A new biography purports to out the iconic American painter.
Grant Wood: A Life
by R. Tripp Evans
Knopf, 402 pages, $37.50
As the creator of American Gothic (1930), Grant Wood is American art’s most famous one-hit wonder. Although Wood composed other memorable images, none of them electrified the national consciousness in the way American Gothic did when it was first shown in 1930, nor have any achieved the widespread recognition nor been imitated as much as that work in the ensuing 80 years.
Born in Iowa to a stern father and a protective mother, Wood (1891–1942) lived in that state his entire life except for some time spent at school and traveling in Europe in the ’20s. He wished to be known as a “farmer-painter” and purposely costumed himself in overalls despite the fact that he hated farming. His showy rusticity was part of the theatrical-homespun style that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry promoted in the ’30s as leading exponents of Regionalist painting. They argued for local themes executed in an accessible and realistic manner. And they were nostalgic about the past, in particular, trumpeting the healthy values of the Midwest as antidotes to decadent Europe and corrupt East Coast cities.
This chauvinistic posturing was nothing compared with the deeper disguise Wood maintained. As art historian R. Tripp Evans shows, the artist was a closeted gay man terrified of having his sexual orientation exposed. This is not exactly news—a 1944 biography hinted at Wood’s homosexuality, as did Wanda M. Corn in the catalogue that accompanied a 1983 traveling exhibition of Wood’s work. But she and other historians were hampered by the presence of the artist’s litigious sister, Nan Wood Graham, the model for the female figure in American Gothic, who enforced sanitized interpretations of Wood’s life and work. Only after her death in 1990 could scholars write with more openness.
Evans offers sophisticated readings of Wood’s paintings, drawings, and prints. He explores Wood’s devotion to motifs from classical mythology and uncovers homoerotic symbols in the landscapes, portraits, and genre paintings. He also tells the story of Wood’s disastrous three-year marriage, which took a grotesque turn when Wood formed an attachment to his new wife’s grown son by her first husband.
Enlightening though Evans’s iconographical analyses are, his relentless focus on Wood’s psychodrama as an anguished gay man too often hinders the examination of any other impulses or motivations behind Wood’s esthetic choices. Key aspects of Wood’s professional life are neglected as well. Wood studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago, but no illuminating details are provided about that education. Similarly, Wood had his first solo show at the “esteemed” Galerie Carmine in Paris. What was this gallery and who ran it? What other artists showed there? These elementary contextual questions are not considered, let alone answered. And after American Gothic made Wood a celebrity, Evans notes that the artist attained national success, but a reader must consult other sources to learn that Wood was invited to the Whitney Museum’s first biennial or that he became a regular exhibitor at the Carnegie International.
The most significant omission is an assessment of Wood’s place in American art: there is no discussion tackling his standing in or his influence on the development of American painting. Still, Evans is to be commended for taking Wood’s art beyond simplistic interpretations and pushing him out of the closet for good.
Avis Berman is a writer and art historian living in New York.