He became an instant celebrity with American Gothic, but understanding of Grant Wood’s art has been slow in coming. A new biography reveals the hidden depth—and strangeness— of both the man and his work.
ADAMS: When did you first get interested in Grant Wood?
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I remember seeing Wood’s sister Nan, the female model for American Gothic, being interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. She wore this amazing wig, and kept making self-deprecating jokes about how young and naïve she’d been when she posed for Wood. It all seemed very well rehearsed, but I was fascinated that there was a real human being behind the painting—which I’d probably first seen on a Corn Flakes box.
Evans: I’ve always taught Wood in my art history surveys, and for years I’d had this hunch that there was more to his work than what I was teaching my students. Alex Nemerov had the same feeling when he wrote about Raphaelle Peale’s work. I’m paraphrasing, but he said there was “something odder, something still missed” in Peale’s paintings. I felt the same way about Wood.
How did the book come about?
It was a lucky coincidence. The year after I started to research an article on Wood, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art put together a wonderful retrospective of his work—this was in 2005, and there hadn’t been a show this comprehensive since 1983. So I was lucky to see a lot of Wood’s work all at once. The article I was writing looked at American Gothic, but in the context of the two paintings that directly preceded it: Woman with Plants, a 1929 portrait of Wood’s mother, and John B. Turner, Pioneer, a 1928 work that I believe is a surrogate portrait of his dead father. My argument was that American Gothic represented a sort of combination of the two earlier works —a painting about his family, made all the stranger by the last-minute substitution of his sister as the female model. The more I learned about his family, the more fascinated I was: There’s the tyrannical father who drops dead when Wood is 10, the mother and sister he shares a room with for most of his adult life. I wondered why no one had ever written a full-scale study of his life, and so I decided to do it myself. I never did write the article.
The book didn’t start out as a biography. I’d originally organized it thematically, with a section on portraits, another on history paintings, and another on Wood’s landscapes. I later became convinced that it would be more satisfying to follow Wood’s life in chronological order, without jumping back and forth in time and assuming the reader’s full knowledge of his work. In some ways, the fact that I had to switch gears strengthened the book. If I’d started out writing a traditional biography, I might not have given his paintings the kind of attention they really require.
The cover of your book is an unusual choice. It’s a painting of a car that’s about to collide with a big red truck, Death on the Ridge Road.
I was delighted when my editor suggested this image. For me, it perfectly illustrates the constant sense of tension in Wood’s life; he was always afraid of the big red truck that might be coming around the next corner. He painted it in 1935, which was a really climactic year for him. That was the year that Wood got married, shocking just about everyone who knew him. The same year he left his lifelong base in Cedar Rapids, moving to Iowa City, and within a few weeks of the move, his mother died. So his whole world was turned upside down in 1935. But then Wood spent much of his life on the verge of disaster—romantic, financial and professional. Mostly he feared being exposed as a gay man. Back in 1930 he’d survived a blackmail attempt, and at the end of his life his colleagues at the University of Iowa tried to end his career by “outing” him. He even worried about the perception of his marriage, which was not really a traditional match; his wife Sara was many years his senior, and bore a kind of uncomfortable resemblance to his mother. He must have constantly wondered if, or when, everything would come crashing down. So it’s not a leap to see the near-collision in this painting as a reflection of those anxieties.
I’ve always loved the provenance of that painting. It originally belonged to Cole Porter, didn’t it?
That’s right. People assume Wood’s patrons were all quiet Midwestern types, but there were a lot of entertainment industry folks who collected his work: Katharine Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, George Cukor, Cole Porter, Alexander Woollcott…. Cukor, Porter, and Woollcott were all gay themselves, of course, so I’ve often wondered if they connected with Wood’s imagery in a more profound way because of that.
Your book is the first biography of Wood to confront the fact that he was gay. When did you first come across this, and how do you feel it shaped his work?
I can’t remember when I first figured it out, but it was long before I started this project. It’s kind of an open secret in art historical circles. You mention it in your biography of Thomas Hart Benton in the late ’80s, and Robert Hughes notes it in American Visions about a decade later – but he writes about it almost as if it’s common knowledge, which it wasn’t. Sue Taylor’s recent work also touches on Wood’s sexuality—she does amazing work on the psychological dimensions of Wood’s images—but I wanted to explore the issue much more deeply, especially given the “all-American” image that Wood projected to the public.
I think it was Wood’s constant sense of surveillance that produced the defensive humor you see in his paintings—and also their sense of dread. It’s what makes American Gothic both a funny and a creepy painting. Victorian Survival is another good example. Wood reproduces a tintype portrait of his great-aunt in this painting, but he stretches her neck out like a pickled sideshow freak. It’s monstrous, really macabre. I’m not entirely sure where Wood’s fascination with death comes from, or if it has any correlation with his closeted homosexuality, but you find it everywhere in his work. Most people don’t realize it, but he lived and painted over a garage for hearses behind a funeral home. He made his front door out of a former coffin lid. Very Addams Family!
In addition to your discoveries about Wood, you unearthed new facts about some of the other characters as well. For example, you discovered the papers of Sara Sherman, who was married to Grant Wood for three years.
I actually discovered Sara’s papers after I’d written the first draft of the manuscript. My editor had asked me to add an epilogue for the book, explaining what became of all the figures in Wood’s life after he died. At first I couldn’t find anything on Sara, but then by pure luck I found her former landlord living in Washington state. When Sara died in 1979, she had left him all her papers, including her unfinished memoir and the beginnings of her own biography of Wood. It was incredibly valuable material—I ended up having to rewrite the last third of the book. Sara’s always been vilified by those who loved Wood, but it turns out she was this incredibly colorful character: funny, a talented singer, a real clothes-horse. Loved entertaining. And I find her take on Wood one of the most sympathetic I’ve come across, precisely because it isn’t hagiography.
You certainly present a different picture of Grant Wood, yourself, a far cry from the one promoted by Nan Wood Graham or scholars like Wanda Corn.
Wanda Corn, and James Dennis before her, really rescued Wood’s reputation as a serious painter. But I do differ from them in some of my analyses. When Corn looks at Wood’s landscapes, with all their erotic curves, she sees the form of a luscious earth goddess. I see muscular male bodies. For me, it’s a matter of looking to the artist himself: Wood was fascinated by the male nude, and actually had a kind of phobia about women’s bodies. The last thing Corn and Dennis wanted, I think, was to marginalize Wood—and they also had to deal with Nan, who was still alive when they were writing about him. Nan clearly adored her brother and wanted to protect him, so her sometimes-willful misrepresentations of Wood and his life were intended in a loving way. But they also consigned him to obscurity for a long time after he died. Modernist critics started to believe—and many of them still do—that there’s no “there” there.
But you think differently?
Absolutely. Wood’s paintings have an amazing depth, even if you discount their emotional or psychological dimensions. He makes incredibly clever art-historical references in his work, for example, taking on everything from medieval altarpieces to high-Victorian kitsch. Every time I look at his work I find something new. He was a meticulous craftsman, but his skill would be meaningless if he didn’t also have something profound to communicate. The problem with Wood scholarship, I think, is that critics often have a hard time articulating what that message is. Most people can’t explain why his pictures make the hair on the back of their necks stand up.
I do sometimes wonder how Wood might have reacted to my book. I think the public Wood, the homespun “farmer painter,” might have felt like that red truck in the painting had finally collided with the sedan. But I like to think the private Wood would have been gratified that his work and life were being taken with this measure of seriousness—and, I hope, sympathy.