By Chad Nance
“Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.”
“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”
You know what it is to be truly alive when you stand at the end of a tobacco row early in the morning. Thick, leathery leaves drip with dew while the green stalks stand up out of a mound of red dirt that stretches long in front of you then disappears into a late-summer morning. You can feel the heat radiating off of the plants. The calluses on your hands are already feeling red and inflamed because your nervous system knows that as soon as your hand is down around the thick stalk pulling those low hanging leaves- the pain will come. Not the kind of pain that makes you want to pull your hand off of a hot stove, but the kind of pain than can and must be endured. There is a raw spot underneath your arm where the grit and black tobacco gum has managed to work through your shirt every time you swing a fistfull of leaves up into your armpit. The sweet smell of tobacco is mixed with the acrid and lingering odor from the diesel exhaust and the smell coming from the chemicals is like the smell of flowers at a funeral. There, at the end of that tobacco row, you ripple with life, senses, awareness, and the next moment defines you as a human being. You make a decision. The decision to not simply turn and walk away, but a decision to bend at the waist and dive into the biomass of the field taking from the land what you need, but paying a steep price in the process. This is farming, this is what it means to be human in the most fundamental level.
Reynolda House Museum of American Art’s new exhibition, “Grant Wood and the American Farm” is a vital conversation never more relevant to the moment. Agriculture, the human innovation that leads to all other innovations, finds itself at a crossroads where the need for farming on a mass scale is running into the conglomeration and corporatization of agriculture from one end of the planet to the other. In the United States, there was a 34% increase in the amount of land devoted to urban and built-up uses between 1982 and 1997. In the preceding years America, like North Carolina, has seen an emptying out of the population of rural areas as the children of farmers moved to the urban areas seeking economic opportunity.
With the decimation of North Carolina’s tobacco growing industry following NAFTA, domestic legal challenges, and the global regionalization of manufacturing and distribution networks, there has rarely been a time when an exhibition at Reynolda House, once a progressive, experimental farm itself, has been so prescient to the current reality and economy of Winston-Salem. It was once part of the rural areas around Winston-Salem. Little hamlets and towns with names like Germanton, Lewisville, Clemmons, and Tobaccoville were direct supply zones for the raw materials that made Winston-Salem powerful, relevant, and dominant. Just outside of Winston-Salem, Stokes County, Surry County, Yadkin County, Wilkes County, and others south grew the Golden Leaf- the natural resource that made Winston-Salem the largest and most bustling city in North Carolina. A major part of what makes us a sleepy, Southern small town in the 21st Century is the disappearance of professional farming from Forsyth County and the Piedmont region.
The current exhibition is curated specifically for Reynolda House by the museum’s curator Allison Slaby and features as a centerpiece Wood’s seminal masterpiece, “Spring Turning”. Slaby’s work with “Grant Wood and the American Farm” is mounted thoughtfully, becoming less a display of Wood’s graphic prowess, and more a conversation between Wood and other regionalist who chose American agricultural life as their muse. “Grant Wood and the American Farm” is an exclusive to Reynolda House, and once more offers Winston-Salem’s arts patrons and the general public an exhibition that is aesthetically exciting while pulling at the heart and the mind.
“Grant Wood and the American Farm” begins with several paintings that present farming in mythic terms, creating a storied America that never existed anywhere beyond our hearts. These works are examples of how we see and imagine ourselves taking hold of the vast American landscape and turning it to our own ends. Wood’s own work represents a struggle between the iconography of farm life and the brutal realities he personally witnessed during the Dust Bowl – which remains America’s largest ecological disaster and was brought about, in part, by the very farmers it turned into vagabonds and Okies struggling with economic oppression and brutal poverty.
None of these darker realities are evident in the first panels of the exhibition. We begin with the Hudson River School’s Worthington Whitteredge’s “Home by the Sea”. The painting is as iconic as they come positioning a small, family farm on the American coast with a magic hour sky and more than a hint of the vastness of the ocean beyond. As in much of Wood’s work, Whitteredge uses cinematic landscapes populated by human beings that seem small in comparison. Close viewing of “Home by the Sea”, however, will reveal that each person is given their own business and narrative, even down to a couple barely visible on the beach and farm hands hard at work in the mid-ground.
Among the most beautiful works in this show are several Currier & Ives prints featuring the work of George Henry Durrie. “Winter in the Country” and “Winter Morning”. There is a draftsman-like quality to the prints and a sharp attention to detail that Durrie uses to create a palatable, placid atmosphere that pushes nostalgic buttons and the imagination. This section of “Grant Wood and the American Farm” continues to delight with the gorgeous, bucolic “Noonday in Summer” by Jerome Thompson and the chill inducing iconography of “Washington as a Farmer” featuring the father of our country firmly in place as a gentleman farmer. Most of America’s Founding Fathers were, indeed, professional farmers. From the modest efforts of John Adams (pursued with New England charm and humility) and the grander efforts of Thomas Jefferson, America’s initial development and history until the Civil War was driven by agriculture. Jefferson envisioned a nation of farmers that would spread across the continent, but that was an unsustainable pipe dream that did not take into account the need for goods manufactured on a large scale or the regional environmental realities that would make in an impossibility.
The other, darker, reality behind American farming was the fact that in the early part of our history the industry was built on the backs of slave labor. Reynolda House’s exhibition acknowledges this reality by mounting Winslow Homer’s gorgeous and challenging painting “Weaning the Calf”. In this single painting a hole is punctured in the myth. The craft here is evident. Homer uses a darker palette and the framing of the subjects feels almost documentary like as opposed to being carefully staged. The painting perfectly illustrates the conflict inherent in early American farming, but does so with a gentle wit and perceptive eye. A young African American boy dressed in rags struggles with a calf while two white kids dressed in neat clothes look on, uninvolved. Farming is often hard and brutal work. Homer’s painting acknowledges those realities.
Grant Wood created the most iconic image in the American art catalog- 1930’s “American Gothic”. Wood painted his dentist and his sister posing as a farmer and his spinster daughter and created an iconic image on par with the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel. Like much of Wood’s other work, the painting has been misinterpreted and misused by people with multiple agendas. For urbanites and intellectuals his work has been considered a parody or semi-fascist propaganda created to fortify discredited ideas like manifest destiny. Wood used craft and technique developed from the Northern Renaissance, but in his time he stood at the forefront of Regionalism- an art movement that celebrated rural and small town American life and mostly focused on the Midwest (like Wood) and the American South.
Grant Wood’s own work in the exhibition does not include that icon (it would suck all of the oxygen out of the room leaving nothing for the striking work on display.) Wood’s work begins with several black and white lithographs that display lovely detail. The monochromatic palette can feel aesthetically cold at first glance, but like the work of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick that control and focus proves to be full of life, character, and passion.
The exhibition explodes with color with Wood’s “Spring Turning” a magnificent painting featuring Wood’s obsessive attention to detail and craft. The artist created a clay mockup of the painting in order to get the dimensions and perspective exactly as he wished it. With mathematical precision Wood created a massive and imposing landscape populated by tiny human beings. The purpose here is not to ask an existential question about the place of man in the natural world. In Wood’s precise geometry the farmers have seized control of the land and bent it to their will. Woods rolling hills and carefully created furrows and fences show man as dominant over the landscape.
Wood’s work does not merely act as agitprop for an idealized vision of American agriculture. Both “December Afternoon” and “February” are dark, brooding, and beautiful. Wood’s tight control remains, but these images pulse with style and menace.
“Grant Wood and the American Farm” continues, after the presentation of Wood’s work, with what may be the most striking image in an exhibition full of striking images. Earle Richardson’s incredible “Employment of Negroes in Agriculture” creates its own icons and leaps off of the wall with dazzling color and arresting framing. It continues with works by Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Jones, and the incomparable George Ault who has what may be this exhibition’s reach for perfection with his “January Full Moon”.
With “Grant Wood and the American Farm” Reynolda House has once again blessed us with a perceptive exhibition that mixes beauty, craft, and intellect in a way that challenges and satisfies. Farming will remain a major part of the American soul and is fundamental to who we are. Who hasn’t had a tough week and talked to their spouse about packing it all up and moving to the country? Reynolda House’s new exhibit speaks directly to that dream and we are all the better for it.
“Grant Wood and the American Farm” was mounted with support from Major Sponsor Cynthia Skaar, in loving remembrance of Ernest J. Fackelman—an ardent collector; Lead Sponsors Keith and Ruth Kooken; Contributing Sponsors Bruce and Anne Babcock, and Lynette Matthews-Murphy and Lynn Murphy, honoring their parents, Dorothy & William Chandler and Mary & Tom Murphy; and Exhibition Partner North Carolina Farm Bureau. The exhibition features art from the Whitney Museum of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Gallery of Art.
Image featured on cover: Grant Wood (1891 1942). Study for Breaking the Prairie, 1935 1939.
Colored pencil, chalk, and graphite pencil on paper, 22 3/4 × 80 1/4in. (57.8 × 203.8 cm).
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. George D. Stoddard 81.33.2a c