By Henry Adams.
He became an instant celebrity with American Gothic, but understanding of Wood’s art has been slow in coming. A new biography reveals the hidden depth—and strangeness—of both the man and his work.
The story of Grant Wood is surely one of the strangest episodes in the entire history of American art. As of 1930 he was a little-known local painter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, whose greatest honor was that he had once won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair. Then he made a painting of his sister and his dentist dressed up as farm folk, standing in front of a little wooden cottage with a gothic window, and sent it to the annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
American Gothic was so different from anything the jurors had seen before that in the first run-through of the submissions they dismissed it from the show. But something about the painting and its pinched figures was oddly haunting, and on the second pass they decided to include it. What’s more, by this time it was clearly starting to exert some kind of magic. When the show was hung and the jury went through the assortment one more time to determine the prizes, they decided to honor the painting with an award—the Norman Wait Harris medal—and even to purchase it for the Art Institute at the amazingly modest price that Wood had set: $300.
Up to this time, the most prestigious setting for Wood’s work had been the Turner Funeral Home in Cedar Rapids. How exciting for a small-town boy to make a sale like this to a major museum! That in itself would have been a big success compared to anything Wood had experienced before. But for some reason things didn’t end there. Newspapers and magazines around the United States, and even in places like London and Berlin, started to reproduce American Gothic, and distinguished columnists and writers began to comment on it and what they thought it said about American life. Christopher Morley, writing of his visit to the Chicago show in the Saturday Review of Literature, declared that the painting was “one of the most thrilling American paintings I had ever seen.” Gertrude Stein, in Paris, declared that Wood was “America’s first artist.” The sad faces of the couple were widely seen as a commentary about “what is right and what is wrong with America,” and suddenly Wood was a national and international celebrity.
His sister Nan, who lived with her brother and mother in a tiny apartment and studio in Cedar Rapids, later recalled,” Strangers now considered the studio a public place rather than the home where we lived. Our door was never locked, because we (especially Grant) were always forgetting keys. Now people walked in without knocking and toured the studio….Once they caught me in bed. A group arrived while we were eating, and one of them said, ‘You just go on eating; that’s perfectly all right.’”
Oddly, the fuss has never stopped. For some reason, something about American Gothic tickled America’s funny bone. In the 1940s it was reproduced as a war poster, to inspire our troops to defend American values; in 1957 a tableau of the couple was featured at the end of the Broadway musical The Music Man; and over the years, up to the present moment, parodies of it have become a way of commenting on almost anything in American life. It’s been used to poke fun on politicians from George Wallace to Ronald Reagan, to promote products of all sorts, and to comment on topical news stories on subjects ranging from oil spills to gay marriage.
Even today, the story of Wood’s sudden rise from obscurity to fame remains without precedent. No other American artist has ever achieved such sudden and lasting national fame from a small-town base, without ever showing his work in New York, and without even having an art dealer.
Just why this occurred has never been easy to explain, but we’re now a step closer to a solution thanks to a remarkable new biography of Grant Wood by Tripp Evans, Grant Wood, A Life (Knopf, $35), which blows the lid off many of the secrets which have surrounded the artist’s life story and digs deeper than ever before into his complex personality. Evans frankly acknowledges Wood’s homosexuality, which earlier biographers avoided entirely, and mines layer upon layer of meaning in his fascinating paintings that earlier writers completely missed. This is certainly one of the best and most psychologically penetrating studies ever written on an American artist, but it’s more than that. It is a book that transforms our understanding of what goes on in the American heartland—and of the swirling currents and undercurrents of American life.
Wood is often described as a sort of homespun American farmer who celebrated traditional American values. But in fact, his life as a farm boy ended at the age of 10, when his father died abruptly of a heart attack and Wood, his mother and his sister moved to Cedar Rapids. Nor were his values and choice of professions ones that were widely endorsed in turn-of-the-century Iowa. Wood’s father was a severe Quaker, who once insisted that he return a book of fairy tales because “We Quakers only read about true things.” He would surely have never approved of his career as an artist, any more than he would have approved of the nagging secret of Wood’s life, that he was homosexual.
Evidence of this fact has been hidden in plain sight for years. Thomas Hart Benton (who strongly supported Grant Wood) confided to many of his friends and students that he believed that Wood was gay, and it’s even part of Wood’s files at the University of Iowa, where five of Wood’s colleagues made this charge during a nasty dispute pitting Wood (who had never been to college) against his far better-educated faculty colleagues. But Evans is the first author of a full-scale biography of Wood to take this important fact into account. At the time homosexuality was a crime that could be punished by imprisonment or even castration, and even rumors of it were a recipe for social ostracism. Not surprisingly, then, Wood’s art became one of strangely mixed revelation and concealment.
Everything about Wood’s art carries some form of double or even more complexly layered meaning. He was fascinated by changes of gender. In Daughters of Revolution he portrayed three founding fathers in drag, as members of the D.A.R. In Appraisal, he transformed his friend Edward Rowan into a farm woman. And he was also fascinated by masks. In Parson Weems’s Fable, he places a grown-up head of George Washington on a boy’s body, as a way of suggesting that the fabled story of Washington’s truthfulness was a lie. Even style in Wood’s art has an element of “let’s pretend.” The Gothic or colonial or folk-art mode of treatment becomes a way of suggesting that the narrative has some sort of double layer—at once a representation of something real, and something else. Wood was often singularly vague and inconsistent when asked about what his paintings represented, apparently because he sought to deflect criticism when his subjects or his neighbors were offended. On different occasions, for example, he described the figures in American Gothic as city or country people, and as a man with his daughter or as a man with his wife.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating is the way he embedded bits of his personal biography in his paintings, often in ways that no normal viewer would ever fathom. Parson Weems’s Fable, for example, revolves around the question of lies—whether George Washington should tell a lie, and whether Parson Weems lied when he told the story. Painted at the time that Wood’s short-lived marriage—to a woman roughly the age of his mother—ended in divorce, the painting also seems to allude to the lies that Wood created about himself as a form of protection.
One of Evans’s most fascinating passages concerns the iconography of a painting that is so cool and pristine in its handling that at first seems lacking in emotion, Dinner for Threshers, a scene of a harvest feast set at the Wood family farm during the artist’s childhood. Perhaps the central event of Wood’s life was the death of his father, an event that led to the sale of the family farm and young Wood’s move to the small city of Cedar Rapids. If this had not occurred, surely he would have become a farmer rather than an artist. Evans convincingly demonstrates that the painting is a record of the last harvest over which his father presided, that it is set in the family dining room and that its arrangement of figures makes reference to the Last Supper, the meal that presaged Christ’s death. In short, the painting has strange layers of meaning, some very personal, others alluding to Christian stories and other forms of iconography. Most compelling, Evans shows that the perspective vanishing point of the painting is placed at the very place by the window where his father died. What’s interesting is that Wood surely knew that few viewers other than he himself would be aware of the hidden symbolism of this element. Yet the unusual perspective of the painting does indeed contribute to something uneasy about the feeling that it exudes.
What about American Gothic? For a full account of the painting turn to Evans’s lengthy and fascinating discussion in his book. But basically, humor is connected with the awkwardness of embarrassment. Surely what’s funny about American Gothic is something awkward about our confrontation with the humorless farm couple. While there are many levels of meaning to the image, I think Evans convincingly argues that at some level the painting is a sort of reenactment of Wood’s relationship with his stern, disapproving father. This theme has great emotional power. Clearly something about Grant Wood’s anxiety about his parents is something that all of us, whether gay or straight, sometimes feel.
There are certainly some ironies to these new revelations about Grant Wood. For many years, Wood has been celebrated as a spokesman for supposedly conservative values of a rather close-minded sort. But let’s face it, the essence of the American Constitution is a willingness to allow diversity, and, for that matter, the supposed narrow-mindedness of the Midwest is surely a bit of myth: Iowa, for example, was the third state in the country to legalize gay marriage. Wood, in fact, survived happily in small-town Cedar Rapids, where local businessmen protected him from the consequences of his foibles. It was not until he crossed swords with more cosmopolitan folk at the University of Iowa, such as the European art historian Horst Janson, the future author of a best-selling textbook of art, that he was denounced as a pervert.
Is America finally ready to embrace a gay Grant Wood? Or will citizens rise up to deny this claim, or to denounce him as wicked? While art historians up until very recently have not seriously explored the issue, the general public has long recognized that something about American Gothic, and by extension about Wood himself, was more than a little queer. My hunch is that for many folk in the heartland this new and well documented discovery will not be a terrible shock. Just possibly, America is finally ready for Grant Wood to come out of the closet.