Travis Nygard, Art Historian > Modern Research

Modern Research

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930.
Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930,
oil on beaverboard.
Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

My largest research projects from the past several years have focused on how visual culture and the modern food system are intertwined.  Through such work I show how art was a key part of conversations about agribusiness and racial identity in the American Midwest.  On one level I focused on the fine artists Grant Wood—the quintessential Regionalist painter—and Oscar Howe—a key figure in the Native American modern art world—but I did not frame their work biographically.  Instead, I was interested in using their work as anchors in dialogues that incorporated many groups of people.  By doing so, I argue that we can see how art was used within struggles for social change. 

My dissertation, titled Seeds of Agribusiness: Grant Wood and the Visual Culture of Grain Farming, 1862-1957  argues that reconstructing the broad visual culture of agribusiness is useful for understanding Grant Wood’s art, and vice versa.  Indeed, the fact that Midwestern farming was in the midst of a profound cultural shift to an economy of scale should not be dismissed lightly.  Although agribusiness is popularly associated with the Green Revolution of the 1940s and 1950s, the beginnings of this shift date to the nineteenth century.  Wood’s lifetime was an era when land was being consolidated, production and distribution were being vertically integrated, ownership was shifting to corporate investors, and breeding was becoming scientifically-informed.  Cumulatively, my argument is that agribusiness is a cornerstone of modern thinking, understood as sets of experiences, debates, institutions, and theories, and that Grant Wood was not only aware of the visual manifestations of each, but actively engaged with them in his fine art.

Billican, political cartoon of A. Fake, 1917.
“A. Fake” photography studio.
Cartoon by Billican, The Nonpartisan Leader,
November 15, 1917, page 7.

By juxtaposing Wood’s art, such as the celebrated American Gothic from 1930, with political cartoons, clothing, photography, advertisements, and other visual materials I show that the way we came to understand and accept agribusiness as the basis of our food system was negotiated, in part, through visual materials.  I argue that it is no coincidence, for example, that the man in American Gothic is wearing a business jacket under farmers’ overalls.  Such a strategy allowed Wood to frame his painting—to different audiences—as being about either a farmer or a business man and it contributed to the painting’s controversial history.  Such symbolism predated Wood’s painting, as can be seen in a political cartoon depicting the photographic studio of “A. Fake” who can “make you look like what you aint” commissioned by a radical small famers’ organization.  Such symbolism endured for decades and was notably used in the title of the book that made agribusiness a household word—Farmer in a Business Suit by John Davis and Henneth Hinshaw from 1957. 

Oscar Howe, Deer Hunt, 1947.
Oscar Howe, Deer Hunt, 1947, casein on paper.
Collection of the U.S. Department of the Interior,
Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

I show how the common understanding of agribusiness is a braid of concepts, and that each was engaged with by Grant Wood.  I start with a chapter about the way that images of small family-sized farms—like Grant Wood depicted—were experienced in fundamentally different ways than images of gargantuan farms of over 20,000 acres—that also date to the turn of the twentieth century.  As an anchor I use Wood’s Dinner for Threshers from 1934—a scene of small farmers sharing meal with their homestead surrounding—but contrast it with panoramic photographs.  The next chapter uses images of wheat distribution and milling to show that the business practices of the food system were debated in polemical terms during Wood’s era, and that he created images of radicals engaged in such rhetoric.  The third chapter focuses on Wood’s images of the other major grain crop—corn—to show that his imagery commented on how the aesthetics of corn were institutionalized in support of specific agendas.  To reconstruct this history I include Wood’s portrait of the breeder and politician Henry Agard Wallace, his lithographs of corn-growing, and his Corn Rooms created for hotels. Lastly, a chapter that addresses how the farm economy was theorized during Wood’s lifetime as a complex system, but that intellectual culture took until the 1950s to articulate this—in the aforementioned book that coined the term agribusiness, along with another published concurrently, titled A Concept of Agribusiness by John Davis and Ray Goldberg.  I then end with a coda that discusses the legacy of Wood’s art and visual vocabulary. An essay on the dissertation's topic, titled "Grant Wood and the Visual Culture of Agribusiness," was published in Athanor during 2009. 

Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD, 1948.
Oscar Howe's designs for the Corn Palace,
Mitchell, SD, 1948

My work on the visual culture of agribusiness grew out of my MA thesis, which was also involved grain farming.  This paper focused on how approximately 200 mosaics made from corn and other agricultural products, designed by the Native American modern artist Oscar Howe from 1948-1972, were used to negotiate racial identity.  These images adorned a Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota—part of a tradition of festival buildings to celebrate the harvest dating to 1887 in the Midwest.  While mosaics designed before Howe’s tenure as artist for the Palace bolstered the agricultural values and norms of settlers, Howe proposed a much more complex narrative.  I showed how in his images the participation of Native peoples was an integrated part of agricultural history as well as the present moment, and that the experience of working in grain mosaic nudged Howe to adopt geometric abstraction in his paintings.  Geometric abstraction was a significant shift in Howe’s work, and indeed he is best-remembered by art historians for expanding the accepted visual vocabulary used by Native artists. 

I have continued to work on this project in collaboration with the art historian Pamela Simpson, who is in the process of writing a book that prominently features grain palaces.  Our different areas of expertise on the topic have complimented each other well—she had focused greater efforts on the early history and I had focused on the Cold War era.  We published a version of our work in the peer-reviewed Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, and are continuing to work on the topic for inclusion in a book of case studies about “Indians playing Indian”— Native Americans co-opting white stereotypes to work toward to their own goals—which is being edited by the historians Ethan Schmidt and Ronald McCoy. 

Malvina Hoffman,Henry Clay Frick, 1965, Sandstone.
Malvina Hoffman, John Keats, completed 1923, marble.
Collection of the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery.
Photograph by Travis Nygard.

Another project that I undertook at the University of Pittsburgh was curating an exhibition on the American sculptor Malvina Hoffman’s exploration of mortality.  Hoffman is most frequently remembered for her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance and travelling the world to create sculptures of the “Races of Mankind” for Chicago’s Field Museum.   The university, however, owns one of her most interesting sculptures that focuses on the theme of death—a portrait bust of the poet John Keats’ ghost.  Hoffman claimed that the bust was based on sketches she did of the man while visiting the room in which he died in Rome.  She later carved a memorial sculpture of the university art history department’s namesake, Henry Clay Frick, which is embedded in the building, and she released ephemera related to her Races of Mankind series.  By focusing on these works I showed that she variously idealized, normalized, and abhorred death. 

In the future I envision my research exploring questions of sustainability and cross-cultural art.  I see the former as building on my expertise with agriculture by focusing  on the history of farming’s environmental impact.  This could potentially be a book-length project, and I intend to use a College Art Association conference session that I am chairing in 2011 as a springboard for the project.  The session, titled Environmental Sustainability in Art History, Theory, and Practice, is sponsored by the Radical Art Caucus, which brings together artists and art historians to think about cultural oppression and social change.  If the session participants are enthusiastic, the session might also spawn additional inquiry, such as an edited book of essays or special issue of a journal. 

The other project I am pursuing focuses on cross-cultural art, and especially composite objects worked on by people with different cultural perspectives.  One of the things that fascinated me about the Corn Palace was that it ultimately became a cross-cultural amalgamation.   Some scholarship exists on composite objects, but there is much more to say, including fleshing out basic art historical assumptions.  For example, art historians usually think of recarving of sculpture or overpainting a canvas as defacement that ruins the original intent of the artist, but when thinking cross-culturally such acts might also testify to an object’s enduring significance amidst a second group of people.