Not far into " Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, visitors meet the probable cause of their visit: the stern pair of Iowa farmers who inhabit Wood's iconic painting. "American Gothic" (1930) is so renowned that when it arrived in London last year for an exhibition, the Guardian called it "a huge moment" because, save for its appearance in the same show in Paris three months before, this arguably "most famous of all American paintings" had never before "left North American soil."
So it goes for Grant Wood (1891-1942), who is often misunderstood. With the aptly named "American Gothic and Other Fables," curator Barbara Haskell offers a corrective. In a display of nearly 120 works, she argues that Wood is far more complicated than his reputation as the sentimental bard of an idealized rural life and an evangelist for a pure strain of American art allows.
Rather, she asserts, Wood regularly infused his meticulously planned paintings with anxiety, alienation or, at least, ambiguity. As for his call for a distinctly American art, that was more a matter of subject than style. Wood himself emulated European artists in creating his works—but they were always about American people, scenes, values and identity. (In fairness, Wanda M. Corn trod some, but not all, of this ground in a smaller 1983 exhibition—but that was more than a generation ago and, marshaling less evidence, failed to make a lasting impression.)
The exhibition covers Wood's entire career, beginning with his decorative Arts and Crafts objects, such as a silver coffee pot (c. 1914) and a wrought-iron fireplace screen (c. 1929-30). It displays his early Impressionistic works, his commissioned murals, and a gallery of posters, book illustrations and magazine covers (1932-40). All are proficient—some beautifully so—and most of them can be read straightforwardly.
Nor is there anything dark, for example, about his sprawling "Dinner for Threshers" (1934), a cutaway look inside a farmhouse at men coming in from the fields to eat together. Highly detailed, unified by repeated forms and patterns, the frieze-like painting portrays a farming ritual. It also alludes in structure and design to the "Last Supper" paintings by both Leonardo da Vinci and Giotto as well as to religious triptychs of that era.
Note, too, that Wood has painted these naïve scenes from above, one step removed from the earth that had grounded him before his beloved father died, before his family left the farm for Cedar Rapids, and before he began to feel the estrangement of being a sexually repressed, probably gay man.
Wood's portraits are often sad, or wistful, if not fundamentally freighted with anxiety. Works like "Plaid Sweater" (1931), which portrays a solemn young boy holding a football, and "Woman With Plants" (1929), which depicts his mother holding a sansevieria plant, known for surviving tough conditions, indicate that all is not well in the rural America he supposedly idealized.
Then there is "Appraisal" (1931), normally on view at the Dubuque Museum of Art. In it, a young woman in country clothes is hoping to sell her beautiful chicken, its eye warily meeting the viewer's, to an older city woman in a fur-trimmed coat. It's a collision of rural and urban, young and old, struggling and rich. Far from romanticizing rural America, it's an emblem of the unsettling shift from family farm to industrial production. In its anxiety and ambiguity, it is (for me) at least as deep as "American Gothic."
Still, when asked, Ms. Haskell said she could not countenance a Grant Wood exhibition without that popular icon. Not yet, anyway. By giving him broad exposure, this exhibition could very well change that.