From Publishers Weekly
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)
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Famous the year it came off the easel (1930), Grant Wood's signature work has metamorphosed in our time into a text for parodies, editorial cartoons, and advertising. American Gothic's originally serious reception, both irate and approving, gives cultural historian Biel an irresistibly sinuous story, which is full of ambiguity. No critic, however effete or erudite, can explain what the painting is about. Wood himself, under indignant protest from fellow Iowans, refuted that he was mocking them, while cultural tastemakers praised the very satire the aggrieved detected in the woman, man, pitchfork, and eponymous Gothic window. Fast-forward one decade and the image had transmuted, in critical commentary influenced by world war, from being an attack on pinch-faced provincialism into a symbol of patriotic Americanism. That iconic status didn't last: postwar postmodernists consigned Gothic to the vale of middlebrow taste, but one step from its descent into camp in the 1960s. Integrating the biographies of Wood and his sister (the painting's female figure), Biel's narrative is an intelligent, pithy, and humorous exploration of Gothic's molting interpretations. Gilbert Taylor
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