Nothing, of course, generated the controversy of American Gothic (1930). Wood's image of a pinched, pitchfork-wielding farmer and his equally wizened-looking wife has become a synonym for satire. And yet the painting persists in the popular imagination, which has even conceived an affection for this seemingly unlovable couple. So maybe it's more complex than we think? In fact, Wood used as models his 62-year-old dentist and his 30-year-old sister Nan, probably meaning them to be seen not as husband and wife but as a farmer and his unmarried daughter. Inspired by a house built in Carpenter Gothic style that he came across in southern Iowa, the artist produced a kind of vintage family portrait in the style of Northern Gothic painting. To be sure, it's a disturbing picture: the man may have something of Wood's own severe, autocratic father in him, and the woman's averted eyes speak volumes. But if the pair are stiffbacked, they also represent integrity, moral rectitude (an idea that's underlined by Gothic's vertical lines), and the hardships of Midwestern farm life — a life Wood knew and understood. What keeps this work going, decade after decade, is its honesty; the artist doesn't apologize for the truth, and he doesn't try to improve on it either.
Any doubts as to Wood's sense of humor must be stilled by another double portrait, Appraisal (1931). A fashionably dressed lady from the city, doubtless looking for Sunday dinner, is eyeing the Plymouth Rock rooster that's nestled in the arms of her country counterpart in this barnyard scene. She's got the cloche hat, the pearl earrings, the fur-trimmed coat; the farmwoman has a cloth coat fastened by a safety pin and an ugly knitted cap. Yet it's the city lady, with her puffy face and double chin, who resembles the rooster in profile; the farmwoman's sure, steady gaze (who's appraising who?) suggests she has nothing to be ashamed of.
Wood's style never really developed from this astonishing outburst in the early '30s, but he continued to turn out great paintings. His landscapes tilt and roll like the lines of Einstein's spacetime, bent toward the mass of human habitations; look for Near Sundown (1933) and Haying and New Road (both 1939). His series illustrating the characters of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street is devastating, especially in The Perfectionist (1936). And don't miss Death on the Ridge Road (1935), where a fancy limousine tries to angle between an old Ford and a bright red truck, under a lowering, tornado-green sky, with telephone poles that look like crosses. In this nightmare scene, Wood doesn't indicate who's about to die; he just catches that awful moment where the drivers all realize what's happening.
It's not often that a New England museum gets a show with this many masterpieces, paintings that delight the eye and provoke the mind. Grant Wood's work is scattered all over America, and it doesn't visit here much (American Gothic has been in New England just once, back in 1942, also at the WAM; Midnight Ride of Paul Revere is riding in New England for the first time). "An American Master Revealed" could literally be a once-in-our-lifetime opportunity.