Grant Wood, Regionalist, Whitney Museum of American Art (1983)



 While John Constable's landscapes look up and out to the sky and God, Grant Wood's gaze is down and in upon the earth as on the body of a recumbent lover. Like a Gaston Lachaise sculpture, Wood sees the land of his native Iowa as a bosomy, rippling-fleshed, full-bellied woman, a sensually sprawling Earth Mother at the zenith of her richness and plenitude. In "Spring Turning," for example, infinitesimal farmers plow massive earthen buttocks.


 Wood's best works at the Whitney Museum through September 4, in addition to "American Gothic," are landscapes like "Stone City," "Spring Turning," "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," "January" and the dazzlingly dramatic and powerful preamble to an automobile accident, "Death on the Ridge Road," where he moves beyond commercial illustration and academicism to tap his elemental psychic need.


 His tapestried "land of counterpane" landscape style, deliberately childlike with nearly toy people, houses, trees and hills, attempts to recapture his childhood idyll and, like Early Renaissance painting, seeks to achieve a sense of the miraculous where "every mountain and valley shall be exalted." Nature for Wood is not just routinely alive, but imbued with a transcendent, pantheistic electricity of animation and ability to communicate.


 The artist's nearly rotund fullness of form -- similarly expressed in so many painters of the 1930's as disparate in style as Pablo Picasso and Stanley Spencer, Fernand Leger and fellow Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton -- while reflecting his own physical proportions, seems to speak of a nearly universal swelling up. It may represent a hoped-for elemental fullness and significance of life in the face of personal disappointment and an increasingly disastrous 20th Century (or an inflation of ego replacing the power of an absent God?) like so many over-inflated balloons that will be punctured by the machine-gun bullets of World War II and, in Wood's and Benton's cases, by the narrow-minded attacks of modernist intellectuals.


 To his credit, Wood realized the dehumanizing uselessness of swallowing European artistic mannerisms whole. He didn't want to be another of the thousands of assembly-line Picassos, Matisses, Mondrians and Dalis, gagging on unassimilable aesthetics ground out by the educational and cultural establishments.


 Grant Wood's life, work, goals and the art world's essentially negative response to all three during his lifetime and after, pose that most pregnant question which will eventually have to be answered if art is ever to become significant again: "Casting aside all prejudices, what artistic and human values and attitudes are absolutely necessary to the resuscitation of contemporary art?"


 Perhaps this exhibition and its many implications will restart the process of serious thought and examination.




Copyright by Don Gray


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