May Stevens, Who Turned Activism Into Art, Is Dead at 95
May Stevens, a painter who for more than 60 years devoted her art to political causes like the civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements, died on Dec. 9 at an assisted-living and memory-loss facility in Santa Fe, N.M. She was 95.
The Ryan Lee gallery, which represented her in New York, said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.
Ms. Stevens was part of a generation of activist artists, which also included her husband, Rudolf Baranik, and their close friends Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. Through the rise of Minimalism and Conceptualism, these artists adhered to an older tradition of expressive painting, and to a belief in the value of art as an instrument of progressive politics and personal liberation.
“The reason I’m an artist,” she said in an interview with the art historian Patricia Hills for the 2005 book “May Stevens,” “is because it’s a place where you can be totally free. No one is going to prevent me from doing political work when I want to, and no one is going to make me do it if I don’t want to.”
Ms. Stevens came from a working-class family, and she understood early that class as a shaping force often went unspoken of both in art history and in the liberation movements in which she would be immersed.
“When we think back to the past and our ancestry — historically where people have come from — we always think of the knights and ladies, and not necessarily those who tilled the soil and turned the earth, which is where most of us come from,” she told Ms. Hills.
Ms. Stevens was born in Dorchester, Mass., on June 9, 1924, and grew up in nearby Quincy, a few miles south of Boston. Her father, Ralph, worked as a pipe fitter in the Bethlehem Steel shipyards in Quincy. Her mother, Alice Dick Stevens, was a homemaker. Her younger brother, Stacey, died of pneumonia when Ms. Stevens was 17.
After graduating from the Massachusetts School of Art (now the Massachusetts College of Art and Design) in 1946, Ms. Stevens moved to Paris to study painting at the Académie Julian. In 1948 she settled in New York City, where, while attending the Art Students League, she met and married a fellow student, Mr. Baranik, a Jewish wartime refugee from Lithuania. The couple had one child, a son, Steven, also an artist, who died at 32 in 1981, a suicide.
Ms. Stevens’s lifelong pattern of producing work in thematic series began in 1963, with a solo exhibition at the Roko Gallery in Manhattan of paintings and prints titled “Freedom Riders,” inspired by the civil rights activists who traveled the segregated South registering black voters. Much of that work was based on images lifted from newspapers and television.
Her opposition to the war in Vietnam inspired her best-known body of paintings, the “Big Daddy” series. Its central image, of a grim, phallic-headed, white-skinned man, was based on an early portrait she had made of her politically conservative father, whom she described as pro-war, racist and misogynistic. Done in a crisp Pop style, his figure represents an attitude of hostility toward difference that she saw as embedded in patriarchal American culture.
In the 1970s, Ms. Stevens became increasingly involved in the feminist movement. Along with several artists and writers, including Mary Beth Edelson, Harmony Hammond, Joyce Kozloff, Lucy Lippard, Mary Miss and Miriam Schapiro, she was a founder of the Heresies Collective, which published the highly influential journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, to which she contributed essays.
Between 1976 and 1978, she produced a painting series titled “Ordinary/Extraordinary,” which paired portraits of her Irish-American mother, whose spirit she felt had been crushed by marriage, with images of the Polish-German Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who was killed for her social beliefs and whom Ms. Stevens referred to as her “spiritual mother.” Ms. Stevens said that her aim in this series was to erase the idea that one woman’s public struggles were of greater value than another’s private ones.
In her interview with Ms. Hills, Ms. Stevens said of her depictions of her mother: “For me, she’s not just a single person, because we all know this person. We all know her and we may become her, as aging is a problem, as illness is a problem, as being a woman who does not fulfill herself is a problem.”
In “Alice in the Garden,” a later five-panel painting that suggests a secular altarpiece, she depicted her elderly mother alone, afflicted with dementia and confined to a nursing home — as Ms. Stevens herself would eventually be.
Her late works, from the 1990s and early 2000s, were done after Mr. Baranik’s death in 1998. Her last major body of work consists mostly of seascapes and river scenes, with no figures but with quotations from female writers woven into the natural panorama and images of disembodied hands pouring ashes into flowing water.
In 1999, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had a retrospective of Ms. Stevens’s work, the first it had ever devoted to a living woman artist. In 2006, she was the subject of a solo exhibition that opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.
Two of her “Big Daddy” paintings are featured in the current reinstallation of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection galleries. Another from the series is in the traveling exhibition “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975,” organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and on view at the Minneapolis Institute through Jan. 5. A show of her Rosa Luxemburg series recently closed at Ryan Lee.
Before her move to New Mexico with Mr. Baranik in 1996, Ms. Stevens taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York for 35 years. In 2001, she was the recipient of the College Art Association’s Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement.
She leaves no immediate survivors.
Ms. Stevens once said of her lifetime of art and activism: “The idea was to make your own life by taking action and going beyond ordinary existence. Just earning a living, not living a mental life, and not trying to change things was a life that was frightening to me. You become human only when you make this great struggle for realizing your life and making it count.”
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