Feb 18, 2014

Grant Wood: More Than Pitchforks and Cornfields

When I was growing up in Rock Island, we had a lot of local celebrities.  Grant Wood wasn't one of them, even though he was the most famous American artist before Andy Warhol, and he was local, from Anamosa, Iowa, just north of the Quad Cities. He spent his life in the area, overseeing Stone City Art Colony nearby, and teaching at the University of Iowa, about 45 minutes away.




We ignored Grant Wood because of American Gothic, the second most famous painting of all time, and the most parodied.

It gave the Midwest a bad name.  The goggle-eyed farmer with pitchfork looks like he's about to go storming off to protest civil rights, or gay rights, or violence in comic books.  The weepy woman, her beauty faded by the boredom and isolation of farm life, dreams of escape.

Even today, if I admit to being from the Midwest (I usually don't), I get "How awful it must have been for you!  Nothing to do but watch the corn grow and fight all those redneck bigots!"
Um...no.  We had more to do than watch the corn grow: we had symphonies, live musicals, operas, ballets, art galleries, and museums. And about those bigots:  Iowa had the first class in Gay Studies in the world, and was one of the first states to get gay marriage.

So I didn't know much about Grant Wood until I started investigating John Bloom, who sculpted the statue of a naked man that I got for Christmas in junior high.


In 1926, the aspiring artist won a prize for an oil painting, "The Burial," at the Iowa State Fair.  The judge, celebrity painter Grant Wood, invited him to join his new Stone City Art Colony.  For the next two years, they lived together, in a converted ice wagon (rather a small space!). Together they worked on murals for libraries and post offices all over the state.

In 1934, when Grant went to the University of Iowa, he took John with him.

In 1935, Grant married Sara Sherman Maxon (the marriage ended in divorce three years later).  John moved to Davenport, where he married Isabel Bloom in 1938.

Sounded a lot like a spurned lover.

Sure enough.  A new biography, Grant Wood: A Life, by R. Tripp Evans, reveals that Grant was gay.  When he got to the University of Iowa, some faculty members in the Art Department suspected, and they already looked down upon Grant for rejecting the status quo of European Impressionism -- ergo his screen marriage and giving John Bloom the boot.

After his divorce in 1938, Grant had a series of handsome male "roommates."  This riled the homophobic faculty so much that, superstar or not, they wanted him out.  They waited the fall of 1941, when he was on sabbatical, and invited a writer from Time magazine to investigate "sexual improprieties."  The University President managed to put a kibosh on the story and quickly moved Wood into a new division.  However, he didn't get a chance to return to the faculty that loathed him.  He died of pancreatic cancer in February 1942.

But if you look carefully at his work, you can see the glimmers of homoerotic desire.

And even that stupid American Gothic isn't heterosexist.  Everybody thinks the woman is the farmer's wife, but she's his daughter.