June 10, 2018

IN 1939, the artist Grant Wood, whose folksy portrayals of Midwestern scenes had made him a household name in the Depression-era United States, created a picture of a naked farmhand. In the lithograph, which he titled Sultry Night, the farmhand pours a pail of bathwater over his head in the empty dark of a field, the moonlit line of water dripping from his mouth, along his chest, and down to his penis. The naked man is not posed in the academic postures of the classical nude — instead he appears splay-footed, face upturned to receive the pale stream, earthly and supplicant. Originally created for Associated American Artists, a distributor of low-cost reproductions for the masses, the print was soon banned by the Postal Service. Wood protested that the image was not pornographic, as the Postal Service had maintained, but was rather innocently culled from his rural childhood. He reproduced the scene in a painting with the same title but eventually, not wanting to suggest “evil,” according to his sister Nan’s biography, “sawed off the portion that portrayed the nude farm hand and burned it.” When I saw it recently at the Des Moines Art Center, the painting was oddly misshapen: a part clearly missing. In place of the man are two ghostly cows and, without the farmhand, the trough looks like a coffin.

With the retrospective of his work on view at the Whitney, I went looking for Grant Wood. In Iowa, where I live, his name adorns elementary schools, highways, fellowships, and landmarks, but outside the state he is little known. Wood was born on a farm in Anamosa, Iowa, at the end of the 19th century, when the idea of “homosexuality” was just beginning to cohere as a sexual identity. The family farm was a small island in a vast prairie. “Your lonesome Grant,” Wood signed a letter as a boy. “I had privacy and could peer out at the world through the arched openings in the red-checkered tablecloth,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, which art historian R. Tripp Evans identifies as an early experience of what would come to be called “the closet.” “The artist’s multiple closets — whether defined by his struggles with family, region, or desire — constitute no hidden realm, neatly tucked somewhere behind his public identity,” Evans explains in Grant Wood: A Life. “Rather, they remain stubbornly and inextricably intertwined with it; the erasures, revisions, slippages, and unsettling juxtapositions that invest his work with so much of its power were all produced in plain sight.” As it turns out, Wood’s seemingly simple aesthetic philosophy — paint everyday life, as you see it — was in reality not so straightforward. The seer reveals himself in what he sees.

Though conservatives once proposed an amendment prohibiting gay marriage be renamed “the American Gothic Amendment,” the couple depicted in Wood’s iconic painting — an image enshrined as a national symbol — is not a heterosexual one. Wood’s beloved sister Nan, and the family dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby (whose face Wood admired for its long lines), were originally posed as a spinster daughter and her father. As Eastern critics interpreted the painting as an ironic indictment of small-town parochialism, Midwesterners hoped to see their lives reflected back at them. (“We have at least progressed beyond the three-tined pitchfork stage,” one farmer’s wife complained to the Des Moines Sunday Register.) Wood found a delicious absurdity in the fact that an ornate Gothic window should hang in a “cardboardy” farmhouse, but he later back-pedaled from any charges that he was poking fun by declaring his subjects “good and solid people.” Tellingly, Wood’s quarrel with his content was aesthetic rather than cultural. Escaping any tidy interpretation, the painting is both satiric and profoundly earnest, both illustrative and indebted to formal abstraction. It is somehow comic and combative at once. Yet despite this excess of meaning, the image has come to stand as a monolithic symbol of Americanness: “our Puritan beginnings, life on the frontier, free enterprise, self-reliance, the Protestant work ethic, agrarianism, the nuclear family, and the common man,” according to art historian Wanda Corn. Though the image has been hijacked as an emblem of a certain straight white rural Christian fantasy, it’s just as complex as Wood the human.

In his self-portrait, the painter is pudgy, his hair a dirty blonde, and he wears a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. His chin was so deeply clefted that he joked it resembled a hair parting, and he had a habit of running his fingers along it. According to a biography by Darrell Garwood, written two years after Wood’s death in 1942, Wood didn’t stand so much as undulate, rocking back and forth as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and squinted. When he spoke, his speech was soft and pocked with pauses. As he is described by others, Wood was a kind of droll savant, a mechanical genius who saw the world organized more by formal pattern than by practicalities. He frequently lost his keys and forgot to pay taxes. “Except for his family and a few with whom he was in close contact, his deepest feelings didn’t attach themselves to human beings,” Garwood explains. “They lingered a long time over corn shocks and plowed furrows and the roll of the ground, and their last refuge was in design.”

After his father’s death, Wood left the family farm for Cedar Rapids, the city 30 miles southwest. He was only 10 years old. Though Wood’s uncle had wanted him to train as a mechanic, he gravitated toward jewelry-making, interior decorating, and set design. In Cedar Rapids, he was well regarded in the local art community and known as a committed bachelor. “I guess I’m just not interested in women,” he told a friend. According to Garwood’s biography, Wood might have taken “girls to parties and on picnics, but seemed uneasy at the prospect of being left alone with them.”

To tour Europe was a necessity for any aspiring painter — the United States was seen as a cultural wasteland then — and Wood made four trips abroad throughout the 1920s while working as a craftsman and schoolteacher in Cedar Rapids. He first traveled to Italy and France in 1920, and then again in 1923 to study at the Académie Julian in Paris. In the course of these excursions, he crashed at the Hotel Coccumello with a group of jazz musicians, painted his body red at the Beaux Arts Ball, and bathed in the fountain at Luna Park. His paintings from that era are an unremarkable catalog of an Impressionist’s streaks and daubs. When he returned home, Wood’s students took up a collection to shave off his dandyish goatee.

It wasn’t until 1928, on his last trip to Europe at the age of 37, that Wood transformed into a different kind of artist. Commissioned to design a 24-foot-tall stained-glass window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Wood traveled to Munich to oversee its fabrication. In Germany, the scenes of doughy folk life by Renaissance painters like Holbein and Memling inspired him. As Nan writes, he relished “the lovely apparel and accessories of the Gothic period.” When he returned to Iowa — never to leave again — it was with the desire to find the material for a truly American art, an aesthetic not copied from Europe, or descended from big cities like New York, but sprung from the plain stuff of the everyday. The first thing he saw was the rickrack braid on his mother’s apron, as she stood waiting for him in the doorway.

After Germany, Wood found his sharp, cartoonish lines, the delirious ballooning of shape. The Flemish paintings he admired, Garwood notes, “were not created by men who slashed on paint during bursts of emotion. They were deliberate, careful men with small brushes, men who had a feeling for detail.” Trading an artist’s smock for bibbed overalls, Wood distanced himself from what was perceived as the womanish abandon of the Impressionists. But the overalls were nothing but a convenient camouflage. While posing as a farmer, it was “the lines and seams of the overalls” that “had a kind of fascination for him.” He was held by the fetishism of the detail — a way to disappear in form. Such details are an example of what Barthes called “the third meaning,” the clandestine meaning that eludes articulation, and instead “has something to do with disguise.” If the studium of his mother’s apron was the goodness of the Midwest; the punctum was its uncanny stitch-work.

Wood titled his unpublished memoir Return From Bohemia: A Painter’s Story. The “return from Bohemia” — his rejection of European high culture for an American vernacular — was a narrative that would be well honed by Wood on the lecture circuit. Park Rinard, Wood’s ghostwriter, submitted Return From Bohemia as his graduate thesis for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the story dead-ends with Wood leaving the farm, permanently stalled in childhood. What was so compelling about his mother’s apron? Wood’s aesthetic return to his roots in part developed from a more private need: to seal Wood more fully in the Victorian farmlands that by the 1930s had mostly disappeared. In the painting Dinner for Threshers, a portrayal of the male ritual of the grain harvest — which Time magazine called American “as a hot dog stand” — the year 1892 is written on the barn wall in an almost imperceptible white. The reference was to Wood’s birth year, or so he believed — he was actually born in 1891. His work is a series of incomplete reparations, a search for lost time, and as such maintain the air of cheerful death.

Signs of Wood’s queerness exist mostly in the omissions — what lies beyond the edges of the said — though several paintings allude to repressed desire. Wood displayed in his studio, until his death, an early nude he had painted at the Académie Julian, Spotted Man. “Perversely, Grant seemed to like it and grow more fond of it as time passed,” Garwood writes, despite it being “too ungainly to be put away, too ugly to be sold.” In 1930, the same year American Gothic debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago and made Wood an overnight sensation, he painted Arnold Comes of Age, a portrait of his former high school student and assistant Arnold Pyle. In the painting, Wood depicts the 21-year-old Pyle as spindly and dark, mournful against the riparian countryside during the last warm days of autumn, as two small skinny-dippers exhaust themselves at the water’s edge. At Pyle’s elbow is a brown butterfly — a gay symbol at the time — and yet, like Wood himself, it nearly disappears into its environment.

American Gothic launched Wood onto the national stage as the grand prophet of the movement known as Regionalism. A 1934 issue of Time magazine hailed him as the inventor of “a truly national art,” while Gertrude Stein anointed him “the first artist of America.” He became a professor of art at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. In March 1935, he married — against the warnings of all their friends — Sara Sherman Maxon, a former opera singer he had known for four months. His mother died in October of that same year. Maxon, unlike Wood, was loud and prone to emotional display. Wood restored a red-brick Civil War mansion, filling it with the 19th-century Americana he loved, where the couple would host parties for guests like Carl Sandburg and John Dewey. But Wood didn’t like being the “Gatsby of the cornfields,” as one critic called him. Despite his celebrity, he was drowning in debt. His four-year marriage ended in 1939 when Maxon was hospitalized for a heart attack (a false alarm — a hypochondriac, she often claimed to be having heart attacks) and Wood sent a note saying not to come home.

By the end of the ’30s, after nearly a decade of fame, Wood’s star was waning. With Abstract Expressionism on the rise, Lester Longman, the chairman of the art department, was determined to oust Wood from his position. What offended a modernist like Longman was the cloying figurative quality of Wood’s work, which as the United States barreled toward World War II began to appear increasingly fascist. What had comforted Americans during the deprivations of the Depression now seemed provincial. In his campaign to remove Wood, Longman — in veiled language — used Wood’s sexuality against him. Wood objected to attacks against his “personal integrity,” while Longman insisted these “persuasions” had nothing to do with his call for the artist’s dismissal. A 1941 memo from a meeting with the university president notes the “‘strange relationship’” between Wood and Rinard. By then, Rinard, 23 years old, had moved into the house. Though he’d been hired as a ghostwriter, Rinard went on to help Wood in other ways — paying bills and managing his schedule — and lived with him for seven years.

Shortly after taking a sabbatical, Wood discovered he had pancreatic cancer. As he was dying, Wood, clouded by morphine, confessed to his sister that he wanted to move to Palm Springs, where she should “be on the lookout for an Oriental houseboy.” Hours before his 51st birthday, he died with Rinard next to him. On his deathbed, he repeated over and over again that he wanted to paint his dead father. Thomas Hart Benton, a fellow Regionalist, who visited Wood before his death, later remarked, “It was if he wanted to destroy what was in him, and become an empty soul before he went into the emptiness of death.”

The Midwest, then as now, is commonly seen as a primitive and pious backwater, the land of Make America Great Again. The first Grant Wood retrospective at the Whitney, in 1983, brought renewed attention to an artist relegated to obscurity — concurring, as Evans astutely points out, alongside the conservative crusades of the Reagan era. Thirty-five years later, following a regime change propelled by a surge of nativist rhetoric, against the backdrop of what’s been called a “cold civil war,” Wood’s work is once again on display at the Whitney.

But Wood’s depictions of the Midwest are more than jingoist statements. To abridge his work to the merely signified — to view them only as mordant folktales, instructional narratives about the heartland — is to lose the meaningful silences, the wounding detail. His art is not reducible to his queerness, but neither is it extractable from his experience of repression. The tightly observed illustrations of bulging patchwork pastures and soft doll-like laborers express loss as much as fecundity, private desire as much as public fact. What masquerades as documentary frankness, or impish caricaturizing, is tinctured by melancholy. Wood once extorted his students to capture the “subtle quality that extends over a large but homogenous area, and that manifests itself in a thousand elusive but significant ways,” and in his work we must also find those quiet, haunting traces. Time, longing, death, and disavowal: These are Wood’s true themes. With its iron-backed postures and pitchfork prop, American Gothic is a painting that invites us into its artifice, its rigid control — why else so many parodic restagings — and compels us by its absences. (What in the background, in that protected domestic space, does the couple defend so grimly?) What I notice now is less the flat scenery of Middle America than the stray strand of hair that escapes the woman’s forbidding bun and grazes the back of her long straight neck.

Anya Ventura is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Iowa.

Publication Source: 
Los Angeles Review of Books