Currently, there is a politically charged injunction to “Make America Great Again.” We at ARTnews wonder what “again” means, since, for many, America never was great. Nevertheless, the message seems to be addressing people in the fly-over parts of the country, areas that in recent years have felt left out of the political conversation. Possibly, aspects of what some retroactively deem “greatness” was captured—or, perhaps, invented—in the late 1920s and early 1930s, by a group of American painters known as the Regionalists, who made it their mission to spotlight those rural areas and the people inhabiting them. Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood—the latter the subject of a Whitney Museum retrospective that runs through June 10—were among those artists. Their homespun style was used as a way of promoting Americana in the years preceding World War II, but gradually, their approach fell out of favor. Below, a look at Regionalism’s evolving reputation.
Oct. 19, 1929
Thomas [Hart] Benton has been on a voyage of exploration through the South. As discoveries the results are unimportant for he has followed well-traveled roads[,] and the cotton fields, lumber camps and hills have served as the subjects of innumerable verbal and graphic reports. . . . It is not necessary to know the South or to be interested in its laborers to appreciate the value of his work. His drawings have the universal quality which distinguishes all art that approaches greatness.
—“Exhibitions in the New York Galleries: Thomas H. Benton at Delphic Studios”
Nov. 8, 1930
Thoroughly native in character is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” a realistic portrayal of an Iowan farmer and his wife, seen in front of their peaked and gabled farmhouse. The painting, which won the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal and prize of $300 is the work of a Cedar Rapids artist who was born in Anamosa, Iowa, in 1892 and who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis Handicraft Guild and the Academy Julian in Paris. Mr. Wood’s murals and bas-reliefs are to be found in various Iowan cities and a war memorial window designed by him is in the Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids.
—“Chicago Makes Prize Awards,” by Daniel Catton Rich
April 8, 1933
John Steuart Curry has timed his show at the Ferargil Galleries to coincide with the advent of spring and the circus. He has specialized this year in episodes connected with life under the Big Tent, forming a most authentic picture. In fact, he has even gone to the extent of traveling on the road with a bona fide circus in order to get the exact local color of this fantastic side of the American scene. Anyone could tell at a glance that Mr. Curry knows what he is talking about when it comes to putting down on canvas the startling and exciting events of the circus.
—“Around the Galleries”
April 27, 1935
Apparently a sincere and modest artist, [Grant] Wood has himself expressed the feeling that his work has been given rather too much prominence. Despite unbeatable talent as a realistic portraitist and a designer, it must be admitted that literary invention and clever adaptations are the mainsprings of Wood’s talents. At his best he achieves in some of his characterizations a searching and homespun realism that may be compared with the work of Charles W. Hawthorne. But often his more serious paintings of later vintage resolve themselves upon close analysis into borrowed motives from the past neatly revamped to give a new pictorial significance to the Middle West.
—“Exhibitions in New York: Grant Wood at Ferargil Galleries,” by Mary Morsell
Nov. 1–14, 1942
The real story behind Grant Wood’s American Gothic, $15,000 Art Institute of Chicago picture sensation of the last decade, was recently published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, in the town where the much vaunted, much booted work was painted. Wood’s intention was to suggest against the background of the Midwest’s flimsy and unstructural application of Gothic architecture something significant in the character of the people who lived in these houses. “This something,” reads the Gazette’s story, “was narrow, false and pathetic, but at the same time, by contrast, the architecture also threw into sharp relief the fundamentally good and strong qualities of the people—just as the flimsiness of the houses called attention to the solidity of the ground on which they stood.” . . . Critical acclaim and local indignation greeted the picture. Ultimate triumph was its reproduction in Fortune last year as a suggested war poster over the caption: “Government of the People, by the People and for the People Shall Not Perish from the Earth.”
[S]omehow, over the intervening years, Grant Wood has become less a menace than an oddity to the experts—a sort of cornfed Norman Rockwell who expropriated much suaver art-historical models. And, by way of American Gothic, Wood has become a presence in the popular arena. Among other things, Wood’s “haunting” image sold cornflakes in the 1960s and oral hygiene in the 1970s. Our “national icon,” now bearing the faces of Ronald and Nancy Reagan . . . is a postcard bestseller of the 1980s, the latest manifestation of a long tradition of dusting off American Gothic for all manner of humorous and satiric purposes. . . . The truth of the matter is that Grant Wood is a national treasure precisely because he is our Great American Joke.
—“Don’t Knock Wood,” by Karal Ann Marling
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, out from 20th Century Fox later this month, takes the action to Washington, D.C. [Ben] Stiller reprises his role as museum guard Larry Daley, this time facing off against the evil pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria). At one point Daley seeks refuge from him in the museum’s art galleries, but serenity there is short-lived. Children in a winter-landscape painting pelt him with snowballs, and the couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) begin to stir. With the pharaoh rapidly approaching, Daley seizes an unusual opportunity. He snatches the farmer’s pitchfork, uses it to ward off the Egyptian tyrant, then leaps into Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famed photograph VJ Day and escapes through 1945 Times Square.
—“Night of the Living Koons,” by Rachel Wolff
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 111 under the title “It’s All Regional.”