Artist Grant Wood lived his own version of 'American Gothic'
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R. Tripp Evans opens his new biography of American artist Grant Wood with a story about Wood's curious ability to blend in anywhere to the point where people who knew him well had trouble noticing his presence.
As Wood himself said, "I'm the plainest kind of fellow you can find. There isn't a single thing I've done, or experienced, that's been even the least bit exciting."
One might expect this "Aw, shucks" self-deprecation from a man whose paintings of Iowa farm life eventually came to embody the "time-tested American values" of Ronald Reagan's Morning in America -- as Mr. Evans points out in his thought-provoking introduction.
Those who find Wood's work homey and reassuring might be surprised to learn that it abounds with repressed sexuality and arch criticism of those same values.
The author says that in his new biography of the artist, he "seeks to illuminate the profound and fertile disconnection between Wood and his period" -- and this he has certainly done.
Wood was born in Anamosa, Iowa, in 1891 to a grim disciplinarian father, who discouraged his artwork, and a mother who suggested her son hide under the kitchen table to draw. Art wasn't manly, a prevailing view that the young artist would have to confront for most of his life.
The artist's father died when he was 10, and the family moved to Cedar Rapids, where young Grant was freer to define himself as an artist. He grew up as the word "homosexual" was first entering the lexicon, and while he certainly was homosexual, he may not have been an active one.
Time spent in Paris and Germany, where bohemian culture flourished, surely introduced him to the possibilities, but his unfinished autobiography was titled "Return from Bohemia," suggesting a denial of that lifestyle.
Wood came home -- to his mother (he lived with her and supported her until she died) and younger sister, Nan, who, although married, shared cramped living quarters with her mother and brother much of her adult life.
Mr. Evans justifiably spends a great deal of time on "American Gothic," Wood's best known work and one that has been endlessly lampooned. "Family secrets, dead bodies, incest and murder all haunt this work," he writes, and the author's discussion puts the painting in context.
After "American Gothic" was painted in 1930, Wood entered his most productive period. His family, neighbors and friends show up in his paintings, not always in a flattering light, and the rolling fields of Iowa appear, even to an untrained eye, as firm male buttocks.
While well regarded during his lifetime, Wood never transcended the "regional" label affixed by the Eastern art establishment, but that may have been partly his doing. Wood affected a folksy persona that had little to do with his own nature.
Regionalism as a style did not fare well, and in fact was excluded entirely by Horst Janson's major art history text in 1962.
In 1935, at 44, Wood suddenly married an older woman named Sara Sherman Maxon, a traveling light-opera singer unknown to most of his friends. Sara was too flamboyant for Cedar Rapids, so the couple, along his with mother Hattie, moved to Iowa City.
Hattie soon died and the pace of Wood's work slowed dramatically. Then the marriage ended after four years and the painter died of pancreatic cancer in 1942.
Mr. Evans' in-depth analyses of Wood's works are fun to read. Wood's mischievous symbols would have been understood by his contemporaries, and the author's explications enable modern viewers to see beyond superficial interpretations.
Other studies of Wood's works are cited and commented on extensively, making this biography a valuable addition to the conversation about Wood and his significance.
If the book has a weakness, it is summed up in Wood's own comment that he had not had an exciting life. He didn't. He was an odd bird, and his life was confined by the choices he made.
Viewers co-opted Wood's work for their own purposes because it spoke to them -- doubtless in ways they may not have always understood.
This thoughtful study of the personality behind the disturbing portraits and landscapes deepens our understanding of Wood the artist as well as the time and place that formed him. Mr. Evans' affable yet learned style makes the lesson agreeable.
First Published December 12, 2010 12:00 am