by Franklin Hill Perrell
Before Jackson Pollock, De Kooning, and Rothko, the “Big Three” in art were Benton, Wood,
and Curry. Who? Yes.
Before the 1950s, the two guiding principals in American art were social realism and rural
regionalism. Perhaps those concepts aren’t as irrelevant today: Art as a weapon, to impel or
inspire political change, or art that reflects the particulars of one community’s way of life. It
seems that these trends are evident in contemporary art.
Grant Wood gives us some of the Americana of Edward Hopper but with a personal twist,
almost surreal at times. His over the top realism, beyond the photo-real in some ways, helps
engender a world that is almost dreamlike. It would be misleading to suggest it’s reminiscent of
someone like Magritte, but theatricality it is in that direction: as if Wood’s paintings are a
Hyperreal portrayal of an event happening in his mind rather than the everyday world: as Dali
would say, a hand painted portrait of a dream. The American’s had a surreal school that was
dubbed by one curator as “magic realism” and Grant Wood’s handling of paint is just like them,
if more intense. It’s hard to believe they are not photo blow up of things that never were. Trees,
for example in the real world never look like Grant Wood’s yet they are so convincing one is
tempted to ask an arborist for an identification.
And that’s the feature everyone is talking about: what was once taken for straightforward
reportage now has the aura of myth and fantasy. I love that painting of Washington cutting down
the cherry tree, with the miniature head from the dollar bill on a boy’s body and the tree that
looks like a lollipop. Another great piece is Paul Revere’s ride where we notice lights on in
nearby houses and wonder what’s going on inside. Everyone knows Grant Wood’s masterpiece,
American Gothic: once the most familiar and widely reproduced painting this side of the Atlantic:
but have you ever really looked at it? Grant Wood at the Whitney is a must see show, and it’s a
great launching point to the ever pertinent question, what’s American in American Art.
Grant Wood (1891–1942), Appraisal, 1931. Oil on composition board, 29 1⁄2 x 35 1⁄4 in. (74.9 x 89.5 cm). Carnegie-Stout Public Library, Dubuque, Iowa; on long-term loan to the Dubuque Museum of Art, Iowa; acquired through the Lull Art Fund. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Grant Wood, “Young Corn”, 1931, oil on masonite, 23.5″ x 29.5″, collection of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, L220.127.116.11. A detail of this painting was used for the Iowa Sesqicentennial Stamp.
Cover Image: Grant Wood (1891–1942), American Gothic, 1930. Oil on composition board, 30 3⁄4 x 25 3⁄4 in. (78 x 65.3 cm). Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY