'Grant Wood': Creative Subversion

Donna Seaman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Spring Turning (1936)

Let Grant Wood's life story not only enhance our understanding of his work, but also provide fresh and in-depth testimony to the crushing consequences of discrimination.

Grant Wood: A Life

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 432 pages
Author: R. Tripp Evans
Price: $37.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-10

The Woods were a tight-knit family unit. Widowed mother Hattie, her daughter, Nan, and Grant, her second son of three, lived together in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, even after Grant achieved fame as a quintessentially all-American artist from the wholesome heartland.

Nan frequently modeled for her brother's paintings, most notably for American Gothic (1930), a portrait of a farm couple that became, in its own dour way, as iconic, mysterious and oft-parodied as the Mona Lisa. She also outlived Grant by 48 years after his early death at 51 in 1942, becoming his "most determined champion "and scourge of "would-be biographers."

Now art historian R. Tripp Evans not only reclaims and unsnarls the long-hidden facts and truths of Wood's life, he also offers bold and revelatory critical interpretations of Wood's uncanny paintings.

We first meet the artist at age seven in the cellar of the family's farmhouse in Anamosa, Iowa, where he was sent as punishment by his stern father. It is there, the story goes, that Wood first started drawing. How mythic is this? The cellar is at once a dark, forbidding place of punishment and a womblike space for the birth of what in Wood's world was taboo creativity. Art is for girls, is basically what Wood's manly, hard-working and pious father believed.

Once Grant realized that he was not only irrevocably artistic but also homosexual, he traded the cellar for the closet and created a sly art of camouflage in both his paintings and folksy persona.

Writing with verve, nuance and the excitement of discovery, Evans delves into every aspect of Wood's life, from his reliance on his mother and sister to his disastrous marriage-for-cover, love affairs, ambivalence about the fame that threatened his exposure and tricky friendship with the notoriously homophobic Thomas Hart Benton.

But what gives this biography its charge are Evans' daring analyses of Wood's work — the artist's choice to paint on panels rather than canvas and to create a polished, impenetrable, nearly inhuman surface; his "multilayered and deeply personal iconography," including conflicted feelings about home and America itself; and, ultimately, the full extent of his creative subversion.

Wood's father died suddenly when the budding artist was ten, precipitating a move off the farm and into Cedar Rapids. These were radical changes that Evans sees as the source of Wood's strangely skewed nostalgia.

Wood's glowing agrarian scenes initially look like straightforward, if cartoony, depictions of Iowa's rolling fields. Upon closer scrutiny under Evans' avid guidance, we see, instead, archly stylized and covertly sensual landscapes. In Spring Turning (1936), Evans points out, the verdant spring earth takes on the contours of an eroticized male body.

Evans is equally discerning and provocative in his fluent decoding of Wood's "mischievous historical work," including Parson Weems' Fable (1939), a take on the morality tale of George Washington and the cherry tree that Evans believes had immense psychological significance for Wood.

Although Wood presented himself at the height of his renown as a down-home, self-taught artist, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago; in Paris during the '20s; and in Munich, where Evans believes the Iowan was overwhelmed by the "freedom and visibility of homosexual culture in Weimar, Germany."

It was after his return from Germany that Wood so zealously embraced Midwest regionalism and a hard-edge painting style and adopted his protective regular-guy facade, replete with denim overalls.

What emerges from this fascinating, audacious and empathic portrait is a case study of how adversity can both stoke and warp creativity, and how prejudice and intolerance can strangle a life.

Evans' meticulous, wryly witty and dramatic outing of Wood comes at a time of open, clarifying and necessary debate of gay rights.

Let Grant Wood's life story not only recalibrate and enhance our understanding of his work. Let it also stand as fresh and in-depth testimony to the crushing consequences of discrimination.

Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist and book critic for Chicago Public Radio.


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