“American Gothic” is perhaps the United States’ most iconic painting. Created by Grant Wood in 1930, the painting of a farmer holding a pitchfork and standing next to a woman wearing an apron, who may be his wife or daughter, is one of America’s greatest satirical works. Poking fun at American culture – most notably through his depiction of the faux Gothic architecture of the house featured in the background – Wood reportedly described his two austere, grim-looking characters as “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house,” implying that they’re both ridiculous in spite of their seriousness.

In a landmark retrospective titled “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables,” the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York reassesses Wood’s career by showcasing a full spectrum of artworks, including his early Arts and Crafts decorative objects and Impressionist oils, plus his mature paintings, murals, works on paper and book illustrations. Rather than celebrating a nostalgic and idealized American past, the retrospective seeks to understand an artist whose image as a farmer-painter was quite removed from the actual truth. “This exhibition is an interrogation – not a reification – of stereotypes, values and reputations,” writes Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director, in the exhibition catalogue. “[It is] a quest to understand how a remarkable artist created mythic images, images that are not as unequivocal or as unambiguous as some might think.”

The centerpiece of the exhibit, “American Gothic,” is part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection, and it made a rare trip to New York for the occasion. Other paintings on display include 1932’s “Boy Milking Cow” and 1941’s “Spring in Town,” both of which exude the same midcentury American ethos. Featured objects include the “Corn Cob Chandelier for Iowa Corn Room” from 1925, a dramatic light fixture with corn-like ornaments. “The enduring power of Wood’s art owes as much to its mesmerizing psychological ambiguity as to its archetypal Midwestern imagery,” says curator Barbara Haskell. “By subconsciously expressing his conflicted relationship to the homeland he professed to adore, Wood created hypnotic works of apprehension and solitude that may be a truer expression of the unresolved tensions of the American experience than he might ever have imagined.”

“Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables” is on view until June 10 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Featured images: Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Oil on composition board, 30 3⁄4 x 25 3⁄4 in. (78 x 65.3 cm). Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY.