A portrait of painter Grant Wood (1891–1942) as a melancholy, closeted man.
In the 1930s, Wood became the standard-bearer of Regionalism, an art movement that rejected European abstraction in favor of homespun imagery. Then as now, Wood’s work—especially the iconic 1930 painting American Gothic—is often claimed to represent old-fashioned American values. But as Evans (Art History/Wheaton Coll.) demonstrates, a swirl of complex messages made its way onto Wood’s canvases. Born in rural Iowa, Wood was raised by a demanding father, whose ethos of manliness complicated his son’s early interest in painting. But the young Wood persevered, eventually settling in Cedar Rapids to work in a studio above a funeral home. The setting was appropriately somber for an isolated artist—his mother and sister were his closest confidantes—who felt forced to suppress not just his homosexuality but anything resembling bohemianism. Evans devotes much of the book to close studies of the symbolism cloaked within Wood’s paintings. His landscapes were coded appreciations of the male body; a female portrait like Victorian Survival takes swipes at conservative values; a home-and-hearth scene like Dinner for Threshers is Wood’s epic reckoning with the ghost of his father. The author’s decryption efforts come at the expense of traditional biographical detail, at times frustratingly so—there’s relatively little on the place of Wood’s work in the larger context of American art, and the commentary on Regionalism is mainly run through the filter of the homophobia of fellow regionalist star Thomas Hart Benton. But Evans also shows how Wood’s obscuring maneuvers extended to his own behavior—e.g., he donned overalls as a working-class affectation and married an older woman for appearances’ sake. Wood became more daring in his late career. His 1937 male nude, Sultry Night, was so provocative that the U.S. Postal Service banned prints of it from being mailed. A frustrated Wood sawed off the nude portion of the painting and burned it, an action that serves as a symbol of the torment Evans amply documents.
An overly analytical biography, but one that goes a long way toward upending assumptions about Wood’s work.