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American Gothic

June 13, 2005 Los Angeles Times
COMMENTARY
So, Does It Speak to You?

By Thomas Hoving

It's been 75 years since Grant Wood's "American Gothic" was exhibited to appreciative crowds at the Art Institute in Chicago, where it won a prize of $300 and was acquired by the museum.
   The painting has been lavishly praised, brutally condemned (called a "corpse" by one feckless critic), waved aloft as a symbol of the gloriously down-to-earth Midwest, vilified as Satan's work and satirized in myriad parodies and advertisements. No matter what has been said about it or done to it, "American Gothic" has become a preeminent American art icon.
   Why? What's it got going for it? Is it a serious work of art or just a hyped-up cliche? I mean, is it any good?
   To find out, you have to dissect it by means of the "secret" art connoisseurs' checklist. There are about 20 items on this checklist, including a battery of scientific tests, iconographic analyses and provenance searches, but I won't bore you with all that stuff.
   Three items on the checklist suffice: The "blink test," or your 100th-of-a-second first impression; a ponderously detailed description of the painting intended to force you to look at every pore of the work; and the artist's own words.
   To get to the heart and soul of "American Gothic" you don't have to read art critics' jargon or delve into the often convoluted theories of art historians. As we used to joke in grad school, "kunstgeschichte [the German word for art history] ist horsegeschichte." Well, almost.
   If a work of art is any good, it will talk to you. Art will talk quicker if you happen to be able to recognize all sorts of influences but essentially a great work will reach your own heart and do it on its own.
   For instance, you don't need to know a lot about the Old Testament to know that Michelangelo's "David" is the image of a splendid, possibly royal youth facing an adversary with resolve and about to launch a large stone from his sling. The breathtaking sculpture stands on its own.
   And to get at the quality of "American Gothic," you don't need to know that Wood thought the Gothic house (still existing, in Eldon, Iowa) was pretentious and silly, or that the man is his dentist, Byron McKeeby, whose long, oval face and huge hands obsessed the artist, or that the woman is Wood's sister, Nan Wood Graham, or that Wood added hair to McKeeby's head.
   When I first saw "American Gothic" in the flesh in 1961 I wrote down my "blink" impression: "Nicely tight. Powerful reality and witty visuals combined. Late Gothic European style." When I wrote my long, long and studiously boring description of it (I'll not inflict it on you), I spotted certain details that helped me assess its quality.
   One was the sky, utterly without blemish, without a smidgen of haze. Perhaps Wood didn't intend this to be a real sky at all but something better than real, something spiritual. I was reminded of the religious works of artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling (artists, it turns out, that Wood idolized).
   In all these late 15th century Northern European works, the skies are clear azure whenever Christ, the Virgin Mary or God the Father appears and cloudy when mankind shows up. Wood's sky is about the spiritual and the good.
   The faces are marvelously painted, and the dentist's visage with those perfect lines in that long, Gothic face, with thin, firm but not inimical lips, with the wattles of age is as well conceived as anything by Thomas Eakins or John Singleton Copley.
   The woman is in her early 30s with a face too oval Gothicized to be natural. I am fascinated by her naturally blond hair pulled back so severely yet softened by that provocative curl. Beneath the impassive expression, she could be a lot of fun.

Other details that grabbed me:

  • The way the peaked roof of the house binds the pair together.
    His gold collar tack, which reflects the gold bulb on the lightning rod atop the house.
  • The amusing "reflection" of the pitchfork in the overalls, which is reminiscent of a reflection of the Virgin in the silver breastplate of the Archangel Michael in a Memling that Wood adored.
  • Then there are Wood's own descriptions of the work. After he found the Carpenter Gothic house in Eldon, he said, "I simply invented some American Gothic people to stand in front of [it]." And, "I admit the fanaticism and false taste of the characters in 'American Gothic,' but to me, they are basically good and solid people."
After sweating through my detailed description and picking up what the painter himself said, I went back to my "blink" impression and made my judgment.
   "American Gothic" is an exquisitely painted portrait of the highest quality that ranks with any of America's great portraits. It is gentle, mischievous and satirical. It is packed with sophisticated visual puns and renders homage to a golden age of art the Northern European late Gothic period without slavishly aping it.
   In short, it's a crackling, iron-hard yet sinuously soft, killer-diller study of a slice of humanity, perhaps of a bygone era but one that resonates today, proclaiming something ancient and enduring and something sacred too.
   Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the author of "American Gothic: Biography of Grant Wood's American Masterpiece," due to be published next month by Chamberlain Bros.

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