three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
user_rating: 
0

A Life

A-Grant WoodR. Tripp Evans is a professor of art history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

The Topic: Even if you don't recognize his name, you know Grant Wood's most famous painting, American Gothic (1930), which portrays a dour-looking farm couple. Part of the work's appeal is that viewers often disagree about what the portrait means: is Wood celebrating the stern character of his subjects and their Midwestern environment, or is he poking fun at them? Wood's own life is similarly difficult to interpret. The Regionalism movement that included his work was, in part, an American reaction to trends in modern art, yet much of Wood's work treats classic national subjects (like the American Revolution) irreverently. R. Tripp Evans addresses these issues in his biography of the artist while adding a new layer of complexity: Wood's likely homosexuality.
Knopf. 432 pages. $37.50. ISBN: 9780307266293

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Writing with verve, nuance and the excitement of discovery, Evans delves into every aspect of Wood's life. ... What emerges from this fascinating, audacious and empathic portrait is a case study of how adversity can both stoke and warp creativity, and how prejudice and intolerance can strangle a life." Donna Seaman

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Evans, working with letters and other new materials, compassionately unmasks Wood's tortured life and elegantly links it to his strangely skewered view of the world in such masterpieces as ‘Midnight Ride of Paul Revere' (1931), ‘Daughters of Revolution' (1932) and ‘Parson Weems' Fable' (1939). ... Evans plumbs the depths of ‘the Bruegel of the Bible Belt' in a book so rich and swiftly satisfying that it and Wood's images will come to haunt you." Sam Coale

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Evans dissects these and other works by Wood with skill and discernment, but the sheer volume of visual analysis is sometimes overwhelming. Judiciously curtailing this tendency might have allowed for a more satisfying discussion of certain broad historical trends, such as the intersection of the Great Depression with the blossoming of Wood's career as an observer of the American scene, the national mood having played a decisive role in the initial reception of his work." Jonathan Lopez

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Much of what Evans argues is plausible in broad strokes, and he deserves credit for that, but the book is also salted with some highly speculative interpretations of the artwork that feel as artificially sculpted and fanciful as a Wood landscape. ... Evans has done a great service simply by turning over the topsoil when it comes to Grant Wood. You won't need a pitchfork, he supplies one." Art Winslow

Onion AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Evans sometimes overstates, as on Wood's ‘Parson Weems' Fable' (1939): ‘Like this last great painting, Wood's final years themselves suggest the structure of a fable.' But Evans' clear passion for Wood's work--and his deep knowledge of art history and gay history, and ability to interpret separately their sometimes-intertwined codes--gives the book its heft." Michaelangelo Matos

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"A biography of an artist, typically, uses the details of a life to illuminate the work; Evans tests the reader's patience by using the work to bolster his theories about the artist's gay fantasies ...
[E]ventually the author's approach comes to seem as simplistic as that exercise that invites the readers of children's books to espy hidden images in the illustrations, except that the goal here is to spot not Waldo but every previously unheralded intimation of a male backside in Wood's art."
Deborah Solomon

Critical Summary

In general, critics were pleased to see a new book about Grant Wood, who, despite the popular American Gothic, is often neglected in histories of American or 20th-century art. They agreed that Evans adds to the scholarship on the man and his work. Several critics indicated that that they felt Evans focused too exclusively on Wood's supposed homosexuality in his interpretation of the artist's life and paintings. On the other hand, many critics also forgave this excess by way of noting that this is the first book to truly consider Wood's sexual orientation as a factor in his life and art.