May Stevens at 95

Artist Was Born in Quincy Massachusetts

By: - Dec 11, 2019

"We always knew that one's ordinary existence doesn't transcend the effort of simply earning a living. So 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."


-May Stevens


It is with great sadness that we share the news of May Stevens' passing. She died Monday morning, December 9, in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the age of 95. Stevens will be remembered for her extraordinary art legacy - especially for her monumental paintings - as well as her political activism, teaching, and her own writing. We also remember Stevens as a spirited and opinionated conversationalist, a prolific writer, and a devoted friend to those she held close. 


Stevens was born in 1924 in Quincy, Massachusetts to a working-class family. After studying at the Massachusetts College of Art, the Arts Students League in New York, and the Académie Julian in Paris, she and her husband, artist Rudolf Baranik, settled in New York City where they became fixtures in the civil rights and anti-war movements. In 1963, Stevens exhibited her Freedom Riders series in her first solo exhibition at the Roko Gallery in New York City. The series was Stevens' outraged response to the increasingly violent racism facing African Americans living in the American South. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. contributed a catalogue essay.


Between 1967 and 1976, Stevens produced her Big Daddy series - a collection of paintings and works on paper that explored racial bigotry and opposed the Vietnam War. Her graphic pop-esque depictions of a generic, middle-aged white male wearing various uniforms - a butcher, policeman, a soldier, and a hangman - were originally inspired by her own father's racist views. Stevens created this ignorant male caricature to serve as a visual metaphor for all that she felt was hypocritical and unjust in American patriarchal power dynamics. These images have recently received renewed attention, and two of Stevens' Big Daddy works are currently on view in MoMA's inaugural exhibition as well as a painting in the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and traveling to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.


Other well-known painting series include Artemesia Gentileschi (1974-79); History Paintings (1974-81); Ordinary Extraordinary / Rosa Luxemburg and Alice Stevens (1976-91); Sea of Words (begun in 1990); and Rivers and Other Bodies of Water, (begun in 2001). Stevens was an active force within the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1976 she became a founding member of Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics. While in New York she taught at the School of Visual Arts from 1961-1996, until she and Baranik relocated to Santa Fe.


Stevens' creative process involved examining her own responses to racism, prejudice, and oppression. Accounting for her own biases, Stevens used her own personal experiences to forge connections with the most devastating social injustices of her time through. As art historian Patricia Hills explained,

Her awareness of the bigotry of her father and his co-workers shaped her deep commitment to fighting racism. Her experiences as a working-class girl gave her insight into the latent injustices of class to her mother's generation... The time Stevens spent attending women's 'consciousness-raising' session during the early 1970s deepened her awareness of sexism and of her own possibilities to grow and change the world.

Through painting, drawing, collage, printmaking, and writing, Stevens worked through the contradictions of the complex reality in which she lived, producing imagery that matched the intensity of her search for expression. Her last major body of work, the Women, Words and Water series begun in the 1990s, contained elegiac mediations on her own confrontations with loss- the losses of her brother Stacey, her mother Alice, her son Steven, and her husband Rudolf. Stevens, however, always maintained a positive yet pragmatic outlook on life and death, and water was, for Stevens, a source of renewal. "It's all one body of water that connects my childhood, my love of water, my swimming," she said in 2002. "So there's this kind of circularity, continuity, and it's the way I feel about life and death... there's nothing strange or weird about it. It's completely natural." Stevens always endeavored to engage thoughtfully with life's challenges, be they societal or personal. She never eschewed contradiction, instead she embraced it, in, as Hills has described, "a complex dialectic that displays contradictions and suggests resolutions through intertwining history with the present, the extraordinary with the ordinary, timelessness with the provisional." For Stevens, it was the dialectic that produced meaning.


I would like to see death as not a final thing and not necessarily a fearsome thing, but something which permeates life. Life, I feel in some sense, permeates death. Cecilia Vicuña, my Chilean friend, artist and poet, made a remark in an interesting way. She said, 'Life just goes on. Life is eternal. Death is only a moment.' I suppose she means that death is a transition, death is a door, a swinging door, both ways. The challenge is to make these things meaningful in a specific way.


-May Stevens