The wonderfully queer world of ‘American Gothic’s’ Grant Wood

  • “Death on the Ridge Road,” 1935, oil on composition board. Williams College Museum of Art via Washington Post

Washington Post
Thursday, March 08, 2018

In 1939, the U.S. Post Office Department refused to distribute a lithograph by Grant Wood, declaring its depiction of a nude man bathing by a horse trough “pornographic.” Wood, a homosexual artist described euphemistically as a “shy bachelor,” was surprised and affronted, and cropped the nude figure out of a painting based on the same image, leaving a vision of a dark tree against a rolling green landscape.

The lithograph is included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s retrospective of the artist’s career, “Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables,” a comprehensive overview that includes most of his major paintings, including “American Gothic,” the work that rocketed him to national prominence in 1930. With its dour farm figures portrayed with the flat but meticulous detail of a Northern Renaissance masterwork, the painting seemed a natural extension of the painter himself, who cultivated a homespun, folksy persona. Like the old man in “American Gothic,” the artist was often photographed wearing overalls, and, for a while, this calculated presentation of generic masculinity helped insulate Wood from the whispering and insinuation about his private life.

Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Wood’s “American Gothic” both defines and defies Americana, establishing a sense of American identity that was far more complex and ambiguous than most Americans were willing to acknowledge. Like both Wilder and Copland, Wood probably drew upon his sexual difference to maintain a productive critical distance from the world he was depicting. When he returned to his own country after travel in Europe and study in France, he came back as an internal emigré, creatively charged by never being completely at home again.

The exhibition traces his career chronologically, from his early work as a designer and craftsman to impressionist paintings he made before the emergence of his self-consciously American style, with its hard-edge, dreamlike enchantment and the more geometric reductionism in works he finished before his premature death from pancreatic cancer in 1942. Essays in the catalogue take up the central issues of his career: his relation to “magical realist” painters in Europe working during the same period, including artists later embraced by the Nazis; his literary inspiration (he illustrated an edition of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, among other projects); and his sexuality, which Stanford University art historian Richard Meyer argues “cannot be understood within the coherent, confident terms of what we now call gay identity.”

One doesn’t need a contemporary sense of gay identity to see that there is something wonderfully queer in Wood’s world. Lay aside the many images with overtly homoerotic subject matter and you still have a large body of work in which lines are being crossed, categories jumbled and expectations confounded. The idiosyncrasies of his oeuvre seem to flow not simply from the fact that Wood was homosexual, but from a deeper, transformative sense of gender. His America can never be neatly sorted into traditional ideas about masculine and feminine, and that, even more than the nudity of the man depicted in the problematic 1939 lithograph, may have been what unsettled the U.S. Post Office prudes.

Take a closer look at that image, titled “Sultry Night,” and you see not so much a man with his pants off, but a man bathing. In many images that seem to celebrate the traditionally masculine idea of hard work, his workers are, in fact, resting.