[Marxism] May Stevens, Who Turned Activism Into Art, Is Dead at 95
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Mon Dec 30 09:22:58 MST 2019
NY Times, Dec. 30, 2019
May Stevens, Who Turned Activism Into Art, Is Dead at 95
By Holland Cotter
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 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. She died at an assisted-living and memory-loss
Ms. Stevens was part of a generation of activist artists that 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
“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.
May Stevens was born in Dorchester, Mass., on June 9, 1924, and grew up
in nearby Quincy, 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
New York City to study at the Art Students League. There she met Mr.
Baranik, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania; they married in 1948. 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
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.
Ms. Stevens became increasingly involved in the feminist movement in the
1970s. 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 influential journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on
Art and Politics, to which she contributed essays.
From 1976 to 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
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
In her interview with Ms. Hills, she 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 that traveled to the National Museum of
Women in the Arts in Washington.
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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.”
Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of
art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He
was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.
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