- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

ELDON, Iowa — Bruce Thiher is accustomed to opening his door and finding pilgrims who have driven long miles to this no-stoplight railroad town where the trains don't go anymore.
They have not come to see him. They are there to see his little house.
It is one of the most famous shelters in America, though it has never housed anyone famous. But it is instantly recognizable the porch, the pointed roof, the church-like window on the second floor.
You've probably seen it hundreds of times, always in the background, behind a dour man with a three-pronged pitchfork and a woman whose face, a writer once said, would "sour milk."
Sometimes, in the hands of parodists, the man and woman have metamorphosed into Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Bill and Hillary Clinton, even Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Or gas masks have been placed on their faces, or they've been dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.
But it was the house that inspired a little-known artist named Grant Wood to create his masterpiece, "American Gothic."
"There's something magical about it, I guess," Lowey Cordova says.
Miss Cordova had made the 70-mile trip from Knoxville, Iowa, to Eldon with Beverly Smith. Miss Smith suggested this pilgrimage; she had recently recreated "American Gothic" in needlepoint.
To their surprise, Mr. Thiher opens the door and invites them in. He is Eldon's postmaster, and has rented the American Gothic house from the state since 1996. The previous tenant, an elderly woman, did not much like having visitors, but Mr. Thiher welcomes them: "You meet a lot of interesting people."
He tells them about the house's history, about Grant Wood. They listen closely, even if it is not clear exactly why they have come all this way to see this old frame house that is not, truth be told, all that different from other old houses. Just as it is not clear why "American Gothic" like the "Mona Lisa," like "Whistler's Mother" holds a place among that small number of paintings that have become more than paintings.
"It's an icon of Iowa," says Mr. Thiher, a large, gregarious man of 54 who put down his cereal bowl to show the house. "There is the element of humor, and yet he has effectively portrayed the virtues of plainness, simplicity and hard work which still epitomize the way Iowa people think of themselves today."
And indeed, Cedar Rapids, Mr. Wood's hometown, has populated its streets this summer with fiberglass versions of the "American Gothic" characters among them, "American Gothic" beatniks, Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty, a baseball and a hockey player, and mimes.
But "American Gothic" is not JUST Iowa.
Otherwise, why would an Italian magazine editor and cartoonist take the Gothic pose for a recent ad? And why would the film "Men in Black" feature a cover of the World supermarket tabloid, depicting an alien in bib overalls alongside the Gothic woman under the headline, "Alien Stole My Husband's Skin"?
"It's very difficult to propose a reason why something transcends everything in its class," says Daniel Schulman, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago, where "American Gothic" hangs. "Nobody has the answer."
He concedes that Grant Wood's masterpiece has become so familiar that "it makes it hard to look at the painting with fresh eyes." But there was a time when "American Gothic" was a sensation.
"In those sad and yet fanatical faces may be read much of what is Right and what is Wrong with America," wrote editor Christopher Morley in 1971. "It seemed to be one of the most thrilling American paintings I had ever seen."
He saw "American Gothic" at its debut, the annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture at the Art Institute in 1930. Grant Wood's painting almost didn't make it. Most of the jury didn't especially like it, and it was only through the lobbying of juror Percy Eckhart the museum's lawyer that "American Gothic" was accepted for the exhibit.
But when you look at the catalog for the show, says Wanda Corn, professor of art history at Stanford University and author of "Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision," you'll find "a rather humdrum group of impressionist, expressionist and cubist paintings," nothing that compares with Wood's "very sharply focused, detailed, tough image."
The Friends of American Art at the Art Institute paid $300 for "American Gothic" a nice investment, as it turned out.
Grant Wood also took home a bronze medal, a $300 prize and sudden fame. He had been in Eldon in August 1930 to give a painting demonstration. On a hot summer day Mr. Thiher says the southerly breeze from the stockyards across the way brought a real Iowa fragrance to the moment Mr. Wood caught sight of the house, and its "pretentious" gothic windows.
Right away, he envisioned a painting with a man and woman in the foreground, their features elongated to match the house's vertical lines. For the man, he chose his dentist, Dr. Byron H. McKeeby. For the woman, he chose his sister, Nan Wood Graham.
From the beginning, "American Gothic" provoked arguments. Who were these people?
Miss Corn says Mr. Wood intended them to be father and daughter, but others saw them as husband and wife. (Last year, American Heritage used a riven "American Gothic" for a cover on divorce.)
Then there were those who complained that Mr. Wood was making fun of small-towners an accusation he denied heatedly.
Today, "American Gothic" is reproduced in myriad ways. And as a result, the New York-based Visual Artists and Galleries Association is a busy watchdog serving as agent for those who own the rights to "American Gothic."
"People think, 'I've seen it so much, I can do whatever I want with it,'" says Robert Panzer, VAGA's executive director. But no one has the right to reproduce "American Gothic" without permission.
But does "American Gothic" really reflect America, 2001?
Miss Corn makes the case that Mr. Wood didn't even intend his work to reflect America, 1930. Instead, she says, Wood was inspired by the people he knew in Anamosa, Iowa, the small town he left in 1901 when he was 10 years old, after his father died.
Of course, there are still farmers and small-town people, in Iowa and elsewhere. Some of them even bear more than a passing resemblance to the "American Gothic" couple.
"If you'd like, I could introduce you to my aunt and uncle, who pretty much look like that today," says Larry Jordan, the publisher of Midwest Today.
Still, he asks, "How many kids really know what a pitchfork is and what it's used for?"
There's no chance that "American Gothic" will recede into obscurity anytime soon. Friends around the world still send Miss Corn new parodies every week. Children still flock to the gallery, point to the funny-looking couple on the wall and say, "See that?"

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