating this kind of thing now on computers and being hailed for their visual artistry. Wood was doing this in oils in the thirties. Not bad for some corn-hick from Iowa.
Here is a deceptively plain picture of haystacks in snow that I could happily look at every day for the rest of my life. Again, there is an almost digital quality to this image.
Grant Wood was an artist of great style and polished visual taste. He is worth a careful look. His work is classified as “regionalism” which could mean any damned thing, but so far as I am concerned it transcends region altogether.
And time as well.