By Doug Ireland / The Rag Blog / October 27, 2010
[Grant Wood: A Life by R. Tripp Evans (Knopf, 2010); Hardcover, 401 pp, $37.50.]
Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is the most recognizable American painting.
Of all the paintings in the world, only the Mona Lisa has been more parodied. As Tripp Evans notes in his groundbreaking new biography of the artist, when it was first exhibited in Chicago in 1930, it made an instant global celebrity out of Wood: “Never in the history of American art had a single work captured such immediate and international recognition; by the end of 1930, the painting had been reproduced in newspapers around the globe… Never before, either, had a painting generated such widespread curiosity about its artist.”
“American Gothic” was considered by most critics of that day as something of a national self-portrait, and it made Wood the icon of a new native American, regionalist art. The New Yorker wrote at the time, “As a symbol Wood stands for the corn-fed Middle West against the anemic East, starving aesthetically upon warmed-over entrees dished up by Spanish chefs in Paris kitchens. He stands for an independent American art against the colonialism and cosmopolitanism of New York.”
Wood, who was born in the small town of Anamosa, Iowa, in 1898 and spent nearly all his life painting in the Hawkeye State, depicting its countryside and inhabitants, was said to stand for the flinty, manly virtues of heartland America. The New York Times proclaimed that Wood, who styled himself a “farmer-painter,” had earned his “toga virilis” for, as Evans summarizes it, “ending Americans’ perilous fascination with impressionism.”
Wood himself encouraged this anti-intellectual, quintessentially American, and rigorously heterosexual version of his persona and the origins of his art. He famously declared in a newspaper interview, “All the really good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” adding, “You don’t get panicky about some ‘-ism’ or other while you have Bossy by the business end. Your thoughts are realistic and direct.”
The public image Wood constructed of himself even extended to the way he dressed. As one prominent critic eulogized him on his death in 1942, “In past years artists adopted smocks for their own… the working attire of French peasants. Grant Wood wore the work clothes of his own country when he painted, overalls such as a farmer or mechanic would choose.”
But all of this was an elaborate charade. As Evans, an openly gay art history professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, reveals in this meticulously researched biography, Wood had made a careful study of impressionism during four extended trips to Europe and had been a student for two years at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, where he steeped himself in the impressionist and post-impressionist masters.
Although he spent his earliest years on the family farm, he spent most of his boyhood time hidden away in a dark basement, his refuge where he could draw and paint, sequestered from the disapproval of his distant and authoritarian father, who considered such artistic proclivities “sissified.”
His father died when he was quite young, and he then moved to the bustling metropolis of Cedar Rapids with his mother and sister, with whom he lived there for most of the rest of his life until, as part of his camouflage, he contracted a loveless, unconsummated, unhappy, and brief marriage.
Far from being inspired by milking cows — an activity he only engaged in occasionally in his young boyhood — Wood told his wife that he felt “disgusted and dirty” by the act. She would recount, “He told me how embarrassed he was at the time because he was sure that no matter how much he bathed, he must carry with him the smell of the manure which permeated his clothes from working around livestock.”
And as a young man Wood wouldn’t have been caught dead in overalls — he was, in fact, something of a dandy, as photographs in this copiously illustrated volume from Wood’s “bohemian,” European period clearly show. His earliest vocations activities were not in farming but as a jewelry designer, interior decorator, and in theatrical production. One friend described the shy Wood’s voice as sounding “like the fragrance of violets made audible.”
Wood’s previous biographers have turned a blind eye to the demonstrable fact that he was a deeply closeted homosexual. Evans documents the always-chubby Wood’s infatuations (many of them apparently unrequited and sublimated into parental role-playing) with an unending series of slim, dark-haired young men who were his students, protégés, and secretaries. As the bartender in a famous Cedar Rapids watering hole Wood favored put it, “Wood was only gay when he was drunk.”
Evans has even unearthed numerous oblique but unmistakable references to Wood’s sexual orientation in the Iowa newspapers of the 1920s. As he writes, “Given the later insistence upon Wood’s sturdy masculinity and embodiment of Midwestern morality, it is surprising to note the frequency and candor of these early references to his homosexuality.”
To take just one example, Wood’s friend MacKinlay Kantor (who won later fame as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter) wrote in his gossip column for the Des Moines Tribune-Capital, emphasizing Wood’s bachelorhood: “Pink of face and plump of figure, he was most nearly in character one night when he appeared at a costume party dressed as an angel — wings, pink flannel nightie, pink toes, and even a halo, supported by a stick thrusting up his back.”
Not only did Kantor link Wood’s costume to common stereotypes of the “fairy,” but after comparing Wood to Snow White, who lay imprisoned in a glass coffin awaiting her prince’s kiss, Kantor wrote: “The front door of his apartment is made of glass, but it’s a coffin lid. OOOOOOoooooh!” Kantor then exhorted the “boys” among his readers to “look [Wood] over.” The meaning of all this is quite evident, unless one doesn’t want to see.
The fact that things like this had appeared in print drove Wood even further into his closet in the late 1920s, leading him to adopt the overalls and “farmer-painter” pose to bolster its locked door. It was also at this time that he turned away from his early painting style, indisputably marked by his study of impressionists, to the gothic realism that, as Evans demonstrates, bore the imprint of the Dutch and German masters he had absorbed while studying in Germany.
Evans is brilliant in documenting how gender assignments were made to various artistic styles, and how impressionism was considered a “feminine” art form. Moreover, the new school of regionalist, “authentic” American art of “U.S. scene” painting, of which Wood became a symbol in the 1930s after the stunning success of “American Gothic” — and which was launched as a media fetish with a 1934 Time magazine cover story written on orders of its conservative nationalist publisher Henry Luce — was impregnated with an explicitly xenophobic, anti-modernist, and extremely homophobic ideology.
Thus, Wood’s famous comrade-in-arms in this movement, the painter Thomas Hart Benton, wrote a 1935 essay entitled “Farewell to New York,” which Evans rightly describes as a “homophobic diatribe.” In it, Benton roared that the city had “lost its masculinity” since the start of the Depression, because it had been polluted by
the concentrated flow of aesthetic-minded homosexuals into the various fields of artistic practice… far be it from me to raise any hands in moral horror over the ways and tastes of individuals. If young gentlemen, or old ones either, wish to wear women’s underwear and cultivate extraordinary manners it is all right with me. But it is not all right with the art which they affect and cultivate. It is not all right when, by ingratiation or subtle connivance, precious fairies get into positions of power and judge, buy, and exhibit American pictures on a base of nervous whim and under the sway of those overdelicate refinements of taste characteristic of their kind.
To cover himself, Wood endorsed Benton’s queer-bashing declaration.
The movement’s most ardent advocate among art critics — one might even call him its ideologue — Thomas Craven, in his 1934 book Modern Art: The Men, the Movement, the Meaning, had earlier blown the same trumpet. “The artist is losing his masculinity,” Craven growled.
The tendency of the Parisian system is to disestablish sexual characteristics, to merge the two sexes in an androgynous third, containing all that is offensive in both. Once [male artists] contract la vérole Montparnasse — the pox of the Quarter — they become jaded and perverse… They found magazines in which their insecurity is attested by the continual insulting of America, hymns to homosexuality and miscegenation… It is this sort of life that captures American youth and emasculates American art.
Not only was homosexuality illegal and known homosexuals jailed or condemned to horrific “treatments” by psychiatric ghouls in mental hospitals, but the very art movement that had made Wood a central figure was unrelenting in its condemnation of same-sex orientation. Wood’s exposure would have threatened not only his reputation but his income as well.
It was in this context that in 1935 he contracted a marriage with a former actress, Sarah Moxon, to the great surprise of his friends and family. But he soon alienated Sara by falling in love with her handsome, 20-something son from a previous marriage, installing this rather louche and exploitative if decorative young chap in their home, and lavishing money and attention on him, even considering adopting him at one point.
At the same time, Wood also kept a secretary, Paul Rinard, another in the series of slightly-built, dark-haired young men with whom the painter surrounded himself, and with whom he was also in love — albeit unrequited. All these boys under one roof eventually were too much for Sara, and the brief marriage ended in acrimony.
There were several points in Wood’s life at which exposure of his homosexuality seemed imminent. In the late 1920s, he was blackmailed by a young man over their relations. And though he piled layers of protective cover on his public image, Wood was stifling in his closet, and from time to time this was reflected in his painting.
In 1937, he produced for sale by mail a lithograph, “Sultry Night,” that showed a handsome, full frontal nude man beside an outdoor bathtub pouring a bucket of water in a slow cascade over his head. Declaring the work to be an example of pornography, the censors at the U.S. Postal Service barred its publisher from distributing it or featuring the image in its catalogues (although not banning the many female nudes the publisher carried).
Wood was forced to publicly defend the “innocence” of the work as a recalled scene from his boyhood, something Evans demonstrates was more than unlikely.
Evans’ book is much more than a biography — it is also a lesson in looking and seeing. Evans is blessed with a felicitous gift of description that makes his dissections and deconstructions of Wood’s art not only enlightening but also enjoyable. And as an openly gay man, Evans is not blind to the multitude of clues in Wood’s paintings that signal the artist’s queer sensibility and even homoerotic sentiments that most previous critics have ignored.
Even those not steeped in the arcana of art criticism will find Evans’ descriptions of what the paintings mean an engrossing read, all the more so because these works are included among the book’s many illustrations. Readers may judge for themselves whether or not his interpretations are on track — as I think they are.
Wood’s reputation fell with the rise of abstract art in the post-World War II period, but a revival of interest in him began in 1983 with an exhibition that, as Evans notes, “coincided nicely with the dawn of the Reagan era. In Wood’s sunny, presumably uncomplicated imagery, conservative art critics could have found no more perfect illustration of President Reagan’s relentless optimism and call to ‘traditional American values.’”
But in Grant Wood: A Life, Evans reveals the dark ironies in Wood’s portrayals of heartland America and its culture that he traces back to Wood’s love of H. L. Mencken, whose contempt for that backwater culture and its “booboisie” he shared. It is evident in Wood’s work for those who wish to see it, and Evans is a reliable guide.
In the book’s epilogue, Evans pays tribute to Paul Rinard, Wood’s last secretary, who entered politics after serving in the navy in World War II. Rinard became a powerful backroom policy broker, first with Iowa’s liberal governor Harold Hughes in the 1960s, then joining the staff of Senator John Culver, who at Rinard’s funeral in 2000 called him “the intellectual godfather of Iowa’s progressive agenda for half a century.”
From the 1970s on, Rinard was “a defender of gay and lesbian civil rights — a courageous stance that struck even Culver’s younger staffers as radical… It would be difficult to explain Rinard’s commitment to this issue,” writes Evans, “especially during a period when its advocates were so scarce, without taking into account his profound loyalty to Wood. The artist might have led a far happier life, Rinard believed, had he been able to live in a more authentic way — safeguarded from the fear of losing his job, his reputation, or both, for being exposed as a homosexual.”
Gay activist friends of mine from Iowa who knew and greatly appreciated Rinard tell me that Evans paean to him is not misplaced.
Tripp Evans’ book is not only sure to change the way the art world looks at Grant Wood and his work, it is also a valuable contribution to this country’s cultural history, and one that shows the insidious homophobia that has often shaped that history. This is a splendid, beautifully written book.
[Doug Ireland is a longtime radical political journalist and media critic and an openly gay man. His work has appeared in many U.S. and French publications, including the New York Post (back in its liberal days), the Village Voice, New York magazine, The Nation, Bakchich, the Parisian daily Liberation, the LA Weekly, and Gay City News, the largest lesbian and gay weekly in New York City, where this article also appears.]