Grant Wood is now the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney, and while American Gothic is his calling card to the general public, the subject of his sexuality has recently marked a substantial area of scholarship on his life. If the purpose is to pique public interest, then the crowds on Gansevoort Street suggest a successful strategy, but a stroll through the show confirms that, except for a fairly tame interest in the male figure, Wood is one of the least sexy American artists ever.
What Wood suppressed in life is equally well hidden in his art. His sister burned his letters after he died, and while the artist left enough breadcrumbs to surmise he was a closeted homosexual, some writers have felt the premise necessitates confirmation through the most subjective of evidence, subliminal symbols in his work. It is a dubious undertaking, with his landscapes scoured for telltale phallic shapes. The Freudian interpretation of American art is fraught with cringe-inducing speculation. Among my least favorite examples are a recent biography of Norman Rockwell that inferred latent pedophilia, an observation that the hovering crows in Winslow Homer’s Fox Hunt may represent “the nightmare of the flying penis,” and Lloyd Goodrich’s defense of Thomas Eakins’ heterosexuality on the basis of masculine characteristics in his painting (conversely, Henry Adams’ bio on Eakins offered a portrait of the artist as omnivorous sexual predator, with a side of bestiality; apparently there’s an Eakins for every taste, so take your pick). Even a sensitive essay on Wood’s sexuality in the Whitney catalogue conflates technique with sexual identity, citing “the attention lavished by Wood on even the most minute aspects” of a male portrait as proof. But all of Wood’s painted portraits feature this attention to detail. We see what we want; Peter Schjeldahl ended his New Yorker review on an uncharacteristically sentimental note by writing of Wood’s self-portrait, “The longer I look at the picture, the more I feel that its subject is about to burst into tears.” The compelling rationale for studying Wood’s personal life is to ascertain the existence of homophobia in Iowa ca. 1935 (I’m guessing there was), and the suffocating effect it would have had on the man and his art.
If flyover country didn’t understand, let alone embrace, alternative lifestyles in the 1930s, it was nonetheless the place Wood chose to call home and whose culture he celebrated, in his fashion. By far his most famous painting is American Gothic, the image of tight-lipped Midwestern archetypes for which his sister and dentist posed. You’d think it was intended as satire, a shot across the bow of life in Cedar Rapids, but Wood maintained otherwise, claiming it was a show of appreciation. That intention is supported by the title of an essay he published in 1935, Revolt Against the City, which extolled life in the Midwest. Wood paid a price for taking on European-infused East Coast modernism; the backlash he received from New York critics did more harm—for the moment—than did suspicions of his personal lifestyle. He adopted a consciously abstract approach, explaining, “I make a design of abstract shapes without any naturalistic details. Until I am satisfied with this abstract picture I don’t go ahead. When I think it’s a sound design, then I start very cautiously making it look like nature.” This didn’t placate his critics, and only served to alienate his traditional supporters. The words “very cautiously” are significant. Wood was indeed a very cautious painter. After the critical assault on his New York show he stopped painting for two years.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Wood was one of the triumvirate of major Regionalists, artists who painted the American prairie and its inhabitants. The paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry look like belated responses to the the Ashcan School’s essays on New York street life of nearly three decades earlier. Wood’s painting is separated from his colleagues’ boisterous compositions by dint of his technique and dry wit. Where Benton and Curry took a sweeping, extroverted approach, Wood’s tone is wry and often ambiguous. Although he was a lifelong Iowan who dressed in overalls, Wood wasn’t a provincial. In his early years he was a craftsman, decorator, and creator of murals who sometimes painted in an Impressionist mode, phases documented in the Whitney show. A sojourn to Germany in 1928 was decisive through the influence of Northern Renaissance painting, particularly that of Hans Memling. Much of Wood’s best portraiture transposed an archaic hyperrealism on Midwestern subject matter. Pictures that dealt with American mythology are equally hard-edged, though they are more fantastical, as in Parson Weems’ Fable, featuring a boy George Washington with the grown president’s features, and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, a tour de force of the bird’s eye view, a favorite device of the artist. Wood’s panoramic views depict a stylized landscape constructed on agrarian order, rolling candy land farm fields bordered by synthetic lollipop trees. They are burnished to the point of sterility, but some, like Stone City, possess a bizarrely idealized beauty. Given the much explored isolation of Wood’s psyche, his penchant for floating well above and apart from the land and people he surveyed makes sense.
Things didn’t get any easier when Wood resumed painting after the two year hiatus. His first oil was Sultry Night, a frontal nude of a male farm worker bathing outside. For a public used to the satire of Daughters of Revolution, this was pornography, and Wood’s shock at the reaction was either naive or disingenuous. In an act of self-abegnation, he removed the offending figure, partially destroying the painting. At the University of Iowa, where Wood taught studio classes, he came under attack by his department chair, an art history teacher who favored modernism and tried to get Wood fired; his reasons included the intimation that Wood was homosexual and a more explicit accusation that Regionalism was a fascist movement. This caused Wood great aggravation, until the university, initially unresponsive, promoted him to a full professorship and moved him to a separate department. Validation came too late; Wood had been drinking up to two bottles of scotch a day, and within months of his promotion he was dead of cancer.
What of his work? Wood’s reputation, so fluid in the last years of his life, continued its ups and downs after his death. At his best, his paintings offer poetry on a people and land about which he must have been profoundly ambivalent. For all its fame, American Gothic is as much cartoon as painting, but his Self Portrait is a minor masterwork, a gentle Iowan echo of Memling. It is one of a very few paintings, if not the only one, in which Wood momentarily drops his defenses and allows for a pinprick of warmth. The landscapes walk a line between magical realism and corn. Taken altogether, the impression is underwhelming—a smaller and more selective sample would have shown the artist to greater advantage. A number of Wood’s drawings and paintings are sepia-toned derivations of photographs, stubbornly resistant to color or other lively indications. A lot of his work looks like middle-level illustration, a less than convincing testimony on behalf of the culture he professed to admire.
Wood was opaque regarding the meaning of his paintings, and it’s entirely possible that even he didn’t know, or wasn’t willing to admit, what he felt. We can attempt to decipher the private man, to recover, so to speak, the letters destroyed by his sister. Though we may better understand his personal tragedy, I came away thinking that efforts to glean something deeper from his work are destined to be disappointed.
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables runs at the Whitney museum of American Art through June 10.