“Masterful. . . . This is cultural studies at its best.”—Chase Madar, Time Out New York
Probably no painting ever achieved iconic status so quickly as Grant Wood's flat, meticulous rendering of two people, a house, a pitchfork and a barn. Its title refers to the architectural style of the building in the background, but from its first appearance before the public in 1930, American Gothic has been regarded not as a work of art but as a work of rhetoric: a crafted, compelling statement about American life with which the viewer may or may not agree. Which aspect of that life and what kind of statement has fluctuated, as Biel's lively history shows. He does a terrific job laying out the various aesthetic and political preoccupations of the relentlessly self-regarding American century, and how they attached themselves to the work, which turns 75 this year. (The painting is detailed and contextualized in 30 b&w and eight color illustrations.) Because Wood was both an Iowan and a confirmed bohemian, the carefully staged composition was at first understood to be a pointed (or ungrateful?) satire of Midwestern puritanism; as the Depression sank in, the grim pair came to convey a noble tenacity that rallied a stricken nation. By the eve of World War II, "the celebration of the `native' slipped into nativism" and the painting's shift from "irony to identification" was complete: the once equivocal pair came to stand for an unironic and universal American "us" whose claim to authenticity might be questionable or objectionable, but never hesitant or insincere. Biel's confident and lucid readings recover layers of complexity from a deceptively simple work. Agent, Michele Rubin at Writers House. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.