- The Revision of Grant Wood
Most major museum exhibitions these days are "remakes" of exhibitions that have been done many times before: Claude Monet, Edward Hopper, Michelangelo drawings, and so forth. The recent Grant Woodexhibition organized at the Whitney Museum by Barbara Haskell with Senior Curatorial Assistant Sarah Humphreville (with a catalog published by Yale University Press) falls into this formula. In fact, in terms of what it contains, it comes very close to being an exact replica of the show organized by Wanda Corn at the Whitney in 1985—an almost unavoidable circumstance in this instance, since Wood's output was very slim. Once he achieved his mature style, he produced only about thirty major paintings. 1
In this instance, however, the same is not the same, for Wood is an artist whose work has very different meanings now than it did thirty-odd years ago. Two things are noteworthy. First is the curator. Barbara Haskell cut her teeth on exhibitions of the work of modernist painters of the Alfred Stieglitz group, such as Arthur Dove, and at the time ardently promoted the cause of abstract painting. Thirty years ago, writing on abstract and representational art were virtually different professions, and it was inviting trouble to cross the line between the two. With this exhibition of Wood, however, she has crossed over. Surely this says something about a new age of art history, when the old distinction between "modern" and "reactionary" has become increasingly blurred. Indeed, today Wood's work looks just as contemporary as that of the Stieglitz group, perhaps more so, since it deals more directly with the issues of race, gender, and social justice that concern us most today. [End Page 431]
Second is the interpretative approach. Back in 1985, Wood seemed to exemplify normative Midwestern values. Today it is clear that that was very far from the case. The big breakthrough here is the discovery that Grant Wood was homosexual, and thus a figure who looked on small town American life with understandable fears and reservations. Indeed, Wanda Corn's presentation of him back in 1985 as a celebrator of American "normalcy" (to borrow a word from Warren G. Harding) seems misguided if not downright fraudulent. But just what it means to say that Grant Wood was "homosexual," and what this means for the interpretation of his art, raises some challenging questions.
I myself played a modest role in this reassessment, although it is one that can be described as a "discovery" in only a limited sense. For the belief that Wood was gay was quietly held by many of those who knew him and were alive until quite recently, and has surely been an open secret in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere for a long time. My interest in the question was aroused in the late 1980s when I learned, while doing research on Thomas Hart Benton, that Benton believed that Wood was gay—a discovery filled with ironies, for Benton has become notorious for his unkind remarks about homosexuals, and yet formed the closest artistic allegiance and friendship of his long life with Wood. Not long afterwards, when I gave a lecture in Iowa City, I took the trouble to look up Wood's administrative files at the University of Iowa and discovered that a group of five or six faculty members there, including the noted art historian H. W. Janson, lobbied to get Wood fired because of his alleged homosexuality. Once the cat was out of the bag, it was not hard to find additional evidence. In fact, careful reading of the first, much-neglected book on Wood by Darrell Garwood, contains many gentle hints about Wood's actual sexual orientation.
It is hard to believe that earlier researchers did not discover this same material, but they clearly thought it was not something that should be...