Arts & Culture

Grant Wood Revealed: Cedar Rapids exhibition shows versatility of state's most famous artist

#x201c;The Coil Welder,#x201d; 1925, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 inches by 29 3/4 inches, is part of Grant Wood's J.G. Cherry
“The Coil Welder,” 1925, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 inches by 29 3/4 inches, is part of Grant Wood’s J.G. Cherry Series, “which I don’t think we’ve had completely up in years,” said Kate Kunau, associate curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. The paintings were created to display at trade shows, and were a gift to the museum from the Cherry Burrell Charitable Foundation. (Courtesy of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art)
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Before the world knew about Grant Wood, Iowa’s most celebrated artist was exploring the world around him, from his childhood penchant for drawing under the kitchen table to making multiple trips to Europe to paint, study and explore Impressionism.

A new exhibition showing the depth and breadth of his artistic trajectory is opening Saturday (Feb. 13) at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, marking several milestones.

Intended to be the fall capstone to a yearlong celebration of the museum’s 125h anniversary, the entire exhibition schedule shifted when the doors closed for three months with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So now, the Wood retrospective is one of the first events in a yearlong statewide celebration of Iowa’s 175th statehood anniversary.

“Our fall ’20 show became our spring ’21 show, which worked out really, really nicely, because we had already planned that the entire year of 2021 would be a celebration of the 175th anniversary of Iowa’s statehood,” said Sean Ulmer, the museum’s executive director. “What is a better way to kick off a celebration of Iowa art and artists in 2021 than leading with Grant Wood, Iowa’s most famous artist?”

And the exhibition opens on Wood’s 130th birthday.

Complete picture

Unlike the 2018 Wood exhibition at New York City’s Whitney Museum, which focused mostly on his mature style, visitors to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art will see drawings from his youth, lithographs, jewelry, metalwork, decorative arts, a corn chandelier he designed, and a paint box and a brush used during his years of teaching at the University of Iowa. It also includes multiple paintings in various styles, from hard-edge portraiture to brushy Impressionist works and crossover blends as his artistry matured.

“It shows a more complete picture of an extremely diverse artist — an individual with a very curious mind who did not hesitate to explore,” Ulmer said, “and that really helps to bring the fuller picture of the creative genius he was.”

The exhibition has been in the works for a couple of years, he noted, and will be displayed in five first-floor galleries.

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“I have to say it’s nothing short of spectacular. It is, in and of itself, a blockbuster,” he said.

Wood’s artistry also is displayed in several other galleries, including “Grant Wood: From Farm Boy to American Icon,” in the first-floor Grant Wood Gallery; as well as “Seriously Funny: American Gothic Parodies,” up through May 2 in the back gallery on the second floor; and “Americans in Paris: Grant Wood and Marvin Cone’s 1920 Trip to Paris,” through Oct. 10 in two second-floor galleries.

“We’re having a huge Grant Wood moment,” associate curator Kate Kunau said.

“It’s a wonderful time to come and see all that Grant Wood has to offer,” Ulmer added. “You will not have another opportunity really to see this much work by Grant Wood out at the same time, and see how incredibly diverse his work is and how incredibly inquisitive his mind was.

“It is really a treat, and I think everyone who comes to the museum and sees this show will take away probably a new favorite work by him and will really understand him as an artist in a completely different way,” Ulmer said.

Putting it together

With 291 pieces by Wood in the museum’s collection, Kunau had plenty of pieces from which to choose, narrowing it down to about 125 works for this exhibition.

“I’ve been really pleased with how it’s come together,” she said. “It looks better in reality than it did in my head, which is always fun. We deal with Grant Wood so often here, but it’s really fun to have all of these pieces up at the same time. And just the way it came together, I would say that it’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

And some of those parts went back downstairs, into storage.

“We have an enormous amount of Grant Wood work in the collection, so it was definitely a winnowing down process to decide what was going to be in the show. And honestly, I brought up more than I could use,” she said during the time the exhibition was being installed. “So far I have nine pieces that I’m taking back down because there just wasn’t space for them.”

As with about 95 percent of the museum’s overall acquisitions, the bulk of the Grant Wood pieces were donated to the collection, including a large grouping in 1972 and smaller gifts over the years from John B. Turner II and his wife, Harriet, known as Happy, Kunau said. The museum also purchased a couple of pieces, but most of the rest were from area residents who owned Grant Wood art, as well as five or six works on loan from local private collections.

“So it’s very much a community collection,” Kunau said.

Highlights

One of the borrowed works is the surviving piece of Wood’s “Sultry Night” painting, depicting a nude farmhand bathing in the moonlight, dipping water from a horse trough. “It’s on loan to the Chazen Museum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, so it’s a loan of a loaned piece,” Kunau said.

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He created a “Sultry Night” lithograph, as well. He planned to sell 250 copies through the Associated American Artists catalog, designed to make works by contemporary artists affordable for middle-class buyers. But the Postmaster General deemed it obscene and unsuitable for mailing. So the number of prints was scaled back to 100, reportedly distributed “over the counter.”

When the “Sultry Night” oil painting also was rejected for a national exhibit, Wood cut the nude figure out of the painting and burned it.

“We have the surviving fragment of the painting, and then a really sweet letter that Wood wrote to the director of the Carnegie Institute of Art about the painting that he was submitting to their exhibition,” Kunau said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to see something that would be otherwise very, very hard to see,” Ulmer noted. “Kate’s going to hang it next to the lithograph so people can see that it’s part of a painting with the horse trough. ... In context, it’s very interesting, and that was a fairly unknown piece until recently.”

A favorite piece among the museum’s docents is Wood’s corncob chandelier. He designed it for the Iowa Corn Room in the now-demolished Hotel Montrose on the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street in downtown Cedar Rapids.

“It went along with these very large murals that he painted that were inspired by the harvested Iowa landscape,” Kunau said. “It was designed by Wood and fabricated with the help of George Keeler. It’s really good evidence of Wood’s arts and crafts-inspired appreciation for relating furnishings and architectural elements within a space. It’s not one of the biggest metalwork pieces that he ever undertook — it was certainly one of the most elaborate.”

Kunau said most of his metalworks were commissioned, and among them is a set of ornate iron gates. They were designed to be used indoors, leading to a sunroom, which Kunau found “really fascinating.”

“I think they were at the top of a set of stairs that led down, and so they kind of opened into empty space,” she said.

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Looking over the scope of the exhibition, Kunau remains surprised by Wood’s diverse body of work.

“It was very easy to look at his mature pieces and just talk about Regionalism — and that certainly was a big part of it,” she said. “But I’m always struck by how versatile he was, and from a very young age. He does yearbook illustrations when he’s still a very young man.

“I think the gallery that is the most fun is probably the decorative arts one — that’s when he was making these beautiful floral (scrollworks) as commissioned pieces for various private homes in Cedar Rapids, and that’s where we get the firescreen ornament and the andirons and this crazy tall candle stand. There’s just a lot of fun stuff.

“Going into his paintings, I’ve always loved his Impressionist pieces,” she said. “I think they’re really fantastic. I love that he gets into these series. He has multiple works over several years from Indian Creek. ... (And) he has a still life moment in the late ’20s where he does all these flowers and he paints shoes.

“I’m always impressed with the breadth of his work — that he really does do a lot of different things and he tries new things. He’s not afraid to experiment with new styles.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

About the exhibit

• What: “Grant Wood Revealed: Rarely Seen Works by an American Master”

• Where: Five first-floor galleries, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: Today (2/13) to May 16

• Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

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• Admission: $8 adults; $7 college students and ages 62 and over; $4 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under; masks required

• Related exhibitions: “Seriously Funny: American Gothic Parodies,” to May 2, second floor; “Grant Wood: From Farm Boy to American Icon,” ongoing, first floor gallery; “Americans in Paris: Grant Wood and Marvin Cone’s 1920 Trip to Paris,” to Oct. 10, two second-floor galleries

• Related events: crma.org/full-events-calendar

• Details: crma.org

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