Sunday, March 18, 2018

Grant Wood and the story of "Sultry Night"

A lesser-known work by Iowa's favorite-son artist Grant Wood --- the lithograph entitled "Sultry Night" --- is making modest waves this spring because of featured positions in two retrospective exhibits of his work --- one in New York and the other in Des Moines.

The larger exhibit --- the first comprehensive exhibit in several years, entitled "Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables" --- remains open through June 10 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The smaller, "Sultry Night: Selected Works By Grant Wood," opens March 30 at the Des Moines Art Center and continues through June 24 in the John Brady Print Gallery.

Although the New York exhibit is far larger, the Des Moines exhibit is unique because it reunites for the first time the "Sultry Night" lithograph and the remaining 16-inch by 20-inch oil on Masonite part of the painting it inspired --- deliberately vandalized by the artist.

The Art Center owns all 19 of the lithographs featuring various subjects that Wood produced as well as five works painted during his "impressionism" phase, so all but one of the works in the Des Moines exhibit are drawn from the center's permanent collection. The "Sultry Night" fragment is on loan from the University of Wisconsin's Chazen Museum of Art.

The inspiration for the Des Moines exhibit came, Assistant Curator Jared Ledesma told Iowa Public Radio's Ben Kieffer on Friday, when the Whitney asked to borrow Wood's "The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover," which the Art Center owns jointly with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. So that painting will be spending the spring and early summer in lower Manhattan.


The lithograph, of a farm hand bathing in the moonlight next to a stock tank, is the most explicit expression of the homoerotic theme present in several of the gay Iowa artist's works, a theme that at the time and still to a lesser extent made a number of people nervous. The model is believed to have been Wood's University of Iowa colleague, Eric Knight, who lived with the artist in Iowa City for a time.

"Sultry Night," which dates from 1937, and others were produced for Associated American Artists, a Depression-era program that offered original prints of works by various artists, including such luminaries as Thomas Hart Benton and Wood, by subscription in a program directed in large part toward middle class families interested in art but unable to afford or be exposed to offerings of quality works under ordinary circumstances.

Prints in the series were marketed in a catalog --- but "Sultry Night" caught the attention of the U.S. postmaster general who because of what we now call full-frontal nudity declared it obscene and banned any marketing or sales of the work through the U.S. mail. As a result, the run of the  "Sultry Night" lithograph was limited to 100, sold primarily in New York --- and that makes it very rare. A "Sultry Night" sold recently for $36,000. The original price of lithographs in the series was about $5.

Wood believed in the quality and integrity of the work, however, and submitted the oil-on-Masonite version to The Carnegie International, Pittsburgh --- the oldest formal exhibition of contemporary art in America. It was rejected, however --- again because of the nudity. 

In frustration, Wood reportedly took a saw to the painting and, conventional wisdom has it, destroyed the part containing the nude figure. After holding on to the remaining part for some time, he eventually sold it to friends in Wisconsin in whose collection it remained until gifted to the Chazen.


As the titles suggest, both exhibits challenge conventional wisdom about Wood and his work embedded in the collective Iowa and American mindset by his iconic "American Gothic" and reinforced by those marvelous landscapes that enoble the Iowa countryside.

Both invite the viewer to observe the wit, caustic commentary, homoerotic themes and occasional menace present in the work of a gay artist operating in a setting that he loved but remained ambivalent  about.

Earlier posts here related to Grant Wood include, Iowa Boys play Hide/Seek, LGBTQ History: Iowa & Grant Wood and American Gothic.

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