R. Tripp Evans’ Grant Wood: A Life might have been more aptly titled Grant Wood: An Argument. Wood was the Iowa-based painter and champion of American regionalism whose 1930 American Gothic (a painting of a dentist, Wood’s sister Nan, and a pitchfork in front of a house) and 1931 Midnight Ride Of Paul Revere are enshrined American classics; as Evans notes of Gothic, “after the Mona Lisa, it may be the most parodied painting in the history of art.” Critics have argued about the painting’s intentions, and Wood’s: Was it a parody of small-town life, or a blank-faced celebration?
Evans, an art-history professor at Massachusetts’ Wheaton College, offers a third theory—one intimately tied to Wood’s suppressed homosexuality. Where earlier chroniclers of Wood’s life and career have discussed him almost exclusively in terms of the hard-bitten Midwestern ethos he (and Nan, in her own memoirs) proffered as his official bio, Evans looks carefully at the seams in the fabric.
Evans pays close attention to Wood’s impressionist early years and his sojourns to Europe in the 1920s, a period Wood dismissed after he switched to his Midwestern realist (and, in the case of works such as Paul Revere, humorist) style. Of Paris in the 1920s, Evans writes: “Traveling from the Midwest—where, as late as 1898, some states still sanctioned the castration of homosexuals—to Paris, where sexual love between men was, in the words of one observer, ‘no more significant than the preference for coffee over tea,’ must have felt like landing on the moon.”
The effeteness evident in Wood from childhood was something to be hidden away in rugged rural Iowa, and Evans argues that the overalls, uncomplicated diction, and stylistic plainness the artist adopted were a kind of armor, farmer costume as butch drag. Evans also persuasively posits that one of Wood’s primary modes was a subtle kind of camp, which he is careful to separate from both satire and kitsch: “camp is a form of creative subversion—visual, verbal, or performative—whose principal target is the artifice of gender.” For example, Wood painted his colleague Edward Rowan as a woman in 1931’s Appraisal.
Evans sometimes overstates, as on Wood’s Parson Weems’ Fable (1939): “Like this last great painting, Wood’s final years themselves suggest the structure of a fable.” But Evans’ clear passion for Wood’s work—and his deep knowledge of art history and gay history, and ability to interpret separately their sometimes-intertwined codes—gives the book its heft.