"Modernism," Grant Wood stated once, "has added too many powerful tools to the kit of the artist to be forgotten" (qtd. in Dennis, 99). An ambiguous endorsement at best, such an opinion seems to set the stage for Wood's nodding but cautious acquaintance with a movement that helped to define the early part of the twentieth century.
On the surface, Wood's paintings seem for the most part
anti-modern. The nineteenth century pastoralism that supports many of
his works seems distinctly at odds with a movement that allied itself
with the machine age and Art Deco; characteristics of modernism, always
slippery to define, revolve around function, reduction, and a belief
in technology's role in shaping the future. Skyscrapers, Charles Sheeler,
and Thomas Hopper redefined the American landscape as a place of factories,
industry, and urban alienation. Grant Wood's family farms and hometown
neighbors clashed violently with the subject matter considered appropriate
for a modern artist; Wood himself deprecated Modernism as a "clearing-away
period" (qtd. in Dennis, 197).
Nevertheless, as Wood himself noted, the "tools" of the modern movement could not be ignored. The composition of Wood's many landscapes employ these tools freely. Trees, hills, and even people are distinctly streamlined, and the streamlining is employed to the same effect that it was on everything from architecture to automobiles in the nineteen twenties and thirties: it creates a sense of vast and easy movement, only in this case it is through an open landscape rather than contained in a piece of machinery. Further, modernist compositions from Sheeler's American Landscape to the houses of the International Style relied heavily on sharp and linear geometry. Wood also employed this kind of geometry in his paintings, not only in the arrangement of the scene, but in the actual execution itself. The sharply retreating lines of crops or trees, interrupted by an angular farmhouse in Near Sundown or Fall Plowing are indicative of Wood's interest in this, as well as the carefully rectangular layout of such paintings as Spring Turning. The regularity found in many of these compositions is a similarly modernist tool.
Art Deco appears to have been Grant Wood's modernist niche.
Art Deco in America can be traced back along pathways to the Arts & Crafts
movement earlier in the century. Grant Wood, trained in the idioms of
Arts & Crafts, adopted the Art Deco style more readily than any other
offshoot of modernism. Wanda Corn writes that "he had no inclination to
become an abstract or cubist artist, but he did want to design his canvases
in a modern style. In evolving a style of artificial geometries, clean
surfaces and relentless patterns, he was like the Art Deco decorators
of his day" (74). Wood was accused of producing photographic pictures--a
strange contention, as most of the landscapes in particular are highly
stylized with a modern sensibility. Although he surely would not have
admitted it readily, the unlikely pairing of modernism and the regionalist
Grant Wood bore unexpected fruit.
Philip Lovell House
Richard Neutra, architect
Regularity and clean lines of modernist International Style echoed in the lines of Wood's modernism
Lines of Fall Plowing