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What exactly did Grant Wood want to say with “Death on the Ridge Road?”

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Death on the Ridge Road by Grant Wood, courtesy Williams College Museum of Art.

“Grant Wood never said what he meant” with any of his paintings, Kevin Murphy warned. “He was really enigmatic.”

When it comes to the bulk of Wood’s paintings, many art historians and observers have considered them as parts of an overall body of work, in which Wood chronicled—and perhaps lambasted—rural life and attitudes. Two of Wood’s paintings, however, have stood out more or less since their introductions in the Thirties: American Gothic for its grim and mysterious depiction of a farmer and his wife (or daughter, nobody’s really sure), the ultimate expression of rural life; and Death on the Ridge Road for its compelling subject matter and its departure from Wood’s typical agricultural focus.

The latter debuted in the spring of 1935, five years after American Gothic, in the Ferargil Galleries in New York City, far from Wood’s eastern Iowa haunts. Wood, then in his mid-40s, worked alongside a number of artists and writers who called themselves Regionalists, interested mainly in creating “art and literature that would be truly ‘native’ in both style and subject matter,” as Anedith Nash wrote in “Death on the Ridge Road: Grant Wood and Modernization in the Midwest,” a 1983 paper that is considered one of the leading analyses of Wood’s painting.

Though that group strove for a native style, Wood—who spent time in his 20s traveling Europe—also took inspiration from the symbolism-heavy Flemish Old Masters and German Modernists, according to Murphy, the Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator of American and European Art at the Williams College Museum of Art, where Death on the Ridge Road has been housed since 1947. “His style is very linear, not very impressionistic,” Murphy said.

It was writer and poet Jay Sigmund, a fellow Iowa native, who encouraged Wood to stop traveling to Europe and to paint what he knew best, the hills and agricultural communities of eastern Iowa. It was also Sigmund who, as the story goes, directly inspired Death on the Ridge Road. Wood had been in a car crash about a year or so before he began work on the painting—”apparently he was a really bad driver,” Murphy said—but, as Ed Ferreter wrote in his paper on Sigmund and Wood, Sigmund’s August 1933 car crash had far more impact on Wood:

Jay Sigmund rarely drove a car. His son Jim drove him most of the time. One Sunday Jim was driving his father, mother, and two sisters from Waubeek to Stone City, where Jay was to be master of ceremonies for one of the Sunday variety shows at Grant Wood’s Stone City Art School. Trying to dodge a truck, they were sideswiped by another car.

The Sigmund car rolled over twice, and Jay’s right hand was mangled. In the Anamosa hospital, it was necessary to amputate his index finger, which made writing very difficult for him. Grant rushed out to the scene of the accident and later expressed his memory of the event in picture, as Jay did in poetry.

Death on the Ridge Road does indeed include many of the same elements as Sigmund’s crash: a truck to be dodged, two cars trying to occupy the same road, even Iowa’s ridge roads, remnants of westward migrations through the area that Sigmund referenced in his 1930 collection of short stories and poems titled “The Ridge Road.”

But, as numerous papers on the painting and multiple biographers of Wood point out, it would be folly to consider Death on the Ridge Road as a simple documentary of a single near-fatal accident. Cultural, economic, and global events likely had some bearing on the painting and even his mother’s pending death, as the Whitney Museum of American Art noted in its 2018 exhibition of Wood’s work, may have helped inspire the painting’s anxious atmosphere.

“Like American Gothic and others of Wood’s paintings, Death on the Ridge Road is a suspended moment that presents familiar subject matter in a way that requires us to reconsider it,” Nash wrote.

To begin with, Wood arranged the three vehicles in such a way as to create and maximize tension. The long, black car in the center of the painting (Murphy refers to them as a Nash Ambassador and a Ford Model T, respectively, though the lack of detail on both makes them far more representational, something like the car depicted on the reverse of the old $10 bills) certainly appears caught out in a no man’s land, between the slow-moving smaller car it just passed and the bright red oncoming truck, which looks to be leaping over the crest of the hill, unable to see what’s approaching in either lane. Wood selected these three vehicles and their positions on purpose: Each contrasts the others, each carries specific connotations from contemporary cultural references, and each has its own relative direction and momentum.

In addition, the painting includes many more elements than just the three vehicles. The road itself, rural and distinctively Eastern Iowan, plays a role in the painting, as Nash elaborates, scarring the otherwise pastoral landscape. So do the leaning barbed-wire fence separating the road from the fields, the askew telephone poles shapes like crosses carrying modern technology, the storm on the horizon, even the death referenced in the title. Wood includes nothing that shouldn’t be there.

So then, what can we take away from Death on the Ridge Road?

One of the biggest contradictions surrounding the painting came with its debut. As art historian and former Stanford professor Wanda Corn wrote regarding the decision to display the painting in New York, Wood

anticipated his critics, especially those more radical voices in New York who… resented Wood’s reputation as a “regionalist” and uniquely “American” painter, and his efforts to found a school of art in the Midwest. In the 1930s New York’s modernist critics, often virulently antiregionalist, worked hard to protect New York’s reputation as the country’s art center.

As Nash and Corn point out, Death on the Ridge Road doesn’t just depict the anticipated conflict between two (or more) vehicles; it also depicts a conflict between rural and urban life. “The modern farmer used the machine, modern transportation, and technology in his struggle with nature,” Nash wrote. “Modern technology was a part of Iowa life, a factor that shaped the rural landscape Wood painted.” Indeed, the truck in the painting was most likely hustling between farm and market, making it possible for the Depression-era farmer to earn a living and making the paved roads that cut across the landscape necessary.

The two cars, too, point to that rural/urban divide. The long overtaking car has often been associated with interloping city drivers, unfamiliar with the rural roads, driving far too fast for the conditions, “caught in a potentially fatal situation because he fails to comprehend life in this setting,” Nash wrote. The smaller car, often identified as a Ford, “may represent the native who understands the ridge roads,” but as Nash posits, may also be partially culpable for the situation due to its languid approach to the hill.

This divide, potentially leading to conflict, may also reflect Wood’s thoughts on the ongoing Depression and who was to blame for it: the financiers in their long dark limousines, out of touch with the rhythms and the landscape of rural America; the industrialists with their mechanization and speed, blind to how it tramples those rhythms; or rural Americans, too slow and rigid to adapt to modernization?

Wood, through his art, expressed “a love-hate relationship with the Midwest,” according to Nash. Corn elaborates, writing that Wood recognized that change and modernization would come regardless of anybody’s feelings about it, but “he rejected the idea of the modern as glamorous and progressive.”

Ironically, critical response to the painting, on the balance, was positive, especially from those critics who didn’t care much for his other works. They “thought it indicated a new and more sophisticated direction in his art,” Nash wrote. Lincoln Kierstein appreciated its “element of tragedy,” Corn noted, and encouraged Wood to paint the “real weather of the Middle West—dust storms and drought, slaughtered pigs, unsown crops or crops ploughed under.” The painting even found a buyer rather quickly: composer and songwriter Cole Porter bought it without seeing it in person, paying $3,000.

That critical response likely resulted, at least in part, from Wood’s decision to “fram(e) his narrative in terms of motor travel, and showing a dark side to technology,” Corn wrote. In doing so, he “demonstrated a critical edge and a machine-age mentality that might appeal to urbanites.”

Yet the painting might have gone on to languish in obscurity (for decades it hung in the Williams College administration office, far from any gallery) had it not been selected to illustrate J.C. Furnas’ essay “…And Sudden Death,” released in the summer of 1935. Furnas, amid a growing epidemic of highway deaths, described in graphic detail the devastation and mutilation that resulted from car crashes in an attempt to scare motorists into safer driving practices. Even though Wood did not paint Death on the Ridge Road for such a purpose, it almost seemed tailor-made for Furnas’ article: The scene it depicts is startling, for sure, but the painting is also indefinite, it practically begs the viewer to imagine what happens next. Does the long car smack into the truck head-on, or does it avoid a crash by swerving around the truck? Does any resulting crash entangle the smaller car? Does the longer car escape calamity but leave the truck to collide with the smaller car? Furnas’ editors likely thought that inconclusiveness in the painting to be ideal, that it would force its viewers to pause and to reconsider their actions and attitudes behind the wheel.

The painting and the essay, in fact, “became linked even into the Forties,” according to Murphy, who has lectured on car crashes in American art and is currently curating an exhibit that focuses just on that topic. Wood’s painting, a natural centerpiece for that exhibit, in fact went on to be used to illustrate many other similar articles and concerns about road safety—both with and without permission—and to become the template for multiple knockoff paintings. Though Wood didn’t keep a journal, a review of his papers shows that he did keep up with the painting’s use as an illustration, Murphy said.

Beyond that, we don’t know much about Wood’s response to the reception to Death on the Ridge Road. However, it’s evident that it had some lasting effect on him. As Nash pointed out, he painted little over the next two years, and Corn wrote that Wood never tried to paint a tragic scene again.

Grant Wood, study for Self Portrait, 1932, collection of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

One has to wonder then, whether Wood was satisfied with getting his message across—that the painting was adopted as an illustration due to its true and initial purpose—and with depicting the Midwest in a way that urban critics lauded. Or did Wood feel he missed the mark with it; did the positive reception frustrate him? Was he dismayed at the calls for darker, more mature work as the very sort of urban incursion into rural life that he criticized in the painting? Though Wood often presented himself as a simple, folksy unsophisticate, every art historian and biographer who has studied him found him the exact opposite (when he joined the Fine Arts faculty at the University of Iowa, Corn wrote, Wood suddenly found himself “self-conscious about the reputed ‘folksiness’ and charm of his paintings”) and fond of including multiple layers of meaning, multi-symbolic images, and mischievous—even barbed—themes in his work. His post-Death on the Ridge Road silence may have even arisen from a disappointment that nobody noticed or discussed subtler messages in his painting.

And it probably took until 2010, 68 years after Wood’s death, for most viewers of the painting to begin to notice those subtler messages. That year, R. Tripp Evans wrote in his biography of Wood that the painter, scorned as too feminine by his father and brothers, lived as a closeted gay man, which gave added dimension to his love-hate relationship with an area of the country (and an era) that hardly tolerated such lifestyles. Subsequently, some studies of Wood’s work, including Death on the Ridge Road, have focused on re-evaluating the work in light of his sexuality.

“Mr. Evans’ main emphasis in this analytical biography is on the gender-related hidden meanings that can be found even in Wood’s most innocent-looking work,” Janet Maslin wrote for The New York Times in a review of Evans’ book. “In a book that is far stronger on art interpretation than on personal details, he finds much to study in the pictures themselves.”

One of those who took up Evans’ charge, Mark Lisowski, interprets Death on the Ridge Road “as a reaction to the hopelessness many gays experienced in their yearning for acceptance through the early twentieth century in America.” In his reading, the automobile is intrinsically linked to masculinity, but the big black sedan caught out in the passing lane while trying to climb the hill—analogous to men who didn’t stay in their lane, so to speak—faces swift reaction from the harsh Midwestern landscape and the heavy truck doing the land’s bidding.

Death on the Ridge Road is especially effective in conveying to a contemporaneous viewer a struggle for acceptance in an entirely unique way, given the cultural implications automobiles and… the Midwest had in 1930s America,” Lisowski wrote.

The long black car in the center of the image thus shifts from a villain or antagonist in the traditional interpretations of the painting to the protagonist. Perhaps this goes a long way toward explaining why Wood may have been dissatisfied at the reception to the painting.

(At odds with this analysis of Death on the Ridge Road is the treatment of Wood’s body of work throughout the latter half of the Twentieth Century. As Maslin noted, eastern Iowans have celebrated Wood as”the quintessential painter of America in the 20th Century (and) of the values that made this country great.” Some have even gone so far as to associate Wood with a nationalist and patriotic fervor meant to bolster Americans’ self-confidence during the Depression.)

Even the death referenced in the painting’s title isn’t as straightforward as one might think. Contemporary surveys quizzed viewers of Death on the Ridge Road about what would happen next in the painting. Curiously, those viewers were just as likely to see an inevitable crash as not. “There are no people in the painting, and as far as we can tell, no personal references to death are intended,” Nash wrote. “Even if we consider the cars and the truck as personae in this dramatic moment, we do not clearly know from the picture that they will crash.”

Indeed, this is no Weegee photograph depicting lifeless bodies. Sigmund’s crash, even if it inspired the painting, might have resulted in injuries, but not in anybody’s death. And though the painting became linked to essay’s like Furnas’s, Wood didn’t create it with that purpose in mind.

Yet Wood was known to choose the titles of his paintings carefully, so if he didn’t intend to depict a literal death, then perhaps he intended a figurative death. The crosses lining the highway may indeed represent religion in some way, but given the title, Wood likely intended them more to serve as gravemarkers, but for what? Nash suggests a few possibilities: the death of slow rural ways, the death of the American economic system after the crash of 1929, maybe even the death of the ridge roads themselves, which Corn notes were “never intended for the speed and density of cars” (planning and construction of the Autobahn was already underway by the time Wood created the painting, and cross-country American highways like Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, and the Jefferson Highway were already in use). Whatever the implications, they’re assuredly not positive: “Something about the promise of the machine and the progress of modern life has gone wrong,” Nash wrote.

In the end, like many great works of art, the ambiguity of Death on the Ridge Road makes it just as compelling as the tension and the subject matter. “That’s the great thing about paintings like this,” Murphy said. “It’s a real puzzle… all of these things could be true or partially true. Wood had some intention in mind, and I think he was a canny enough artist to understand that people would find multiple meanings in his work, and did during his lifetime. In a lot of his figurative work there’s always questions of whether he’s celebrating rural people and values or creating satire. But there’s always what we call in art history the ‘beholder’s share,’ which is what viewers bring to the work.”

Death on the Ridge Road is currently on view at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts.