May Stevens was born in 1924 and, at the age of 94, lives in New Mexico. She has been, for most of her life, an artist. For the last seven decades, she’s been a political artist. I don’t know if she still creates art for public viewing. I hope so but that may be an unfair expectation.
As far as I can remember, I had never heard of May Stevens before a couple of months ago. I wish that I had. In this essay, I hope to explore Stevens’ life and work and the potential that it provides for us to think differently about art and its relationship to politics.[i]
May Stevens is no ordinary artist. The distinction I want to emphasize is not one based on her imagination or skill. Stevens has more than her share of both imagination and skill. But, if truth be known, so do many other artists who remain ordinary—by which I mean that they remain within the bounds of what artists are supposed to do. Nor do I mean to suggest that she is a scandalous artist—one who wants to shock and outrage. There are many of Stevens’ paintings that are intended to provoke but, even when they do, they are almost always beautiful. Most artists who focus on shock and outrage produce little of beauty and, in their own ways, remain quite ordinary.
But, now let me turn the tables on myself. My best guess is that Stevens herself would all but insist on her claim to be ordinary—by which, among other things, she would want to claim her place among all of the other ordinary people of the world. Stevens grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts just south of Boston. Her father worked as a pipefitter at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard while her mother stayed at home to care for May and her younger brother. She loved spending time near the water:
As children in the summer, we spent all day, every day, at a little beach a block from my home. It wasn’t an elegant sandy beach. It was pebbly. But you got used to that. There were broken down piers where small boats would be repaired, and many of those piers were falling apart. I’d go out on the pier, where you shouldn’t go because the timber whanging into the water. It was really kind of risky.
Unlike today, grade school children were on their own. There were no lifeguards, and we taught each other to swim. There were two rafts for children in close and two rafts further out for adults. Neighborhood people came and swam there. They would bring big towels and lie on the beach. I would go up on the sidewalk and lie down without a towel. I would bake in the sun, stand up all covered with grime from the sidewalk, and go back in the water. All day long I did that.
Her brother, one year younger, had not been well for most of his childhood and he died when May was 16. Not surprisingly, his death turned the family upside down. It appears that her mother never really recovered—whatever recovered might mean in such a situation.
May had always been good in art at school. So she enrolled in and graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston in 1947 and, after moving to New York, met and soon married another artist, Rudolf Baranik.[ii] They remained married until he died in 1998. After their marriage, they almost immediately went to Paris where he studied under the GI Bill. He had the opportunity to pursue formal training but she did not; nonetheless, she also painted and had some opportunities to present her work. In one case, one of her shows was praised but one painting in it was criticized. Years later, Stevens recalled her response:
The review I remember best was in the New York Herald Tribune International edition. The reviewer, Peter Karegeannes, said that it was a fine show but there was one painting which was scarred or marred by its title. That painting was called The Martinsville Seven, and represented seven black men who had been accused of rape in the American South.[iii] It was a small horizontal painting, simplified and semiabstract. They were wearing white T-shirts and blue jeans, and they were just lined up—seven black men. I don’t know where it is now. My reaction was: nobody tells me what to paint. The reason I’m an artist 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. I am free in this one area of my life. I’m totally free. That’s why I’m here. I can be myself and do what I want to do.
(Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a digital copy of the Martinsville Seven painting to include in this essay).
In the art criticism of the time,[iv] politics had been banned from art and de-politicized art, good or bad, was in vogue. It’s clear that Stevens refused to bend to the prevailing winds.
Teaching in New York
In 1951, May and Rudolf returned to New York and she became a public high school art teacher for the next nine years. At the beginning, when she taught at Long Island City High School in Queens, she had her hands full. She sought out other teachers for help:
The best person I spoke to was Lucille, who was a black woman who taught science. She was a very sensible person, not flamboyant, but smart. I told her, “I’m scared of the kids. I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel I have control.” Then I told her about my life, how I’d come back from Paris where I’d been for three years. How I had a child born in France and had exhibitions at the Salon des Jeunes Peintres, the Salon d’Automne, and the Salon des Femmes Peintres.[v] When I finished, she said, “You know what you have to do? Tell the students who you are.” Wasn’t that brilliant? So I went into the classroom, and I told them. And it made a difference. I became a real person to them rather than just an ineffectual teacher.
Later, she taught for more than thirty years at the School of Visual Arts, a college in Manhattan.
From early on, Stevens was an active supporter of the Civil Rights and black liberation movements. In 1963, she produced a series of paintings titled Freedom Riders (for which Martin Luther King, Jr. signed the catalog introduction prepared by Baranik). It read:
The men and women who rode the freedom buses through Alabama, who walked in Montgomery, who knelt in prayer in Albany, who hold hands (sic) and sing We Shall Overcome Some Day in the face of hostile mobs—their acts cry out for songs to be sung about them and pictures to be painted of them.
Freedom Riders, 1963
In a way that would become characteristic of her work over time, she intentionally echoed the topics and approaches of earlier artists:
I always thought that Freedom Riders had a particularly strong composition. It reminded me of Daumier’s Third Class Railway Carriage, where you see people on the inside of a bus or carriage, set against brightly lit rectangles of windows.
Daumier, Third Class Railway Carriage, 1864.[vi]
A couple of years later, after going to the viewing of the murdered Malcolm X in Harlem, she did a painting of his head.
Malcolm X, 1968
In 1971, she contributed to a book in memory of those who died during the Attica Prison Rebellion.[vii]
In 1967, Stevens was a founding member of Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam. In her own painting, she found a distinctive way of painting against the war but doing much more than just that. She turned her attention to the reactions she had towards her father as a way of understanding and working through the intense political divisions within families and communities over the war. Between 1967 and 1976, she painted what became the “Big Daddy” series that examined the unquestioning support that all too many Americans gave to the US government as it murdered millions of Vietnamese and did all but everything it could to destroy their country. At times, it appears that she had nothing but contempt for her father’s views. The two prints below capture some of that.
Big Daddy in Vietnam, 1968
Big Daddy Paper Doll, 1970
But at other times, she pulled back a bit and tried to understand him:
He wanted to be proud. He worked hard (sloughed off only to the extent that it was conventional, permitted, in fact required, by his co-workers) for his wages and used them for his own comfort and ours, to enhance his own standing in the community and ours. His sending me to college was the same of kind of decision that rising in class was worth spending money on. He didn’t expect, of course, that college would make me dress badly (jeans and shirts and long hair) even years after I graduated. Nor behave badly either (radical politics, peace marches, signing petitions and other intemperate behavior). He never imagined that lifting me out of his class would produce in me an allegiance to his class that he did not feel. He had swallowed the dream. But it’s more than a dream because the books and the art that raise you from one class to another, to bourgeois life, are indeed capable of providing a better life—and also the means of critiquing that life. (p. 17)
To the best of my knowledge, she never did a painting that might illuminate that view of her father.
Somewhat to Stevens’ surprise but at the same time to her all but immediate recognition, the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and, more specifically, the women’s movement in art burst into her life. She became an early partisan and explained why in “What Kind of Socialist-Feminist Artist Am I?:
To the women’s movement I would like to bring, as to art, the subtlest perceptions. To political action, I would like to bring, as to art, a precise and delicate imagination.
The personal is political only if you make it so. The connections have to be drawn. Feminism without socialism can create only utopian pockets. And the lifespan of a collective is approximately two years.
Socialism without feminism is still patriarchy. But more smug. Try to imagine a classless society run by men.
Once again, however, she faced the demands of some that women’s art had to be a certain kind of art. A couple of women artists had developed a theory that: “women’s work, if it was truly women’s work, has round or oval forms in it, which had been suppressed in the male art world. But I’m thinking, I don’t like round forms necessarily. Although Big Daddy was very voluptuous, I’m not going to do round forms. I don’t do abstractions. I was furious and I thought, I don’t want these women, putting me in a bind, telling me what to do. Men were telling us what to do. Are women also going to tell us what to do?”
In 1977, Stevens was a member of the group that began publishing Heresies—a women’s magazine dedicated to the development of women’s art in the context of women’s liberation. In 1980, she published an essay, “Taking Art to the Revolution,” in Issue #9 of Heresies. She began with these words:
ART AS PROPAGANDA All art can be placed somewhere along a political spectrum supporting one set of class interests or another, actively or passively, at the very least supporting existing conditions by ignoring other possibilities, silence giving consent.
ART AS NOT PROPAGANDA The meaning of art cannot be reduced to propaganda; it deals with many other things in addition to those revealed by class and sociological analysis. Both definitions are true; they are not opposites, but ways of measuring different properties.
In 1981, Stevens’ life and that of her husband was broken by their son’s suicide at the age of thirty-two. They memorialized his life by creating a book of his photographs.
A bit later on, Stevens began work on what has become her most well known series—“Ordinary/Extraordinary” that was mentioned above. The series incudes paintings of the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, paintings of Stevens’ mother and paintings of the two of them placed together—in spite of the great differences between them of time, place and life experiences. She began working on the series at the end of the 1970s and continued to work on them for more than a decade.
Once May became familiar with Luxemburg, she had become somewhat consumed by her:
I first learned about Rosa Luxemburg from two friends who were talking about her all the time—Lucy Lippard and Alan Wallach, an art historian. Lucy gave me a biography of Rosa Luxemburg to read, probably because I expressed some interest and regretted my lack of knowledge. I fell immediately in love with Rosa and everything I could read on her. I read J.P. Nettl’s biography and all the other biographies I could find, but I did not read The Accumulation of Capital.[viii] I read her letters and became really enamored.
Among the things that impressed Stevens about Luxemburg was her determination to take a place—often as the only woman—at the highest levels of the socialist movement of the time.
Rosa Luxemburg Attends the Second International, 1987
A Life, 1984
Forming the Fifth International, 1985
Lest there be any confusion, there has been no Fifth International. For Stevens, a synthesis of the experiences and perspectives of the great German revolutionary and the quite isolated elderly homemaker from Boston might provide the basis for just such a new political project.
Stevens observed that even more deeply than being political, she considered herself as being interested in the historical:
That’s very much my thinking about my own work, and about what I see as history and the progress of ideas. I tend not to be a rejecter but someone who wants to reconcile, to take from the past that which is useful. I wan tot keep the past in the storeroom because it may become interesting. However, I am sometimes overcome with the idea of historical clutter and really want to throw a lot of things out. But those things can be useful in the future, because something there can be reinterpreted.
My use of the term “history painting” stems directly from Gustave Courbet and his A Burial at Ornans, in which the entire village comes together to celebrate, I was told, the death of Courbet’s grandfather. Instead of honoring an emperor or some member of the aristocracy, this huge gathering of people celebrates the death of a peasant. [ix] 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. But that we drop out from our consciousness.
Stevens doesn’t stop at that argument. She goes on to talk about what she describes as a “dialectical process”:
One of the things that interests me a great deal is simply the idea of time—the approaches to time and the uses of time. You spoke about my showing Alice, my mother, and Rosa Luxemburg at different periods in their lives, and I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve tried to work with is crossing time—by using women of different times and finding their commonalities. There is a dialectical process—throwing things out but keeping things—sorting, rejecting and not rejecting. It’s important to do both in some way, and not necessarily in a fixed position, but in a shifting position with time. … This applies also to my different series and their sequence, with their omissions, inclusions, juxtapositions, and their empty spaces.
Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850.
There is much more that can and should be said about May Stevens but I’ll stop here and end with her words about why she worked in series:
I start with an idea and I always find that there’s more to say about it. I have this thought or this theme and I work on it. And then when I finish I think, oh, but look, you can see it from this side. You can see it from another angle. … I want to really plumb the depths. I want to get to know my subject, make people, invite people, even force people to get involved, to participate, and to put it together themselves. I love that. Often, I think of my work as cinematic. There’s a narrative which goes on and on and changes and you discover more and more the more time you spend with it…. I want my paintings to haunt you so that you carry them away with you. They raise questions you want to think about, to ponder.
[i] Much of the information in this article was gathered from a transcript of extensive interviews with Stevens conducted by Patricia Hills between 2002 and 2004. Hills combined elements of those interviews with selected writings by Stevens to produce a text titled “May Stevens: In Conversation” and an essay by Hills titled “May Stevens: The Dialectics of Representation, The Praxis of Painting” in a book that Hills edited and published in 2005—May Stevens. The book also contains 86 plates of beautiful reproductions of Stevens’ works. The book is published by Pomegranate Communications of San Francisco. Used copies are available on Amazon.
[ii] Rudolf Baranik almost certainly deserves his own article. Here’s a link to an obituary in The New York Times in 1998– https://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/15/nyregion/rudolf-baranik-dies-aartist-and-a-political-force.html.
[iii] The seven black men were convicted and sentenced to death. They were executed in 1951.
[iv] I’d suggest that art criticism is the interpretation and evaluation of art works by a specialized group of people who are not usually artists that is used to determine the value of different works of art. In this instance, the value in question is most often the monetary value secured by purchase or auction. Art criticism is probably one of the least helpful inventions of the last three hundred years.
[v] These were studios in Paris where Stevens had been able to show her work.
[vi] Honore Daumier lived from 1808 to 1879. He was well known as a caricaturist of politicians and a satirist of foolish or hypocritical behaviors. He did not achieve recognition for his paintings until just before his death. A selection of his works can be viewed at https://www.google.com/search?q=daumier&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&sqi=2&ved=0ahUKEwj0wOnC7PncAhVLTbwKHQ9FCEcQ_AUICigB&biw=717&bih=723.
[vii] The Attica Book (1971) included poetry by prisoners and reproductions of paintings.
[viii] The Accumulation of Capital is considered to be Luxemburg’s major theoretical work.
[ix] Gustave Courbet was a French painter who lived from 1819 to 1877. He was imprisoned in 1871 for his involvement with the Paris Commune. Afterwards, like many other Communards, he went into exile in Switzerland. In a letter, he wrote: “I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.’”