(A Poetic Justice Photomontage)

'American Gothic': A Man, a Woman and a Pitchfork

Published: July 10, 2005

When Steven Biel followed Route 16 (the ''American Gothic Parkway'') out of Eldon, Iowa, onto American Gothic Street to visit the source of his subject -- Grant Wood's painting -- it ''didn't occur'' to him at first to look at the house ''anywhere but straight on.'' Experiencing the power of the three-dimensional, however, made him suddenly realize ''there is a backside to the house.'' He ran around behind for a naughty peek and made the anticlimactic cultural discovery of a clothesline, a screened porch, some patio furniture and an air-conditioning compressor. Biel later understood he had discovered more than the clothesline. He had found the inspiration to obtain a full perspective on how Wood's ''American Gothic'' evolved from iconoclasm to icon to parody. Biel documents the process and speculates about how it happened, ultimately claiming that ''American Gothic'' ranks in importance as a recognizable national emblem alongside the flag, the eagle and the Statue of Liberty. He writes with wit and broad knowledge; reading his extended essay is like hearing a good friend hold forth in pleasant conversation on a lazy summer afternoon.

''American Gothic'' was born in August 1930, as Biel recounts, when Wood, a native Iowan, spotted the house he would make famous and decided to use it in a pencil sketch for a painting he planned to enter in the Art Institute of Chicago's 43rd annual exhibition. The small structure was a perfect example of Midwestern steamboat Gothic architecture, and Wood thought it would be a suitable background for a portrait of two people, a woman and a man holding a rake. He recruited his sister to be the woman and the local dentist to play the man. (He painted them separately. They never posed side by side.) He sent to Chicago for the man's overalls and woman's apron, decided a pitchfork would look better than a rake, added his mother's cameo to the woman's outfit and finished his painting.

After he sent it to Chicago, history was almost not made. Narrowly escaping preliminary elimination, Wood's painting was eventually awarded third prize and $300. At that point, ''American Gothic,'' with its bronze medal, could logically have been expected to disappear. Instead it began the journey Biel chronicles, from potential cliché to national symbol.


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