Saturday, February 11, 2012

Grant Wood and the American Erotic

Have you ever wondered why you don’t hear much about the later works of Grant Wood?

Wood is the artist responsible for “American Gothic,” the 1930 painting recognizable even to Americans without any knowledge of art by virtue as a result of it being reproduced — that is, reprinted or parodied — so often. It’s a go-to for that blue-skied but nonetheless grim swath of wheatland America, and that is strange given how “American Gothic” was originally painted to poke fun, either of Iowans or dour depictions of Iowans. (Wood himself explained “American Gothic” differently to different audiences.) So whatever the painting means — or what it means to you, if you don’t think it intrinsically means anything — you can’t debate its fame. It is, simply put, a recognizable image. You also couldn’t say that it’s not Wood’s most famous work. Go on: Try and name another Grant Wood painting. You would, most likely, need to have studied art to do so. Commercially and critically speaking, Wood was a one-hit wonder as an artist, and the of his post-“American Gothic” career never really strayed from that original formula.

Save for one work: the provocatively titled “Sultry Night.”

(Hit the jump to keep reading, but be forewarned: There’s a nude dude at the end of this post.)

From some standpoints, it may seem ironic that Wood was held up as an embodiment of Midwestern American life, for he was neither the pitchfork-thin old man who appears in “American Gothic” nor the cornfed, potato-stuffed ranch hand you might imagine today when you picture a typical Midwestern man. According to popular opinion, Wood was gay, although completely closeted about it. Presumably, Wood had no choice in the matter of how he lived his life, and the fact that he had to hide his sexuality, even going so far as to marry a woman to quiet rumors about his personal life, should cast a harsher light on the way “American Gothic” sent up the American Midwest.

That’s not to say that his sexuality didn’t manifest itself in his work. For one, “American Gothic” doesn’t necessarily depict a man and wife. The models for the dour couple in the painting were Wood’s sister and his dentist. (Kottke just actually posted a photograph of what the two human models as wel as the architectural model in the background, looked like in real life.) And when his sister protested that the painting’s popularity made it seem as though she had married a much-older man, Wood began explaining that the “American Gothic” couple was actually a father and daughter.

And then there’s “Sultry Night.”

He created this lithograph in 1937, five years before his death from pancreatic cancer at age 50. And while he tried to explain away the image as merely depicting “the ordinary bathing habits of hired men on farms,” as noted by the January-February 2012 issue of Mental Floss, it’s pretty clearly not only that. You have to admit that it marks a stark departure from the rest of Wood’s work. It’s black and white, rather than color-saturated in the way a lot of his post-“American Gothic” works were. And then there’s that hard-to-miss wang in it. And that’s not even mentioning that the nude man’s pose evokes that of someone’s misguided daughter winning a wet T-shirt contest on the cover of a Girls Gone Wild DVD. Sure, Wood had dabbled with the nude male form (so to speak) in an early work such as the pointillism study “The Spotted Man,” but he painted that during his days studying art in Paris. He was experimenting — with pointillism, I mean not wangs, though he might have also been experimenting with wangs at that point.

My takeaway from all this is that the ubiquity of “American Gothic” overshadows the story about the man who painted it. And that’s too bad, because Grant Wood’s personal story reads as a lot more interesting than anything about “American Gothic” in particular. In fact, his personal story helps the viewer to consider “American Gothic” in terms that are perhaps a lot closer to the way Grant Wood himself might have viewed the painting: as a poke to the eye of a community that wouldn’t let him indulge his one passion aside form painting.

And that passion, of course, was wangs.

Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified “Sultry Night” as a painting. It is a lithograph.

“Now That’s Interesting,” previously:


  1. Anonymous6:02 PM

    Actually, Grant Wood was not a "one-hit" wonder, but a leader in the Midwest Regional Artist Movement of the 1930s and 40s. Also, you further show your ignorance by referring to "Sultry Night" as a "painting." It is actually a lithographic print, hence the black and white. It shows his beautiful drawing style, and has little to do with erotica as you seem to think. BobN.

    1. I apologize for miscategorizing “Sultry Night.” I clearly either misread or mistyped. The article has been changed to reflect the correction.

      I feel the question of whether he’s a one hit wonder or not comes down to how you choose to interpret that the word “hit” and how you view his work besides “American Gothic.” I personally don’t consider that label to be an insulting one: one hit is more than most creative types ever achieve.

      I didn’t say that sultry night was erotica. I just used the word erotic. And knowing that Wood was a gay man — and being one myself — I feel comfortable saying that this depiction of nude mad bathing in this fashion is not only a study in form or a tribute to the physique that a Midwestern work ethic has given him.

    2. Well Anonymous, Sultry Night was deemed pornographic and was banned from being shipped USPS. It flopped when released. I think One Hit Wonder applies perfectly to someone who produced a well received work of art followed by no other famously magnificent pieces.

      I would debate your assumption that Mr Mackie is "ignorant" and interject that you are more than qualified to be given the title of pretentious.

      The "Regional Movement" was a very quick lived fad that spanned less than a decade. It was a style created to label Wood's art. When he failed to produce anything else of significance after Am Goth the style died.

  2. I feel that I should clarify my intentions in writing this post: I didn't want to comment on Wood's merit as an artist so much as to point out how surprising it is that a gay man would create a painting that's often considered today to be a celebration of a certain fundamental, “representative” American lifestyle. Not only are the potential satirical implications overlooked by a majority of people looking at "American Gothic" today, but also it's worth considering how Wood's sexuality might have influenced his critical view of a perceived mainstream culture. And springboarding off that, it's also interesting to see how a lot of those personal, primal impulses could have arguably manifested in "Sultry Night" -- and on top of that, it’s notable how unfortunate it was that this potentially more personal work was not received so warmly.

  3. That's pretty hot for a piece of art from 1937! Also had no idea the American Gothic guy was a homo, so that was interesting to find out.

  4. Anonymous6:41 PM

    Your main point is well-founded. Grant Wood was likely gay, and this lithograph is evidence. The reader's comment that Regionalism was a "fad" is incorrect, though. It was a major movement that dominated American art during the 1930s. Wood's "American Gothic" is the single most iconic, recognizable painting in American history. He created a tremendous body of work in the half-century of his life, including paintings that still circulate in American popular culture like "Parson Weems' Fable" and "Stone City, Iowa." His friends Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry were also major Regionalist artists whose work is studied to this day.

    Your article is good but I find the ending regrettably flip. As a gay man you know that being gay is more than having a passion for wangs. It's about who you love, and a particular cultural perspective in modern times.

  5. one should also look at “midnight alarm” as a companion piece.