It's ironic that Wood's simultaneous personal outing and academic ousting occurred during the same year in which Wood divorced his wife. (Was he covering up?) So what are we really looking at in a Grant Wood painting? Was he really gay? And why does it matter? Should his sexual orientation affect how his work ought to be regarded?
These are some of the questions that Sue Taylor, associate professor of art history at Portland State University, may expound upon in her upcoming lecture series at Eastern Washington University, at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture and at Spokane Falls Community College. Taylor's lectures will include an expansion of her January 2006 Art in America article, "Wood's American Logic."
Opinions vary about Wood, who has been alternately praised and vilified since he forsook public school teaching in favor of painting in the mid-1920s. The more traditional camp supports Wood as the embodiment of American values: hard work, family, clean living, the abundance of the land. Wood promoted this perception, saying, "I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America -- the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely lovable nation, infinitely worth any sacrifice necessary to its preservation."
Others insisted his symbolism was humorous, socio-political, even satirical. Taylor describes the underpinnings of social commentary inherent in "Appraisal," which depicts a plainly-dressed farm woman and a well-dressed society gal who "has presumably driven out to buy a chicken and seems out of her element in the barnyard." Looping back to Wood's comment about "preserving" the nation, one can sense his distress at the burgeoning upheavals that modern (citified) culture represented.
Yet another group might suggest the hen (or cock) held awkwardly by the mannish-looking farm woman (with her enigmatic Mona Lisa-like smile) alludes to Wood's closeted homosexuality (being appraised?). Taylor is of this camp, joined by a growing legion of scholars. She suggests that the averted eyes present in "Return From Bohemia," "American Gothic" and "Woman With Snakes" (which depicts the artist's mother) is an indication of disapproval or the refusal to acknowledge something about Wood personally, namely his homosexuality.
James Maroney Jr., whose Web-based March 2006 article, "Hiding in Plain Sight: Decoding the Homoerotic and Misogynistic Imagery of Grant Wood" is more graphic. Maroney, a Vermont-based art dealer and former senior vice president and head of American paintings at Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses, elucidates the eroticism of American Gothic with convincing detail. He sees the verticality of the pitchfork and gothic-style window as phallic, flanked by two oval shapes of the two figures.
Which camp paints the most accurate picture of Grant Wood, the man, the artist? That's the task at hand for Taylor, whose credentials include a doctorate from the University of Chicago, where she also taught, and awards from the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art.
Wood can't be counted on to help. He railed against the suggestion that his work was anything but wholesome, and he disliked labels. As Maroney notes, Wood once said that "It is always easier to judge an artist by a label than by what he actually does -- and often that judgment is worn out." Furthermore, in last year's American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting, Harvard historian Steven Biel quotes Wood as having once said that "you can't trust the word of an artist."
Whatever Wood's sexual orientation, his paintings are treasures, rich icons of a time and place that no longer exists in the ever-changing American landscape. Taylor, and others like her, do not dispute that. What they offer, and what you can hope to glean from her lecture, is a greater understanding of the context in which Grant Wood operated. From there, it's up to you to decide. Is a cigar just a cigar? And besides, ultimately, how much does it matter?
Sue Taylor will speak at EWU in the Art Department auditorium, Cheney on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at noon; and at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave., at 7 pm; and on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 11:30 am at SFCC's SUB, 3410 W. Fort George Wright Dr. Free. Call 359-2494.