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The fortunes and misfortunes of Grant Wood

Posted on July 17, 2017 at 12:00 AM by Jami Milne

Breaking the Prairie Sod, 1936-1937 by Grant Wood (American, 1892 - 1942). Oil on canvas. Commissioned by Iowa State College as a joint project of the federal Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) and Iowa State College for the Iowa State Library. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. For more information about the murals, click here.


Grant Wood has been all over the map, critically-speaking.  In the decade of the Great Depression of the 1930s, he was probably the most famous artist in America, though some critics did not like his paintings at all, regarding him as a light-weight and as little more than a clever illustrator.


After his too-early death in 1942, just before his 51st birthday, his reputation started its dramatic descent, and for the next thirty or so years, he was considered hopelessly old-fashioned and was consigned to the ranks of popular, but lesser American artists. That assessment changed in the mid-1970s when James Dennis was the first American scholar to look seriously at Wood and see in him an artist of insight and accomplishment. Dennis’s scholarship was followed in 1983 by Wanda Corn’s groundbreaking exhibition and book, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, which continued the revival of interest in Wood and the recognition of his importance in American art.


The University Museums played a significant role in the rising critical fortunes of Grant Wood by producing two exhibitions, accompanied by major publications, both of which explored in depth crucial aspects of his career. In 2004, Grant Wood’s Main Street: Art, Literature, and the American Midwest examined Wood’s most important series of drawings, created in the late 1930s for a new edition of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Main Street. Sponsored by the Iowa-born philanthropist, Roberta Ahmanson, the exhibition brought together for the first time all of the Main Street drawings, and it remains the foundational study of Wood’s drawings. Two years later, in 2006, the University Museums presented a deeply researched and definitive study of Wood’s murals, especially those he directed for Iowa State University, When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow. It was also the first scholarly examination of Wood’s period as a New Deal artist when he was the head of the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa.


A new Wood retrospective is on the horizon, scheduled to open in March of 2018 and organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. It will be another milestone in the recognition of Iowa’s most famous artist.


A special thank you to the contributor, Lea DeLong.

Lea Rosson DeLong is an art historian, curator, and editor, working mainly in American art of the 1930s and contemporary art. Her BA is from the University of Oklahoma and her MA and PhD are from the University of Kansas. She is the author of N.C. Wyeth’s America in the Making (2011), All the Evils: Christian Petersen and the Art of War (2009), When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow: Grant Wood and Christian Petersen Murals (2006), Grant Wood’s Main Street (2004), among other publications for the University Museums of Iowa State University; she was an essayist for Campus Beautiful: Shaping the Aesthetic Identity of Iowa State University. She was on the curatorial staff of the Des Moines Art Center where she was the author of Shifting Visions: O’Keeffe, Guston, Richter (1998), among other exhibitions and publications; in 2013, she served as editor and a contributor for Des Moines Art Center Collects.  Other publications include The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest (2016, University of South Australia); Wilber Moore Stilwell (2013, University of South Dakota); and Nature’s Forms/Nature’s Forces: The Art of Alexandre Hogue (1984, University of Oklahoma).

I love all the artwork on the ISU campus, but feel especially blessed for the AMAZING Grant Wood murals in the library, especially the area of the 'back steps'. I feel like it is a hidden treasure and am awestruck each time I see it. I have brought my children back to see the art work, and am still stunned by Grant Wood's work. It might add more significance that I am a native Iowan and majored in Agronomy, so the rural scenes depicted are particularly appealing to me.
Deb | 7/17/17 at 8:20 AM
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