Grant Wood: A Life by R. Tripp Evans, Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House, 402 pages
American Gothic is the Mona Lisa of our country — endlessly reproduced, parodied, and misinterpreted. The pitchfork-holding father and his prim daughter have come to stand for all that is authentic, regional, and American about painting. From the beginning though, critics were divided about whether the work was satirizing small-town rural life or celebrating its persistence. Yet they were uniform in falling for the illusion of the work’s painter, Grant Wood, as a simple, overall-wearing native son of Iowa whose best ideas came to him while milking cows.
“Sealed beneath a layer of patriotic varnish, Wood’s childhood fantasies and adult fixations float just beneath the surface of his work, stubbornly denying the artists’ and his critics’ attempt to paint them under,” writes art history professor R. Tripp Evans in his excellent new biography.
Contrary to the aw-shucks Americana image he tried to present to the world, Wood was a deeply conflicted man — alienated from his rural upbringing and schooled in Paris and Munich, where he became enamored of classical Greek and Roman art and myth. Frightened and bullied by his father and attached at the hip to his mother, with whom he lived well into middle age, Wood was a closeted gay man who spent much of his life trying to ape an aggressive, masculine heterosexuality at a time when gay artists were openly reviled and outcast in the U.S.
Born in rural Iowa in 1891, Wood never took to the farm life that delighted his father and brothers. As a child, he found refuge in painting and drawing while hidden in his family’s dank basement. Actively discouraged from creating art by his parents and bereft of mentors, “Wood attached a sense of shame to his artwork and its attendant sense of fantasy,” Evans writes. After the death of Wood’s father, the family moved to Cedar Rapids, where the young Wood found jobs as a set designer, interior decorator, and funeral home attendant. So it’s no surprise, Evans writes, that “Wood’s early portraits reveal a similarly complex matrix of unorthodox family relationships, sexual anxiety, and a recurring fascination with death.”
To escape his oppressive Midwestern life, Wood fled to Europe in the 1920s like many America artists, learning from the works of the French Impressionists and northern Renaissance masters. Though European influences abound in his work, Wood and his art-press enablers loved nothing more than to promote the lore of his style being entirely homegrown. Evans does a wonderful job of showing how Wood presided over his own myth as a self-taught American artist. Upon Wood’s return to Iowa in 1928, he willfully lied to one reporter about his stay in Europe, saying, “I had my fling in Greenwich Village and finally became thoroughly disgusted. When I came back and settled down in Iowa, I had a lot to undo.”
Back in the American heartland, “having renounced the escape valve of bohemia, he had no choice but to face the ghosts of his past and the host of dangerous instincts they had resurrected.” All this tension was productive for Wood’s creative output. Over the next 14 years, Wood would crank out an impressive number of canvases that depicted the Midwest landscape with rapturous abandon and its residents with curious bemusement.
Evans excels at peeling back the layers of psychological and historical meaning in Wood’s work. He keenly notes that American Gothic’s origins lie less in American agriculture than in Greek mythology. Using a Cedar Rapids dentist and his own sister, Nan, as models, Wood intended to evoke the classical narrative of Persephone, an innocent maiden abducted by the pitchfork-wielding Hades and forced to become a queen in the underworld. The painting, Evans argues, is a species of Greek talisman, “a shield to protect the living from the malice of the dead.” The unease the painting sets in motion in the viewer was noted by Wood’s hometown neighbors, including one local woman who spunkily recommended that the canvas be hung in a cheese factory since “that woman’s face would positively sour milk.”
Wood’s fellow Iowans had a hard time accepting his paintings, along with his suspicious bachelorhood (Wood entered into a short-lived, platonic marriage to appease his family and critics). Big-city art critics fawned over his regionalism and his ecstatic, eroticized portrayal of the Midwestern landscape. His 1936 painting Spring
Turning, ostensibly a depiction of glowing Iowa hills, is, as Evans notes, nothing so much as “an erotic evocation of upturned buttocks.” So long as Wood cloaked his homoeroticism in the contours of the landscape, he was safe. When he ventured into painting canvases that commingled the earthy life of farmers and nude renderings of male farmworkers, the art world turned on him. Galleries declined his art and the postal service refused to ship his nude prints on the grounds that they were pornographic. In response, Wood tore up his canvases and began to withdraw from painting. Time magazine investigated but never published, rumors that Wood had a sexual relationship with his male secretary (a charge that Evans debunks), forcing him to leave his teaching position at the University of Iowa. Near the end of his life in 1942, Wood spoke frequently to his friends about starting all over again in California with a new style of painting. Instead, the artist died of liver cancer at his Iowa home and studio at the age of 51.
He would enter a surreal afterlife as America’s painter. As Evans points out, nothing could be further from the truth. “In the years to come, nearly all of the messy realities of Wood’s life, his youthful bohemianism and keen satire, his questionable bachelorhood and unorthodox marriage, his childlike helplessness and frequent depressions would be resolutely painted over by his supporters.”
— Casey Sanchez