"Grant Wood: A Life"
By R. Tripp Evans
Knopf, $37.50, 432 pages
Controversy attended Grant Wood's iconic and enigmatic painting "American Gothic" from its first public viewing, a juried exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. The depiction of a severe-looking couple with a pitchfork, their board-and-batten house looming behind them with its curtained-off Gothic window, was an immediate sensation, and was quickly reproduced in newspapers around the world. But was it a sly put-down of the Midwest or a straightforward homage to its people and values?
More than a decade later, a year before his death in 1942, Wood typed a response to a woman from Idaho who had written to him about the painting. Wood contended that he had not intended it as a satire and had imagined the man and his daughter (that's right!) to be small-town folk, not farmers, "solid and good people" whose "faults and fanaticism" should nonetheless not be denied. They were "people who existed for me in the life I knew," he insisted, but particulars aside, what mattered "is whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it."
R. Tripp Evans, whose new biography "Grant Wood: A Life" presents a dramatic reinterpretation of the artist's life and work, situates "American Gothic" among a trio of paintings that represented a shift in Wood's gestalt, in which "the tug-of-war between transparency and inscrutability" became "the very source of his images' power." "American Gothic" may leave viewers uneasy, but "it is clear that [Wood's] most successful images are also among his most unnerving and impenetrable," Evans writes. Held up as a patriotic painting by some (it was considered for use as a war poster during World War II), in "American Gothic" and its close relatives, "it is not the artist's patriotism that we see on display, but a fractured return to his own past."
Many of Wood's well-known works, like "American Gothic," puckishly twist our national inheritance, most pointedly "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" (the silversmith is on a hobbyhorse in a toy-like town lying far below the viewer), "The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover" (the real birthplace is nearly hidden), "Daughters of Revolution" (whose condescending matrons might even suggest Founding Fathers in drag, in one critic's supposition), and "Parson Weems' Fable" (in which a paradoxically child-bodied but adult-headed George Washington, hatchet in hand, is held to account for the apocryphal chopped cherry tree in a theatrical setting revealed by a drawn-back curtain).
Such paintings might seem to confirm Wood as an artist most interested in wry lampoon, an expectation whetted by "American Gothic," and that is one way he has commonly been considered, as well as being categorized a regionalist or even nativist on the basis of the softly undulating, Iowa-centric landscapes that form another large part of his corpus. James Dennis, prominent among previous interpreters of Wood's work, noted in his own book "Grant Wood" that "a curious dreamland reality descends upon nature" in those, in which Wood presents an "idealistic vision of the landscape that poeticized an agrarian myth" as no American had done before.
Evans points out that "sealed beneath layers of patriotic varnish, Wood's childhood fantasies and adult fixations float just beneath the surface," and those are vividly displayed in the landscapes, whose style he characterizes as "joyful escapism. Evans will, however, part ways with his predecessors over what meanings may be embedded in this loamy terrain.
Evans's principal contribution is to show how personalized Wood's art was in its visual references, as demonstrated in close reads of individual works. The same-sex desire that Evans finds evidenced in Wood's paintings doubtless figures in that famous lack of transparency. Other critics, including longtime "Time" magazine art critic Robert Hughes, have attributed a "gay sensibility" to Wood before, but no one has applied the interpretation with the scope and intensity Evans does in this book. Claiming that Wood, "May have disguised the sexual nature of his landscapes, even to a certain degree from himself" (the last part a dubious disclaimer of liability on Evans's part), Evans asserts, "In the undeniably erotic curves of 'Stone City,' we register the muscular outlines of a powerful male body."
The homoerotic perspective that Evans brings to bear works to deny the feminine aspects of Wood's work along the way, as he details Wood's "fetishization of the male body." This represents a stark break with critical tradition surrounding Wood's work, and is essentially a gauntlet being thrown down to challenge what Evans terms "the ambient heterosexuality" of prior considerations of Wood's work. Much of what Evans argues is plausible in broad strokes, and he deserves credit for that, but the book is also salted with some highly speculative interpretations of the artwork that feel as artificially sculpted and fanciful as a Wood landscape.
Wood's closeted homosexuality appears to have been implicitly acknowledged by several of his contemporaries (some were academic colleagues with ill intent) and was hinted at by his first biographer, Darrell Garwood, shortly after the artist's death. The circle around Wood included a nearly unbroken string of young male proteges over time, some even living in his household, although the exact nature of those relationships will remain unclear even at the end of "Grant Wood: A Life." Much that appears within its pages on the topic amounts to inference, innuendo (newspapers and magazines remarking on Wood's bachelor status) and elliptical statements, which may or may not have taken that form because of the straitjacket mentality of a closeted age. Certainly, Wood's close personal friends and former wife were protective of his privacy and never, on the record, confirmed his sexual orientation. Evans writes that Wood was gripped by a "deeply ingrained fear of exposure," and when it came to the younger men, he proposes, Wood "sublimated his romantic interest through intense, fatherly affection."
Slightly pudgy and rigged out in overalls during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Wood looked like a farmer who was more than a little afield. Born to a farm family of Quakers near Anamosa, Iowa, Wood's childhood was "closely confined to this patch of Iowa farmland" and almost "completely shut away from the outside world," Wood noted in an unfinished and unpublished autobiography that is also among Evans's source material.
"It appears that Wood attached a sense of shame to his artwork and its attendant sense of fantasy," Evans contends, largely due to the disapproval of his father, Maryville. While Wood referred to Maryville in his autobiography as "the most majestic and dignified of persons" and "the model by which all other performances were approved or condemned," he also wrote, "if father was stern and remote from me, mother, by contrast was very human and close." Maryville dropped dead when Grant was ten years old, forcing the family to relocate to urban Cedar Rapids, a trauma that is a second major component in Evans's interpretation of Wood's oeuvre: that Wood projected unresolved feelings related to his father into many works in varied form, from Maryville's spectacles on the pitchfork-wielding man in "American Gothic" to George Washington's reproving and tights-clad father in "Parson Weems' Fable."
Wood's closeness to his mother, Hattie, who lived with him until her death (and was at least a nominal social excuse for his bachelorhood), and his sister, Nan, who resided with them as well for many years, also provided grist for the "family romance" that was to shape much of the artist's work. The nuclear unit of "we three," as Nan coined it in a memoir about her brother, "became rather claustrophobically intertwined over the following decades; a bond that neither Nan's eventual wedding nor Wood's professional success appeared to weaken," Evans observes. Wood's "Portrait of Nan" was a work he refused to part with and kept lifelong. Nan spent years after Grant's death disputing insinuations that he was homosexual, attempting to block would-be biographers (at least seven), and suing some parodists of "American Gothic," including Johnny Carson.
The public perception of Grant Wood as a self-schooled artist, is unfounded and was related historically to a cultural desire (at least in the American interior) for home-grown art to counterbalance European and urban influences. Not only did Wood study metalwork at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft and attend classes at the State University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago, he traveled repeatedly to Paris in the first half of the 1920s and studied art there, and visited Germany in 1928, where he was strongly attracted to works by Flemish and German painters. Like the other prominent artists with whom Wood was later to be cast as a regionalist.
Evans has a conjecture that what changed Wood and his work after his German visit was not an aesthetic but a moral perception of conflicting impulses: that exposure to openly gay culture in Weimar may have filled him with a sense of disillusionment and self-loathing when he was back in Iowa. After that, he "renounced" ties to Europe and its artistic culture and distanced himself from his earlier work. It exemplifies one of Evans's occasional shots in the dark, interesting but far from verifiable. Wood's unfinished autobiography was titled "Return from Bohemia," an allusion to this artistic conversion point and his return to Iowa. He executed a pastel by that title in 1935 to serve as the book's cover. In it, he is seated before an easel and faces the viewer. Behind him are five standing figures from his past; including Hattie and Nan, and a boy Evans reads as Grant in his farm days. All of them have downcast faces with eyes at least averted and possibly closed. The scene, as Evans aptly captures it, has a "suffocating and mournful mood," and it may speak volumes about Wood's interior existence.
Evans is efficient and compact in describing Wood's studio scene, the two summers of an elegiac art colony, his vertiginous academic experience (almost driven out under witch-hunting circumstances, he was promoted instead shortly before his death), and the startling appearance of a woman named Sara Sherman Maxon. Wood married her abruptly in March 1935, despite being warned off privately by his friends, "in a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance."
Within six months, Wood and Sara, a former musical theater trouper at least seven years his senior, departed Cedar Rapids for Iowa City: Wood's longtime patron David Turner had turned them out of the studio he owned, "in all likelihood based upon his disapproval of Sara." Grant and Sara's union dissolved in four years, but Sara left behind manuscripts of a memoir and biographical writing about Wood, which Evans was able to draw from as sources. Although quotations from her are far from trenchant, there is occasional poignance, and still the lingering feeling that the story remains untold. Wood, who avoided confrontation assiduously, left it to a housekeeper to inform Sara that there would be a divorce. In "Parson Weems' Fable," which Evans calls "a kind of Rosetta Stone to Wood's inner conflicts," it is Grant and Sara's stolid brick Iowa City house that stands behind George Washington.
There are a few excesses that detract from "Grant Wood: A Life," and those occur in spots where a universalizing perspective seems to lose its grip or to be overextending, afloat on its own enthusiasm. Does every elongation of form yield a phallic image, as seems to be the case here? Or take the plum held by Wood's sister in her lap in his "Portrait of Nan." Wanda Corn, curator of a 1983-4 exhibition that almost single-handedly revived Wood's reputation, claimed the plum to be an artistic convention symbolizing femininity, while Evans renders it as potentially two different parts of the male anatomy, since "the connection between ripe fruit and the objectified male body has a rather long history in Western art." Even art historians may plead the Fifth on that one.
A broader example is when Evans argues against description of Wood's landscapes as feminine in nature (a common critical characterization to date), claiming that feminine readings "fly in the face of everything we know about Wood." On the face of it, he has a good question, which he raises more than once. Referring to the painting "Spring Turning," by all accounts one charged with eroticism, he writes that "it is highly unlikely that the painter sought to celebrate the female body in this (or any) composition." Can the specific be generalized to hold in total? Is the case closed that nowhere is a Wood landscape to be construed as having feminine qualities? (Evans sees Wood landscapes as "raw, solid, thrusting, and active." Only if one assumed that femininity is always passive could that be considered exclusionary ground.)
Evans recognizes that some of his readings of Wood's art may strain credulity; he suggests incest when referring to two background figures in "Parson Weems' Fable," and defends it from skepticism by noting "our conscious resistance to the psyche's raw and anarchic operations." But, interpretation in general from the world into artwork, and from artwork to explications of it is a fraught and dicey enterprise, though, isn't it.
Evans has done a great service simply by turning over the topsoil when it comes to Grant Wood. You won't need a pitchfork, he supplies one.
Art Winslow is a former executive editor and literary editor of The Nation and a frequent contributor to The Tribune.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun