CHICAGO - On a recent trip to Chicago I was wandering through the Art Institute, happily careering from masterpiece to masterpiece, when I spied, from across a large gallery, a small crowd of people gathered around a painting. Naturally, I walked over to see what had drawn those people on a weekday afternoon: it was Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).

The word ‘iconic’ is overused by people like me, but it certainly fits this legendary artwork, which is said to be among the most reproduced of the century. Endlessly parodied, analyzed, praised and damned, American Gothic captures something essential, refusing to be ignored since the Art Institute initially put it on display (Wood won a contest and a $300 prize for the work).

Grant Wood's American Gothic is one of the most recognizable images in Western art and now hangs in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It made me happy that this painting was still drawing people in – a kind of American Mona Lisa. I love Wood’s work, particularly The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. His sly take on American iconography always had an ironic, but affectionate edge, and he was a superb technician with a brush.

Wood’s personal story is sad indeed. As told in R. Tripp Evans’s 2010 book, Grant Wood: A Life, he was a closeted gay man – not an easy life in Iowa during the 1920s and 1930s. Taking up residence on the property of a mortuary above a garage intended for hearses, Wood lived with his mother until his early death from cancer in 1942.

And yet, enduring pictures sprang from all of that. My favorite lesser-known woodwork is Adolescence (1933), which is nothing more than a skinny, tall and awkward rooster standing between two seated, nestled fowl. Once you read the title, you smile. Certainly Wood knew what it was like to stand out from the crowd and he put the feeling to good use.