Monday, April 25, 2011

Viewing Grant Wood's art through sexuality's lens

Originally printed October 9, 2010.

"Is this the book that finally outs Grant Wood?"

That's the question many people asked me after hearing my description of R. Tripp Evans' new biography "Grant Wood: A Life." In that recently released book, Evans is less interested in proving Wood's homosexuality -- which has long been acknowledged in academic circles -- and more interested in showing how discussions of Wood's sexuality allows us insights into his work and his legacy.

"I didn't really feel the 'uncanny chill' that Evans describes when looking at 'American Gothic,'" said Molly Moser, administrator of the American Gothic House in Eldon, "but maybe that was me not looking close enough. I'm always interested in seeing artwork from new perspectives."

University of Iowa art history professor Joni Kinsey -- whose work is cited in Evans' biography -- agrees that seeing Grant Wood as a gay artist can offer new insight to interpreting his life and his art.

"I don't think that discussing his personal preferences need to change the way we see him or Iowa," she said, "but it does enrich our understanding of Grant Wood's work. For so many years, he was dismissed by the art world as being simplistic and old-fashioned. That his work was simply reductive of Midwestern ideals. ... I think this discussion adds another, fairly nuanced layer that shows he was a complex artist."

Wanda Corn -- a professor emerita at Stanford University and a Grant Wood scholar cited repeatedly in Evans's biography -- said that while "this is finally coming out into the general public ... you have to understand that this is not news for many of us in the academy."

Corn knows firsthand how hard it was three decades ago to persuade people that Grant Wood's art is actually more complex and intriguing than they had assumed. She had trouble during the 1970s and the early 1980s finding supporters who would sign off on her work on Wood. And she had even more trouble getting galleries and museums interested in showing exhibits of Wood's work.

But Corn was persistent, and in 1983 she published "Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision" (1983).

During her research, Corn found much of the same evidence that Evans discusses in his book -- especially the records of UI administrators who disagreed with Wood's artistic philosophy and who used allegations of his sexual behavior as one of many tools in their attempts to have him removed from the art school faculty. But she said she was uncertain about what to do with such information. She already had been exploring some gender-oriented questions about Wood's work, but she never dreamed of making sexual-identity questions central to her project of rehabilitating Wood among art historians.

"I sometimes get blamed for suppressing evidence," Corn said. "But the truth is that I wasn't interested in those questions. I was just interested in getting this guy's story together. In reintroducing him to an art world that had buried him. I was just interested in being a good art historian. ... Evans is telling a very different story."

But Corn said she also found there already was a buzz in the 1970s and 1980s about Grant Wood as a gay artist. When she finally found enough museums interested in exhibiting her Grant Wood show, she wanted to include some parodies of "American Gothic" to demonstrate Wood's enduring legacy in popular culture.

"One of my big ideas was including the caricatures," Corn said. "I had trouble at nearly every single venue. ... People didn't think they were art. That they made fun of Wood. That they diminished the reputation that I was working hard to resuscitate."

By the time the show got to its final stop in San Francisco, she said a Los Angeles-based artist sent her a "gay 'Gothic'" for consideration in the show. She and the artist began a conversation about how Corn often described the roundness and fertility of Wood's landscapes in such sexualized terms.

"He asked me, 'Why do you think 'Spring Turning' is all about female anatomy? You describe it in terms of thighs, breasts, mother earth imagery. Couldn't it just as easily be about buttocks and backs of men?'" Corn said.

"And it could have been," she continued. "I realized then that I had been so gendered in my own thinking that I had never considered such a reading."

Corn said she's never been so excited to realize her reading of a painting might not go far enough. That there was something that this other artist could see as a gay man that she simply couldn't have appreciated on her own.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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