February 13, 1891– Grant Wood
If you have been following #BornThisDay, along with film stars, Broadway divas and accomplished gay figures, you might have noted that I have a passion for 20th century American Art. Grant Wood‘s work is quintessential 20th century American Art, and now we know there has always been a gay twist to his story.
Wood’s American Gothic is one of the most satirized and iconic American images. The work was acquired by the Art Institute Of Chicago after it was unveiled there to the public in 1930 to much scrutiny. Ever since, the painting has captured a certain resonance with the American public, but its historical reception has had somewhat of a turbulent ride. The painting continues to be admonished and celebrated, dismissed and parodied. The painting is a dour portrait of a farmer and a woman in front of a neo-gothic farmhouse in Iowa. The woman’s sullen look is echoed in the farmer’s direct but blank gaze, pitchfork in hand, looking not the slightest bit amused. The models were the artist’s sister and his dentist.
There are some delicious ironies to the acknowledgement of Wood being a gay man. For decades, Wood has been celebrated as a spokesman for those unflinching conservative values of the close-minded set. To me, the essence of our country’s unique makeup is a cautious willingness to allow diversity, debate and change. But, the supposed narrow mindedness of the Midwest is a bit of myth: Iowa, after all, in spring 2009, became the third state in the country to legalize marriage between people of the same sex. Wood lived happily in the small city of Cedar Rapids, where his neighbors and local businessmen protected him from the consequences of his gayness. There was even an attitude of “don’t ask/don’t tell” given to the small gay subculture in early 20th century Iowa, as long as it remained out of sight.
Wood’s earliest vocation was not in farming, but interior design and theatrical pursuits. David Turner, owner of the funeral home in Cedar Rapids and a member of one of the city’s founding families, was Wood’s first patron. Wood and his mother were allowed to live rent-free for years in his mortuary’s vacant carriage house.
Grant’s burgeoning celebrity proved problematic. The press hinted at a hidden subtext in his life and work, describing him as “a shy bachelor” who maintained “a discreet silence about marriage”, making fun of his high-pitched voice and affinity for the color pink.
Wood is still considered as a sort of homespun American farmer who celebrated a traditional American way of life. But in fact, his existence as a farm boy ended when he was 10 years old, after his father died suddenly of a heart attack and Wood, his mother and his sister moved to Cedar Rapids. Although Wood had studied painting in Paris, he disguised his worldliness by using the accent and demeanor of his embellished Iowa farmhand persona, complete with a uniform of overalls and cap.
In the late 1920s, Grant was subjected to blackmail by a young man over their relationship. Pulitzer Prize winning writer MacKinlay Kantor wrote a about Wood for a gossip column in the Des Moines Tribune-Capital that made note of Wood’s being a bachelor with feminine tastes.
His own values and his choice of profession were not easily supported in early 20th century Iowa. Wood’s father was a severe Quaker, who once insisted that he return a book of fairy tales to the library because: “We Quakers only read about true things”. He would certainly have never been okay with his son’s career as an artist, and he would have not have approved of the nagging secret in Wood’s life.
Evidence of Grant’s gayness had been hidden in plain sight for years. Grant’s artistic mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, confided to his friends and students that he believed that Wood queer. It’s even part of Wood’s files at the University Of Iowa, where five of Wood’s colleagues made the accusation during a nasty dispute pitting Wood, who had never been to college, against his more educated faculty colleagues. Indeed, Grant was fired from his position on the Art Department faculty when it was discovered that he was having an affair with his male private secretary. Lacking the network of friends who had previously supported and protected him, he was denounced as a homosexual in a formal complaint lodged by his colleagues. The scandal was eventually hushed up, and Wood was allowed to keep his job, but the ordeal wreaked havoc on his spirit and his health, and he developed a severe drinking problem. One of Wood’s accusers was H.W. Janson, whose History Of Art remains a standard college-level textbook. Janson completely omitted Wood from this much used guide to Art History.
During Wood’s time, homosexuality was a crime that could be punished by imprisonment or castration, and even rumors could end a career or make a person a social outcast, even an artist. Wood’s paintings are a very strange juxtaposition of revelation and concealment.
Everything about Wood’s art carries some sort of double meaning and complexity. He was fascinated with playing with gender. In his great painting Daughters Of Revolution, Wood pictures three founding fathers in drag, as members of the D.A.R. For In Appraisal, he transformed his friend Edward Rowan into a farm woman. Wood’s somewhat naive Gothic Folk-Art style has a way of suggesting that the work has some sort of double layer, a representation of something real, plus something else, all done with a big dash of wit. Wood was always vague and inconsistent when asked what his paintings represented, apparently because he sought to avoid criticism when his subjects and his neighbors were offended. On several different occasions, he flipped descriptions of the figures in American Gothic as city people or country folk, and as a man with his daughter, or as a man with his wife.
Is America finally able to embrace a Grant Wood as a gay guy? Or, will Conservative Christian Art-Hating Right-Wingers denounce him as a sinner? Since my time in the early 1970s sitting in American Art History 101, American Gothic has always struck me as high camp and a little queer. I always saw the painting as a satire rather than a celebration of American Spirit. For many art lovers in the middle of our country, the well documented acknowledgment of Wood’s gayness will not be such a terrible shock. Just possibly, America is finally ready for Grant Wood to finally come out of the closet.
Grant left this world in 1942, taken by that damn cancer just one day before his 51st birthday. In the end, Wood’s American Gothic has earned a place next to masterpieces like Andy Warhol‘s Marilyn Diptych, Leonardo da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch‘s The Scream as an instantly recognizable and iconic image all across our pretty spinning blue orb.