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. In one of his major paintings, the 1934 “Dinner for Threshers,” you also find a man combing his hair before entering a long dining room filled with workers sitting a table. Women work and confront the viewer with determination, while men bathe and play and sing.
In both “Dinner for Threshers” and “Sultry Night,” the artist has carefully rendered the effect of sun on the skin: The threshers have pale, pasty foreheads with bronze cheeks below, marking the line of their hats, while the bathing man has a darkened neck and arms against a white torso. Sun-kissed skin stands in for the impress of the artist’s gaze on their bodies. The Post Office Department probably saw that, too, clear evidence not just of a naked man, but the keen, noticing eye of the artist.
The reaction of postal officials to Wood’s lithograph underscores the sociological complexity of the cultural moment in which he lived. He would claim, or perhaps feign, innocence about the sexual content of the image, saying it was based on nothing more prurient than a childhood memory. Wood probably did see this image as no more provocative than the male nudes one found in paintings by Thomas Eakins or George Bellows a few decades earlier, when the surveillance of sexuality was less severe. As an artist, Wood was often astonishingly good at judging the national mood, but as a man, he seemed to live in a fictional past, gentler and more playful, than the world he was forced to negotiate in the 1930s and ’40s.
After “American Gothic” established his popular reputation, and as critics on the East Coast were compelled to grapple with him seriously, Wood attracted as much suspicion and loathing as love and admiration. He was persecuted by colleagues who thought his work was aesthetically conservative, and accused of fascist sympathies by one of the giants of 20th-century art scholarship, H.W. Janson, author of the best-selling “History of Art,” studied by millions of undergraduates. Wood’s work fell out of favor by the middle of the last century, and even today, as this exhibition demonstrates, he is an artist fated to be perpetually rediscovered.
But it does his work a disservice to see its rise and fall as merely collateral damage of the 20th-century culture wars over modernism, regionalism, sexuality, or the supposed conflict between rural and urban values. Nor does it make sense to delimit him as merely a sly and subversive painter, although this gets closer to the truth. Like Wilder and Copland, and perhaps Willa Cather before them, Wood was as affirmative as he was transgressive. When he looked at the rolling and cultivated landscape around him, and painted it like fabric stretched over flesh, he discovered a world that was neither soft and sensuous nor strong and muscular, but all of the above. When he painted men nurturing trees and offering up corn, or a boy tenderly leaning his head against the cow he was milking, he was uncovering facts about who we are, not who he insisted we should be.
One painting, made in 1935, stands out among the others for its symbolic power. “Death on the Ridge Road” shows two passenger cars heading up a steeply inclined road while a large red truck comes screaming toward them round a blind curve. An angled wedge of dark storm clouds release torrents of rain in the background. It is an ominous image, and also one of the most gender-fluid he ever made, for along the right side of the painting, there is a second drama, of wires crossed and cultural confusion. Three lines of barbed wire are stapled to fence poles alongside the road, while telephone wires are stretched taut above them.
There’s no clean or simple way to sort out the dichotomies, between things that are barbed and bounded and things that are connected and modern, the blunt power of possession and the fluid power of communication. The fence line, which might suggest masculine power, curves and sways, following the round contours of the landscape, while the lines for the telephone (which in one painting Wood connects with the feminine presence of his great-aunt) bisect them with a precipitous geometrical rigor.
If this landscape is gendered, it seems to be both, not one or the other. The cars and truck might be heading toward the fatal accident implied in the painting’s title, but the mash-up next to them seems just as significant. In it, we discover the coexistence of different forces and potentials in Wood’s Americana, lines and curves as unresolved in their intersections as our sense of both the past and future.
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables Through June 10 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. For information, visit whitney.org.