In 1967 May Stevens began work on her “Big Daddy” series, a group of paintings made after failed attempts to educate her working-class, politically conservative father, whom she saw as a pro-war, racist, and misogynistic bigot. She suspected that he aired his intolerant views only in the privacy of his own home. But the artist had more personal reasons to resent her father: when her younger brother died of pneumonia at 15, he was unsupportive of his grieving wife, who was later committed to a state mental hospital. This gave Stevens the basis to use her father as a symbol of the American patriarchy, and exemplifies her lifelong commitment to melding the personal with the political.
The “Big Daddy” paintings, which she continued to produce through 1976, are flat, with blue backgrounds, and depict a disgusting white man with a phallic-shaped head amid American flags and military and police uniforms (a nod to his support of the Vietnam war). When Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970), a painting showing her male protagonist with all his outfits, was on view at Ryan Lee in 2017 and visible from the High Line, Holland Cotter of the New York Times called it “the most interesting, no-nonsense piece of political art I’ve seen in Chelsea this year.”
Stevens once wrote that her father “never imagined that lifting me out of his class would produce in me an allegiance to his class that he did not feel … the books and the art that raise you from one class to another are indeed capable of providing a better life—and also a means of critiquing that life.” She dedicated her life to using art for political critique, and in fact saw all art as political. Every work, she wrote in Heresies, a feminist journal, in 1979, “can be placed somewhere along a political spectrum.” She believed work that did not make its politics plain silently gave consent to the status quo.
An American artist who worked in series of several years’ length, many of them devoted to political figures, Stevens often depicted historic and current events through a feminist, Marxist, or anti-racist lens, at the same time probing the politics of her family and peers. Her style often changed rather drastically over the seventy years she was active—“consistency is something I gave up long ago,” she said in a 1978 lecture at the College Art Association’s annual conference. But no matter the look, “the politics are obvious,” as Lucy R. Lippard put it in the catalogue for Stevens’s current retrospective at SITE Santa Fe, which Lippard curated with Brandee Caoba, Stevens’s former studio assistant and an independent curator. (Lippard met Stevens in 1968, and they formed a lifelong bond over politics, feminism, and art. Stevens even followed Lippard to New Mexico, where the artist was based until her death in 2019.)
Stevens was born to a working-class family outside Boston, graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 1946, and taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York for 35 years. She was a founding member of the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist art collective whose anonymous members wear gorilla masks as they advocate for gender parity in the art world.
Stevens’s first solo exhibition, at Roko Gallery in New York in 1964, evinced early on her firm belief that politics and painting were one and the same. The series she debuted, titled “Freedom Riders,” depicted civil rights activists who, two years earlier, had ridden buses into segregated Southern states to protest their failure to enforce the Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregated buses unconstitutional. Later, they rode down to help register Black voters. Borrowing compositional cues from Honoré Daumier’s Third Class Railway Carriage (1864), Stevens’s painting Freedom Riders (1963) shows several blurry faces in black, white, and gray. (In 2005, the image became a U.S. postage stamp.)
Stevens was not herself a Freedom Rider; she based her images on those from newspapers and television. But that didn’t mean Stevens didn’t get involved in other ways. She had attended, and been deeply moved by, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Lithuanian painter Rudolf Baranik. Baranik wrote an introduction to the show’s catalogue praising the Freedom Rider’s efforts, and King himself signed the statement (many have mistakenly attributed the catalogue essay to the Reverend).
For Stevens, art and activism went hand-in-hand, and she was one of few white artists to confront the civil rights movement head-on. In 1976, after the Vietnam War ended and Stevens completed her “Big Daddy” series, she painted a nine-foot, full-body, all-blue portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, a female Baroque painter. She had been inspired by Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” which praised Gentileschi’s work. At the time, Gentileschi was not well-known, and Stevens made sure Gentileschi’s contributions to the discipline would not be forgotten. Stevens’s portrait hung in abstract painter Ilise Greenstein’s Sister Chapel at the Rowan University Art Gallery in New Jersey from 1974 to 1978. The installation featured eleven women painters’ nine-foot portraits of their role models—Alice Neel, for example, painted activist Bella Abzug—standing in a circle.
The Gentileschi work was part of Stevens’s series paying homage to the contributions of women. The paintings are monumental in scale and ambition, history paintings for a new era. SoHo Women Artists (1978), which is nearly 12 feet wide, depicts artists Harmony Hammond, Joyce Kozloff, Marty Pottenger, Louise Bourgeois, Sarah Charlesworth, and Miriam Schapiro, alongside Lippard and Signora d’Apolito, who owned a SoHo bakery that the downtown women frequented. Stevens’s Gentileschi painting is visible in the blue background, and Bourgeois—wearing one of her own pieces—stands out among the cluster of figures. One year earlier, many of these women convened in Stevens’s loft to paste up the first issue of the influential journal Heresies, which ran until 1993.
From 1976 to 1990, Stevens dedicated her history paintings to Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919), the Polish-born Marxist philosopher and activist, and returned to her Xerox-like style. In the ten-and-a-half-foot-wide Rosa Luxemburg Attends the Second International (1987), some two dozen white men in suits gaze at the viewer, placing the viewer in Luxemburg’s shoes, portraying her alienation: she was often the only woman in the room. The title alludes to the Second International Congress in Stuttgart, at which Luxemburg bravely demanded that Socialist parties around the world take a staunch anti-war stance.
Stevens chose a similar composition for The Murderers of Rosa Luxemburg (1986), which recalls Luxemburg’s 1919 killing, along with fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, by far-right German soldiers. Other paintings in the series show the canal where Luxemburg’s body was tossed and streets filled with mourners. Stevens’s celebration of the revolutionary follows artistic homages by Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Margarethe von Trotta, among others, and the dark swaths with pewter patinas in several of the works create reflective surfaces that prompt the viewer to consider the here and now, even when confronted with historic imagery.
In these paintings, Luxemburg is occasionally accompanied by Stevens’s mother, Alice, an isolated Massachusetts housewife who did not finish elementary school. The juxtaposition speaks to the effects of class on women’s rights, and demonstrates as well that feminist progress is far from linear. Forming the Fifth International (1985), for example, shows Alice sitting on a chair rendered in color; Luxemburg appears on a bench in black-and-white. Though sharing the canvas and the same green background, they are painted from separate photographs, depicted as if convening across time and space. The painting’s title alludes to the fifth in a series of Socialist gatherings; it has yet to take place, but adherents of the movement called for it for nearly a century.
Critic John Garvey wrote that “many of Stevens’ paintings … 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….” That was certainly the case with Conceptualists like Hans Haacke and Adrian Piper, who relied on less aestheticized means to tackle racism, sexism, and class disparities. Stevens’s paintings aren’t beautiful in a sublime sense, but they are certainly moving, and one wonders if Conceptualist work influenced her Xerox-like interpretation. She made figurative paintings at a time when it was highly unfashionable, and her work was frequently written off. When Cotter saw the Luxemburg paintings in 1994, he complained that the works were “too specifically political” (though he praised them highly in 2017).
In 1994 Stevens and Baranik relocated to Taos, New Mexico, following Lippard, Harmony Hammond, and Sabra Moore—“fellow Heretics,” as Lippard called the group. Stevens was in her 70s at the time, and began painting huge, unstretched watery landscapes. Though somewhat more peaceful than her earlier political works, they’re still reminiscent of her haunting painting of Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, where Luxemburg’s body was thrown. The landscapes in her 1990–91 “Women, Words, Water” series embody the words of women writers like Virginia Woolf and Julia Kristeva. Integrated into the landscape, the quotations, inscribed with metallic paints, are largely illegible.
In the 1990s Stevens painted herself, right around the time she began to experience dementia. In a 1995 lecture at the University of Southern California, she spoke of the self-portrait of her swimming, saying, “I want to celebrate the Old body, I want to show the beauty of––and the fear and dread it generates––the female body as it ages and changes, sags, thins and thickens. This to me is a sacred body.” It is fitting that Stevens finally featured in a series of work dedicated to feminist heroes, since, for many, she was one herself. Here, Stevens is not a martyr, the way Luxemburg was, or an activist, the way her Guerrilla Girls colleagues were. Instead, she spotlighted herself in a vulnerable state not often exposed in a patriarchal society.