by Lauren Kroiz, author of Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era
The exhibition Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, currently on view at New York’s Whitney Museum, has surprised many viewers with the range of Wood’s artwork. It includes an early abstract metal junk sculptures sprouting from flowerpots, a corn Cob chandelier, a lithograph of a male nude bathing with a watering trough, and the meticulous oil paintings of rolling rural hills.
Although one painting, American Gothic, launched and came to define Wood’s career, the exhibition shows the artist knew there was no single way to represent a stable or isolated Midwest. As I explore in Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era, regions are dynamic and relational. Defining a region necessitates differentiating it from other places in ways always also point to the relationships between those places—urban, rural, North, South, Midwest, West—that have been constructed by history, politics and culture. Making such distinctions also makes a claim for how people ought to live. For example, Regional often takes on a positive sense for those opposing the centralization and standardization identified with cities.
Working and teaching in 1930s Iowa, Wood positioned himself as the leader of a regionalist movement devoted to developing a distinctly American art with others in a Midwest that had been overlooked by prior artists. His artwork and philosophy caught the attention of popular audiences across the nation through celebratory coverage in Time and Life magazine. As I explore, Wood’s Regionalism related places and ideals of living, serving an educative function as well as an artistic one.
Recognizing variations that are aesthetic, political, and social has become especially vital in the wake of the 2016 presidential election when issues of rural citizenship (especially in the red middle of the United States) and democracy moved to the fore of national consciousness. In debates about the divide between the urban and rural, the country’s center and its coasts, it remains crucial to remember that the Midwest (which now seems to stretch across the country from Pennsylvania to Utah) is not actually homogenous nor is it a wasteland of culture. Exploring the region’s artistic, cultural, and political experiments during the 1930s and 1940s Cultivating Citizens reminds us of its rich and varied history with examples that resonate nationally and globally.