R. Tripp Evans’s Grant Wood Biography is Sublime.

Posted on October 29, 2010
Filed Under Book Review, Strong Recommendation | 3 Comments

One of my first art memories was a childhood visit to the Art Institute of Chicago.  My father had taken me there to see the current exhibition . (I can’t remember what it was.)  And along the way we passed by Grant Wood’s American Gothic.  I can still remember the silence. It was comforting to be viewing the actual painting–instead of all the imitations.  And then someone let out a one-note laugh.  It was the laugh of recognition.  Green Acres had been cancelled by then, but was still fresh in the collective memory.  It’s been called the most parodied painting of all time.  And it is also one of the great American paintings.  But little was known about its painter–until now.  After Mr. Wood’s untimely death, his sister Nan–the female model in American Gothic–essentially stonewalled any attempt to get at the documents confirming Mr. Wood’s homosexuality.  And she famously stated:  “My brother was not a sissy.”  Nan died in 1990.  And then fortunately an intelligent art historian named R. Tripp Evans got curious.

At a recent New York appearance, R. Tripp Evans spoke about researching the life of Grant Wood:  “Once I started digging, I knew this was a story too good not to tell!”  Mr. Tripp tells this story magnificently.  And along the way he reveals that Mr. Wood was queer.  Not just gay.  But also…well, queer.   Mr. Tripp paints a portrait of an artist who failed to remember phone numbers including his own, could drive, but was almost always chauffeured, forgot to pay his bills and even his income tax for years.  He ate a ton of sugar:  he poured it on everything, including salads.  He routinely drank five or more highballs before dinner and he smoked cigarettes constantly.  It’s interesting to contemplate how Mr. Wood might be psychiatrically diagnosed today–let alone which twelve step programs he would qualify for.  But the nineteen-thirties didn’t have a DSM-IV and the first twelve step program–A.A.–didn’t begin until 1935.  And so, devoid of these recovery options, somehow a genius emerges.  A queer genius who died too young.  I don’t think I’m giving away too much by revealing that Mr. Wood died just two hours  shy of his fifty-first birthday.

His final years make for particularly fascinating reading.  A surprise (platonic) marriage to an older woman who was actually a grandmother at the time, a not-so surprising divorce shortly after.  And then a terrifying investigation of his homosexuality.  Even Time Magazine got behind it.  And here the quality of Mr Evans’s research shines through.  He documents for the first time an extensive investigation that–while covert–Mr. White was well aware of.  I won’t give away any more, except to say that had it not been for one of the most unfortunate of cancers, we might have seen another vibrant period in Grant Wood’s career.  There were even plans for a move to California.  But like his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mr. Wood didn’t live to see his own second act.

I should add that as an art historian Mr.  Evans effectively writes a biography of Mr. Wood’s artwork.  This is an appropriately well-illustrated book.  And the quality of the illustrations is very high.

I strongly recommend this book.

R. Tripp Evans’s Grant Wood A Life is published by Knopf.

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