thoughts on Grant Wood


Grant Wood, March, 1940, charcoal on wove paper

In the Texas visual arts magazine Glasstire, former publisher Rainey Knudson considers the above drawing, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her essay, "Do Art Critics Need to Know How Sausage Is Made?" has two parts. In the first, she describes her experience of going back to school, after many years as a professional art writer. She tells us what she learned in a college-level drawing course, and how it changed her perceptions about artworks. (1) In the second part she critiques the Wood drawing, as a kind of test of these perceptions. Employing a series of close-up photos, she discusses the artist's techniques (crosshatching, erasure, etc.) and how they give interest to the work.

She doesn't really cover the content of the drawing, however. She says a "picture of a country road disappearing into a landscape" could be "sappy" if not for the "energy and movement" of certain marks, and the artist's intuitive handling of texture, but that's about it.

I haven't seen this drawing in person so this is a "jpeg review," take it for what it's worth.

Grant Wood is known for his stiff, iconic portraits of rural Midwestern subjects, American Gothic being the most famous. Perceived as a slightly bohemian "character" in his native Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was nonetheless a staunch regionalist, and famously wore farmer's overalls to make the point. He had taken several trips to Europe in the 1910s and 1920s but remained mostly unaffected by Modernist art movements in his early career. He had absorbed some of the "arts and crafts" thinking of fin de siècle Romantics but resisted the more extreme lessons of Cubism, Surrealism, and pure abstraction. (2)

In the populist 1930s his regionalist vision was celebrated but near the end of his life, when this drawing was done (he died two years later), a backlash against his type of art was in full swing. He fought bitterly with members of his own university art department, who saw him as a self-promoting hack and has-been. After several years of glowing press, his reputation was starting to slip. Publicly he continued to fight for the regionalist vision, but privately he was vexed by the criticism, and strove to make his last works more abstract and Modernistic, incorporating rhythmic patterns and geometric compositions. (3)


The lithograph version of March (above), belongs to these late semi-abstracts but is fairly calm and composed, at least from what I can see from a jpeg. Even as a digital reproduction, the drawing version that Knudson reviews (seen at the top of the post) feels more dynamic. A simple country road winding through bald hills becomes a jagged slash of movement. Strong gusts of wind blow from left to right while afternoon sunlight beams in the opposite direction. The crosshatched hills seem to throb and undulate. All this movement is even clearer in the detail posted by Knudson:



Grant Wood, March, 1940, charcoal on wove paper (detail)


There's a well-known tendency for artists to tighten up when making formal "permanent" statements such as paintings but to be carefree and honest when drawing. Perhaps that's what happened here. Pure speculation, but this may be more of a reflection of Wood's emotional state at the time than the more polished, lithographic version of the same image. ("They say I'm not modern -- slash slash with the eraser -- I'll show them!" might be his thought balloon as he worked on this.)

Wood's angular hatching and patterning recalls Cubism's folds and involutions, or some crazy Futurist cityscape. Yet instead of explosive urban traffic there is only a lone horse pulling a carriage. It's as if Wood wanted to depict a calm America, a place of rural, nostalgic refuge, while at the same time channeling The Vortex. His slightly superhuman, illustrator-confident hand facility perfectly balances aggression and control, giving us not so much a drawing as a map of unresolved doctrinal tensions.

Despite the patriotism of World War II era, American culture was changing around this time. Fleeing the war, European artists moved here and brought international art attitudes with them. (4) New York became a world art capital, cosmopolitanism became the norm, and "regions" became objects of anthropological study rather than sources of inspiration. Wood's small town conservatism, already beginning to be an issue in the 1940s, would certainly kill his chances of acceptance today in the world of museum installations and international art fairs. Were he making this work now he would be doomed to remain cordoned off in the "other art world" of people who collect Remingtons.

Even though drawing is perceived as more ephemeral than painting (still) among curators and collectors, it's nevertheless an act of freezing time and fixing history, in comparison to digital art products, which can be manipulated in endless ways. The idea of creating a timeless, stand-alone artifact seems quaint now but in Wood's time what went down on the paper had to count -- that's what art was. This may explain the level of verve and commitment that can still be perceived even in a series of jpeg details, long after battles over "regionalism" have dwindled down to nothing.

1. In the comments to the Glasstire essay, an artist complains that Knudson's years of pre-art class criticism were "like expecting someone who has never even held a screw driver to be able to tell me how to fix my car." Like Marshall McLuhan coming out from behind the theatre sign in Annie Hall, ex-Newsweek critic Peter Plagens suddenly appears in the thread and responds: "Old saying: You don’t have to be a chicken to know a rotten egg... Art writers and curators aren’t trying to tell you how to fix your car (metaphorically, how to make art). They’re judging your art -- something that viewers do, in writing or not, all the time... Betcha when the judgment is along the lines of, 'Hey, that’s a great piece of art you made!' you don’t complain about being judged."

2. Wanda M. Corn, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, Yale University Press, 1983

3. Id.

4. Id.