[Marxism] May Stevens, Who Turned Activism Into Art, Is Dead at 95

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
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.

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 
“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, 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.


Continue reading the main story

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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