Grant Wood: A Life by R. Tripp Evans, Al­fred A. Knopf/ Ran­dom House, 402 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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